Politics Foreign Affairs Culture

Wendell Berry Goes to Indiana

On gay rights, religious liberty, and the luxury politics of moralistic islanders

Wendell Berry, on “tolerance and multiculturalism,” from his essay “The Joy of Sales Resistantce”:

Quit talking bad about women, homosexuals, and preferred social minorities, and you can say anything you want about people who haven’t been to college, manual workers, country people, peasants, religious people, unmodern people, old people, and so on.

He is being sarcastic, of course. But this came to mind when thinking about the wisdom of Wal-mart (and other big corporations) joining the crusade for gay rights even above religious liberty. I will give the corporate leaders credit for being sincere, but it’s a terrific business move. Join the crusade for gay rights, and you can do whatever you like on the business front without much complaint from progressives. The crusty old secular leftist James Howard Kunstler, who never seems to have met a Christian he didn’t suspect of being a raging fundagelical theocrat, has for years complained about how the left is far more interested in things like gay rights and culture than in fighting corporate hegemony (his latest rant is characteristically vulgar but quite entertaining) and planetary despoiliation.

Wendell Berry, let me make clear, came out a few years ago in favor of same-sex marriage, which startled many of his fans, including me. I want to make that clear before I say what I’m going to say here, which is this: one of the most striking aspects of the whole gay rights public argument, one that is in full display in the Indiana pageantry, and that I find so chilling, is the degree to which the voices of the overculture — big media, big corporations, national Democratic politicians — speak of their fellow Americans who hold traditional religious convictions as if they were freaks and threats to the common good. Yes, this discourse is heard on the right too, but not at the same level. You see it on more or less the fringes of the right, but there is nobody at the same level of influence and of the same elite status on the right speaking in the same way as legions of people do on the left — people with very loud voices and very large bullhorns.

I am reminded of a 2002 Wendell Berry essay called “The Prejudice Against Country People,” which I encourage you to read. It has nothing to do with same-sex marriage, but I believe it has everything to do with the debate, such as it is, about the conflict between gay rights and religious liberty. Berry writes:

On June 21, 2001, Richard Lewontin, a respected Harvard scientist, published in The New York Review of Books an article on genetic engineering and the controversy about it. In the latter part of his article, Lewontin turns away from his announced premise of scientific objectivity to attack, in a markedly personal way, the critics of industrial agriculture and biotechnology who are trying to defend small farmers against exploitation by global agribusiness.

He criticizes Vandana Shiva, the Indian scientist and defender of the traditional agricultures of the Third World, for her appeal to “religious morality,” and calls her a “cheerleader.” He speaks of some of her allies as “a bunch of Luddites,” and he says that all such people are under the influence “of a false nostalgia for an idyllic life never experienced.” He says that present efforts to save “the independent family farmer . . . are a hundred years too late, and GMOs [genetically modified organisms] are the wrong target.” One would have thought, Lewontin says wearily, that “industrial capitalism . . . has become so much the basis of European and American life that any truly popular new romantic movement against it would be inconceivable.”

Lewontin is a smart man, but I don’t think he understands how conventional, how utterly trite and thoughtless, is his reaction to Shiva and other advocates of agricultural practices that are biologically sound and economically just. Apologists for industrialism seldom feel any need to notice their agrarian critics, but when a little dog snaps at the heels of a big dog long enough, now and again the big dog will have to condescend. On such occasions, the big dog always says what Lewontin has said in his article: You are a bunch of Luddites; you are a bunch of romantics motivated by nostalgia for a past that never existed; it is too late; there is no escape. The best-loved proposition is the last: Whatever happens is inevitable; it all has been determined by economics and technology.

This is not scientific objectivity or science or scholarship. It is the luxury politics of an academic islander.

The luxury politics of an academic islander. What a great phrase, and how applicable it is to the cultural politics of so many Americans — some of them urban and suburban Republicans — who believe that orthodox Christians and other traditional marriage supporters are a bunch of bigots motivated by nostalgia for a past that was nothing but oppression and misery, and who are on the Wrong Side of History. More Berry:

Disparagements of farmers, of small towns, of anything identifiable as “provincial” can be found everywhere: in comic strips, TV shows, newspaper editorials, literary magazines, and so on. A few years ago, The New Republic affirmed the necessity of the decline of family farms in a cover article entitled “The Idiocy of Rural Life.” And I remember a Kentucky high school basketball cheer that instructed the opposing team:

Go back, go back, go back to the woods.
Your coach is a farmer and your team’s no good.

