The Questions Regnerus Didn’t Ask

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You may have heard about this: Mark Regnerus is pushing research that suggests Christian supporters of gay marriage are, well, a bunch of morally degenerate libertines. At least that’s what it will signal to the audience of The Public Discourse, where he posted it.

Now, Regnerus’ work is entirely unbelievable and unworthy of serious consideration, but his post is worth responding to because it connects to conversations going on around the internet these days: notably, in some of Damon Linker’s recent posts at The Week and, earlier, in Rod Dreher’s insistence that “traditional” Christians can be separated from “modern” Christians solely on matters of sex. Part of Dreher’s argument is that the modernists have been “conquered” by the Sexual Revolution. So there’s an undercurrent there suggesting that “modern” Christians aren’t real Christians, that they’ve given in to secular norms and betrayed “what nearly all Christians for over 19 centuries believed.”

That’s a flawed understanding since, as Linker points out elsewhere, “modernity” as we know it was shaped by Christianity. And, conversely, there’s nothing specifically Christian about the “traditional” understanding of sex, which, at least on the matter of homosexuality, has a lot in common with the beliefs of “traditional” Muslims, and Jews, and even the atheistic regime of Soviet Russia. But that’s a topic for another post.

Back to Regnerus. To summarize, Regnerus asked churchgoing Christians how strongly they agreed with a series of statements, and then compared the answers of Christians who support gay marriage with those of Christians who oppose gay marriage. The statements were:

1. Viewing pornographic material is OK.

2. It is a good idea for couples considering marriage to live together in order to decide whether or not they get along well enough to be married to one another.

3. It is OK for two people to get together for sex and not necessarily expect anything further.

4. If a couple has children, they should stay married unless there is physical or emotional abuse.

5. It is sometimes permissible for a married person to have sex with someone other than his/her spouse.

6. It is OK for three or more consenting adults to live together in a sexual/romantic relationship.

7. I support abortion rights.

Regnerus found that Christians who support gay marriage were far likelier to say viewing porn, cohabitation, divorce, no-strings sex, infidelity, and polyamory are OK, and to say that they support abortion rights. In fact, on those questions, Regnerus concluded that pro-SSM Christians “look very much like the country as a whole—the population average.”

But there are problems.*

For example, Regnerus concedes: “There is more to sexual and relationship morality than just these seven items.”

No kidding.

All of the items he chose reflect an unstated premise: that support for same-sex marriage is all about sexual license, about dispensing with sexual rules. Conveniently, Regnerus’ data seems to confirm that premise.

Of course, I would say that support for SSM comes from a very Christian understanding of equality and the inherent dignity of human beings, and that what may come off as “anything goes” really comes from an understanding of the damage that busybodies can cause by giving strangers, in Jim Burroway’s words, “unsolicited edicts in how to order their lives.”

And I can think of a whole different series of questions that would paint both groups of Christians, SSM-supporting and SSM-opposing, in a different light. Like these:

Should a married woman submit to the authority of her husband?

Should a married woman stay home with her kids rather than working full-time?

Is sex a duty that a married woman owes to her husband?

Is rape within a marriage a contradiction in terms?

Does a provocatively dressed woman bear some responsibility if she is sexually assaulted?

Is oral sex between consenting, married adults a sin?

Is contraception a sin?

Should homosexuality be criminalized?

With little effort, I could find a blog post from an opponent of same-sex marriage answering all of those questions in the affirmative. Certainly those views are reflected in our “traditional” social and legal customs, the very ones that “modern” Christians (and secularists) are working to challenge. And while plenty of opponents of SSM don’t hold those positions, I think we all know that those views are more prevalent among opponents of gay marriage than among supporters.

I’m not saying that Regnerus’ questions are bad. They’re worth asking, but so are the questions I brainstormed above. My point is just that Regnerus’ questions reflect an obvious bias. As Bill Lindsey writes, Regnerus’ post is a blatant attempt to say “morality belongs tous. It does not belong to you.”

Or, if he’s really, truly, honestly trying to answer the question What is the sexual and relational morality of Christians who accept same-sex marriage, compared with those who don’t?, then his research is very poorly designed. Again.

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*I can’t get to all of the problems in this post. I recommend Jim Burroway’s post on the subject at Box Turtle Bulletin, and Jeremy Hooper’s post at Good As You, and Bill Lindsey’s (linked above).

Three Things for Tuesday or Wednesday

(as usual, I meant to get these out on Sunday)

1. A Happy Return

A couple of weeks ago, I lamented the fact that Casey Fleming had stopped posting her weekly sermons. In her goodbye post last year, she said that in writing the sermons she had come to recognize that she has “the right subject matter, the right form, the right experience, the right motivation” to write a book, and she was going to take time off from her blog to work on that book. I hope that book is coming along well, but I’m also thrilled to say that Casey has resumed posting, and they’re as good as ever. Do visit nonseculargirl.com every Sunday, or subscribe to the site, so you can get the sermons in your email inbox. You won’t be sorry.

2. Another Happy Return

Bill Lindsey is back from much shorter hiatus, but it must have been a fruitful rest, too. Since returning, Bill has hit all of the notes that make his blog indispensable daily reading: abeautiful meditation on a journey through the Midwest, a scathing call to conscience to those of us with privilege, a touching message of gratitude.

In his first post back, by the way, Bill says he’s contemplating writing a book, and he writes about writing as calling (the theme, coincidentally, of Casey’s most recent sermon). He says:

I am called now (including by the comments of so many of you here, which I value very much) to remember in what I write. I am called to write out of remembrance—but out of remembrance as the spiritual act of capturing (better: of pointing at) meaning that goes well beyond what is specifically called to mind by memory.

I am called to write as someone who challenges himself to be spiritually alive, writing what he writes not to please others, with a view to the success of what he writes or even the completion of what he writes. But because he must write. Because the significance to which the remembered events point needs to be captured, even if very imperfectly, in words.

And to be shared, passed on, transmitted.

Also, Bill was also kind enough to share my post on sex and union on his blog, where it generated lots of thoughtful comments.

3. Joan Didion on Marriage

Finally, I recently came across this 2011 conversation in Believer between Sheila Heti and Joan Didion. Whenever two people that smart get together to talk, something interesting is bound going to happen. This passage in particular, about marriage and motherhood, caught my attention.

BLVR: I want to ask you about the idea of the “extreme or doomed commitment.” You have a line in The White Album where you say, “I came into adult life equipped with an essentially romantic ethic,” believing “that salvation lay in extreme and doomed commitments.”

JD: Right.

BLVR: I wonder if you consider marriage or motherhood, or even writing—

JD: I did consider marriage and motherhood extreme and doomed commitments. Not out of any experience of them as such, but it was simply the way I looked at things.

BLVR: And having experienced motherhood and marriage, do you still see them as extreme and doomed commitments?

JD: No, I don’t. I mean, not—I don’t. I see them as, well, certainly they were for me a kind of salvation.

In her original formulation, salvation and doom aren’t mutually exclusive—in fact, salvation comes through doom. And, remember, Didion’s recent books have included Blue Nights, about her troubled relationship with (and the death of) her daughter, and The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband. So, in a real sense, for Didion, marriage and motherhood have been extreme and doomed commitments. And yet she doesn’t hesitate to affirm that they’ve meant salvation.

In a weird way, the exchange reminded me of Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent post on tragedy and marriage. Bruenig writes, “[I]f you allow tragedy to guide you to look beyond the meeting of needs, beyond the temporary scarcities and lacks of life on earth, you see that the irresolution of tragedy imagines a looming surprise.”

That surprise, Bruenig says, is salvation.

Of course, Bruenig is responding to a very different subject—specifically, the phenomenon of polyamory and the notion that marriage is supposed to meet every single one of our needs. And Didion probably wouldn’t hold her thoughts to exactly the same Christian meaning that Bruenig does. Still, it’s striking that, at least generally, the two come down in the same place, on the same word.

Where is the Union in Sex?

It occurs to me that while we talk about sex a lot here, we’ve still got some fundamental gaps in our vocabulary, some essential disagreements that keep us talking past each other. For example, there’s a huge gap between what I mean when I say “union” and what that word means for some other people.