I believe it is a fact, proven by their rapidly diminishing numbers and economic power, that the world’s small farmers and other “provincial” people have about the same status now as enemy civilians in wartime. They are the objects of small, “humane” consideration, but if they are damaged or destroyed “collaterally,” then “we very much regret it,” but they were in the way–and, by implication, not quite as human as “we” are. The industrial and corporate powers, abetted and excused by their many dependents in government and the universities, are perpetrating a sort of economic genocide–less bloody than military genocide, to be sure, but just as arrogant, foolish, and ruthless, and perhaps more effective in ridding the world of a kind of human life. The small farmers and the people of small towns are understood as occupying the bottom step of the economic stairway and deservedly falling from it because they are rural, which is to say not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which is to say socially, intellectually, and culturally inferior to “us.”

Am I trying to argue that all small farmers are superior or that they are all good farmers or that they live the “idyllic life”? I certainly am not. And that is my point. The sentimental stereotype is just as damaging as the negative one. The image of the farmer as the salt of the earth, independent son of the soil, and child of nature is a sort of lantern slide projected over the image of the farmer as simpleton, hick, or redneck. Both images serve to obliterate any concept of farming as an ancient, useful, honorable vocation, requiring admirable intelligence and skill, a complex local culture, great patience and endurance, and moral responsibilities of the gravest kind.

I am not trying to attribute any virtues or characteristics to farmers or rural people as a category. I am only saying what black people, Jews, and others have said many times before: These stereotypes don’t fit. They don’t work. Of course, some small town lawyers have minds that are “closed and cold,” but some, too, have minds that are open and warm.

A thousand times yes to this. Living in small town in the rural South, I see people all the time who hold opinions about race or homosexuality that would shock and offend many a secular divine living in the Promised Land between Boston and Washington, DC. But these people are almost always kind, helpful, and generous to all. It drives you crazy sometimes, because there’s often no logic to it. But I can’t say it doesn’t exist because I have seen it. You would see it too if you lived in a place where daily life brought you into contact with people who didn’t fit comfortably into your bubble.

One of my friends here is an older working-class lesbian having serious health difficulties. On her Facebook page, she sends out prayer requests, Scripture quotations, and words from the Lord … along with comments on which female celebrities she finds attractive. That’s just how she is, and I love her for it. She’s real, she has been here all her life, and has never been closeted. I last saw her at my mom and dad’s kitchen table years ago. You are not going to look at my mom and dad and think of them as paragons of cultural or political progressivism. But they love our friend, and the idea that she wouldn’t be welcome at our table is unthinkable. Because daily life is not politicized.

Another local friend, an older woman who is a secular liberal (yes, they exist here, and there are more than a few of them), told me a story from the late Eighties or early Nineties, I’m not sure when, but it was when I was living away from here. A gay male couple bought a plantation house and moved to the community. One of them developed AIDS. A local church with which they had become affiliated cared for the dying man until the very end. I could be wrong, but I very much doubt that the church folks who ministered to him were sufficiently progressive on the issue of same-sex relations to escape the opprobrium of today’s left. But you know what? They loved and comforted that dying gay man until his last breath, in a time and place where that kind of sacrificial love was not easy. My secular liberal friend was mightily impressed by that. I still am.

I’m not saying religious traditionalists are saints. Most of us certainly are not — but then, neither are our opponents on the other side of this issue, no matter how highly they may think of themselves. Any of us points one finger, we have five more pointing back at us. And to focus our eyes on one particular injustice usually means blurring from our field of vision a dozen more. Being “right” on gay marriage (or global warming, or economic inequality, or race, or Israel, or the war, or any number of things) is not a free pass that absolves you from your sins and grants you the luxury of a clean conscience.

Apologists for secular liberalism — among them many liberal Christians — seldom feel any need to notice their traditionalist critics. But we are here, and we are not going away, any more than you are. Maybe we have something to learn from each other. I’m not suggesting that difficult, foundational issues such as the clash between gay rights and religious liberty can be resolved easily, or to anyone’s ultimate satisfaction, if they can be resolved at all. What I’m saying is that we deserve consideration, same as you do. We are all here, and have to figure out a way to live together peaceably, if that’s possible. Here is where your ally in the fight for gay rights, Wendell Berry, has something to teach you. He has something to teach all of us.

Gays and lesbians deserve a lot more respect than most of us Christians have granted them in the past. I think most of us get that now. Many of us — maybe most of us –would not return to the status quo of a generation ago even if we could. But if you treat us as you were once treated, we are going to be a bone in your throat. We probably will not prevail — you have all the power now — and you, with your luxury politics of moralistic islanders, a worldview that does not see the world beyond your bubble of wealth and privilege, will get away with what you are trying to do: turning real people, complex people who are your neighbors, and who are just as messed up as you are, though in different ways, into pariahs.

But you will be told what you are doing, just as you once told us what we were doing. And that is worth something.



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