“Union” has long been used as a euphemism, even a synonym for sex. In other words, you don’t achieve union through sex; sex is union. Which is fine. But “sex” is also a big, messy word that (if you’re doing it right) includes lots of different actions and distinct moments.

So within sex, where and when and how does union occur? When we talk about sex, what exactly does union mean?

Here’s one answer, from a commenter in a thread at Leila Miller’s Little Catholic Bubble:

“The bodies become fully united at, well, to be blunt, ejaculation in the vagina, thus fulfilling the necessary requirements to allow the potential of reproduction to take place.”

Leila said something similar later in the thread, and that notion clearly underlies a lot of the Catholic Right’s thinking on sexuality. It was used in that thread to argue against the use of condoms; it’s also used to argue that gay marriages are impossible, because in them union is impossible, since two don’t become one in gay sex acts.

To me, that idea is at once too literal and too symbolic. Too literal because it defines union only in the most obvious, most physical way: in the genetic material of two parents coming together to form a child—which remember, doesn’t happen in the vast majority of human sexual encounters. It thus misses the subjective value of sex, the ways that everything besides the male orgasm brings a couple together.

Too symbolic because it doesn’t explain how union happens, especially when no child comes from the encounter. I mean, what happens: the semen comes out, and magically, the couple is united? This is the idea that Bill Lindsey calls the “union-cementing function” of semen, which he describes as “bogus natural law propped up by ludicrous science posturing as religious conviction and profound, serious moral insight.

In fact, this definition, traditional though it may be, takes all of the meaning out of the word union. Think about it: it means that one-night stands are union, and inconsiderate sex from which only the man gets pleasure is union. It means that a woman’s pleasure, while nice, is not necessary for union. Chillingly, it means that rape is union. And it means that a loving, married couple having a transformative bonding experience is not union, if the man is wearing a condom. Leila says as much, writing, “There is no ‘one flesh’ union, no real intimacy, when the people uniting have placed a physical barrier between them!” And later, she says:

“[S]ex is about full union with another, becoming one flesh. It’s the closest we can get to another human being on this earth (and I’m talking conjugal union, not any type of sodomy). It is the mechanism that is so life-giving, so profound, that it brings new human beings into existence. To put a barrier between two people when they are ‘speaking the language’ of total union, is to lie. One does not make love by gearing up as if one is going to battle. It’s a contradiction. Using a condom in lovemaking is a contradiction.”

Those claims are absurd for anyone who has had unifying sex while wearing a condom.

Robert George at least tries to explain how union happens with ejaculation. He locates union in the idea that, in heterosexual sex, the two bodies are (together) trying to produce a baby. Granted, that is a form of togetherness. But he’s bedeviled by the fact that the female body actually isn’t “trying” to produce a baby in most sexual encounters. A woman is only fertile for a few days of each month, and even then only as long as she’s not pregnant, breastfeeding, or past menopause. And humans have sex during all of those times—much more so than animals with a marked estrus, or heat, period. So while it might make sense to say that for cows or dogs or horses sex “means” reproduction, that’s not the case with humans. We’re built differently. 

What’s more, as Rob Tisinai outlines here, George is still defining union as dependent solely upon “what is happening between their bodies,” which, George says, is independent of any psychological factors, such as the couple’s thoughts and goals. So his definition of “union” stillincludes rape.   

Now, I want to be clear: I’m not saying the Catholic Right, represented by the above commenters, is opposed to women’s pleasure—or still less, tolerating rape. I know that John Paul II said that, from an “altruistic standpoint,” men have a responsibility to bring their wives to climax. And he’s serious about that. But I do think that any understanding of sex that starts with the idea that union equals ejaculation-into-a-vagina is wrong right off the bat.

Which leaves the question: what is union in sex? Where and how does it happen?

I would say that it’s in the responsiveness of two bodies moving together—most of all, in the way that one partner’s arousal arouses the other partner and one partner’s pleasure pleases the other. That’s union. That’s two becoming one. Literally. Though it has a subjective dimension, it’s also objective, in that it writes itself on the body. It can be transitory, but it is real and, like grace, it can be transformative, too.

In “The Body’s Grace,” Rowan Williams writes:

To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire.” We are pleased because we are pleasing.

Good sex embodies this mutuality. In good sex, desire, arousal, pleasure, and even climax are all reciprocal—by feeling those things, you inspire them in your partner. By inspiring them in your partner, you feel them in yourself. Again, that’s union. And this understanding of word, it seems to me, better clarifies what happens in sex, and why it’s good, and why we can talk about it as pointing to God’s presence in the world.

Marriage is a Natural Institution: Just Ask Charity and Sylvia

 

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“If I were permitted to draw aside the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me most interesting history of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sicknesss; for sickness has made long and frequent visits to their dwelling. I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband. I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, which now in the days of their broken health, bloom wild without their tendance, and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them, but I have already said more than I fear they will forgive me for, if this should ever meet their eyes, and I must leave the subject.”

—William Cullen Bryant, Letters of a Traveller (1850)

 

The next book up on my Kindle is Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, about the 40-plus year shared life of two women in rural Vermont in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Laura Miller reviewed the book here; Rebecca Onion interviewed Cleves here.

Jim Burroway regularly includes, in Box Turtle Bulletin‘s “Daily Agenda” feature, stories of gay marriages that made it into the historical record. Their situations vary—sometimes, as inthis story, one partner lived as the opposite gender. Sometimes these marriages were secretive, sometimes they were acknowledged by a small circle, like the gay or bohemian or exile community in which the couple lived. Burroway often highlights relatively unknown couples that appear in newspaper articles as novelties or anomalies, but of course there were more prominent examples, and anyone who spends any time in the literature of the past is going to come across a gay marriage. There’s Allen Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky; there’s Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, whose marriage was even acknowledged (with a bit of a smirk) by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast. Then there are “Boston marriages,” so-named after characters in Henry James The Bostonians, reputedly based on a relationship of the author’s sister.

What makes Charity and Sylvia distinctive is that their marriage was recognized in some measure by their wider community. In fact, Miller describes Cleves’ book as “a story of the love between those two women and their town,” in which the couple was an “integral and beloved fixture.” As Cleves documents, one local memoirist said that “in town he always heard it mentioned as if Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other.” And the women’s families seemed to respect their relationship as a marriage, too: Charity’s sister-in-law wrote the women, “I consider you both one as man and wife are one,” and Sylvia’s brother told Charity that “I consider you and my Sister Sylvia Happely one.”

One of the tropes you see a lot when you read anti-gay marriage arguments goes like this: the state can’t redefine marriage because marriage is a timeless institution, one that predates the state itself. For example, here’s Ryan T. Anderson, writing last year: “The government does not create marriage. Marriage is a natural institution that predates government. Society as a whole, not merely any given set of spouses, benefits from marriage.”

You know what? That’s one talking point with which I agree.* The state doesn’t determine what is truly a marriage and what is not. The state merely tries (hopefully tries its best) to recognize marriage as it exists.

But that’s not an argument against gay marriage, because, by that standard, gay marriage has always existed, too. In fact, Cleves’ and Burroway’s documentation shows that it’s actually a pretty good argument in favor of gay marriage.

Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to Cleves’ book, which you can order from Book People here.

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*Obviously, I disagree with Anderson’s next sentence: “This is because marriage helps to channel procreative love into a stable institution that provides for the orderly bearing and rearing of the next generation.” But that’s a topic for another post. Actually, many many other posts.

 

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies (an Index)

 

 

Earlier this summer, I wrote a series of posts in response to a conversation on a Catholic blog in which the Episcopal Church was described as “completely out of control and untethered to anything but the winds of the age.”

I’ve been meaning to get all of those posts together, along with the footnotes and comments they generated. So here’s an index. Read through if you’re curious about what connects Pope Francis, Susan Sontag, and Freddie King:

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 1

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 2

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 3

Footnote to Part 1

Footnotes to Part 2

Anonymous Comment Following Part 1 (from tumblr)

(not so) Anonymous Comment Following Part 2 (from tumblr)