Gay Marriage Will Cause More Fergusons!

No sooner had I announced that I was struggling to write about Ferguson because all I do on this blog is argue and like when the journal First Things gave me something to argue about.

Pivoting off a post by Rusty Reno, Mark Bauerlein laments what he calls the “script” of racial tension: “Black youth shot by policeman [arrow] outrage and protest [arrow] rioting and looting [arrow] indignant and solemn discussion of American racism by pundits and columnists.”

Bauerlein, like Reno, says this script can be flipped by “speaking frankly about marriage and family, the dignity of work, and the nobility of faith.” He points out that in 1965, only 25% of black children were born into fatherless homes, where now that rate is around 70%. But he argues that conversation won’t happen because “an entire class of academics and journalists” sees such talk as a rebuke.

He writes:

But this is precisely the script that the liberals refuse. It posits the traditional family as a bulwark against disorder, and it maintains that boys need mothers and fathers. Honest inquiry would force them to acknowledge that the ‘experiments’ in family structure of the last half-century prove not an advance, but a disaster.

The phrase “experiments in family structure,” paired with the insistence that “boys need mothers and fathers” (emphasis his) sure looks like a swipe at gay marriage and yet another attempt to tie it to no-fault divorce. Bauerlein suggests that where liberals have been seeking to explain our national race problem with the idea of white supremacy, we should have been focusing on strengthening the traditional family, which he says, has been undone by “Marxist attacks on the family as a bourgeois conservation, feminist presentations of it as patriarchal, and ‘queer’ critiques of its ‘heteronormativity.’”

So there are two parts to his argument, which we’ll take in order:

First, he seems to be saying that racial tensions like the ones now engulfing Ferguson result from the breakdown of the black family. I’m not sure, exactly, whether he’s saying that the uprisings themselves are caused by widespread fatherlessness or whether he’s echoing Reno’s point that fatherlessness causes police distrust of black youth. Either way, he’s off base. If he’s arguing the former, then 1965 was a very bad comparison to choose, because, umm… remember Watts? As Jelani Cobb wrote this week, “Between 1964 and 1967, riots erupted across the nation—in Harlem, Watts, Detroit, Cleveland, and Newark. The Kerner Commission, convened by President Lyndon B. Johnson, concluded that the systemic exclusion of blacks from opportunity was at the root of the uprisings.”

But if he’s saying the latter, that police treat blacks unfairly because police distrust blacks because fatherless blacks commit more crimes, well that’s just as far off. Unjustified, systematic violence against African-Americans is as old as the country, and it has always been rationalized by portraying blacks, particularly black men, as uniquely threatening. Bauerlein is smart enough to know this history, which has nothing to do with the Sexual Revolution or queer theory, or feminist attacks on the patriarchy.

Which brings us to the second part of his argument, the notion that Marxist, feminist, queer theory academics have “undone” the family. There’s a lot wrong with this thinking: first, it ascribes way too much power to academia. I guess you can find radical critiques of “the family” as such in the academy—especially in writings from the 1970s—but they’ve never found much purchase, even in universities, let alone in the larger culture. And in the real world, no one is attacking the family, unless you buy into the faulty premise that arguing for a more inclusive definition of family is an “attack.” We have families; we love families; no one has any interest in tearing down “the family.”

Bauerlein says that “it’s going to take stamina and courage to hold [liberal academics and journalists] to the facts.” But I don’t see any facts that support his rather ahistorical argument, and plenty of facts that contradict it.

Upcoming Projects: Reading “Making Gay Okay” and “Defending Marriage”

 

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First off, sorry for the blog slowdown. I’ve been traveling, and working at my second job, and when I haven’t been traveling and working at my second job, my wife has been traveling, which means I’ve got sole responsibility for the little one. All of which is great, except it leaves little time for writing.

Plus there’s the dissertation, which I have to finish at all costs this year or else. And on top of that, the semester starts this week, which means I’ve got to have some lesson plans in order for the first few classes.

Also, Ferguson has been dominating my thoughts, and I’m not sure how to write about that. This blog really has two notes, arguing and liking; I’m not good at writing anger or shame, at least not to the extent I need to put words to what I feel while watching tear gas streaming into crowds of black citizens on the streets of a Midwestern suburb.

But I will post more in the next couple of weeks. And as soon as I get into my semester routine, I’ll start two new long-form book review series, along the lines of what I did last school year with J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex.

First, I’ll get into Robert R. Reilly’s Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing EverythingIf you haven’t been paying attention, Reilly’s book has been The Book Of The Summer for the Catholic Right. Fr. John McCloskeyFr. Dwight LongeneckerFr. John Zuhlsdorf—all of them have praised the book. Reilly, who served under the Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration, has appeared on Ave Maria Radio and Relevant Radio (which, believe it or not, I listen to a lot while working at the ranch).

Here’s what Matthew J. Franck says about Making Gay Okay in his review at Public Discourse:

Among the ‘LGBT’ activists and their allies who have lately been so successful in transforming our culture’s understanding of love, marriage, and sexual integrity, Reilly’s book will be hated and denounced. It is likely that many of those who denounce the book most strongly will not actually read it. They will certainly not squarely confront or refute its arguments.

Oooh. Readers, that sounds like a challenge.

But I might be even more pumped to get into the second book, Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity.

 

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Esolen is a literature professor, and I’m familiar with his writing on culture and sexuality, which ranges from anger-inducing to hey-that’s-kind-of-good. Here’s how Longenecker describes Defending Marriage:

We should not suppose that Professor Esolen does anything so banal as to go snooping for proof texts from Shakespeare or Milton. He does much more than that. He takes the reader into the mind and the world of Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, Tolkien and Spenser. He does not argue against homosexuality, but for a healthy, wholesome, innocent and natural approach to human sexuality. Esolen presents us with a vision of human sexuality, courtship, marriage, and romance which is timeless and poignantly alluring.

According to Longenecker, Esolen looks back into literature (Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, Tolkien, Spenser)  and “conjures up a forgotten world where girls and boys were naturally attracted to one another and flirted and played together innocently. He helps us look back to a world where young men and women courted, stole a kiss, and kept themselves pure for their wedding day.”

Against this “forgotten” world, Longenecker says, Esolen will pose the sexual revolution, “with its tragic legacy of divorce, broken homes, battered and scattered fathers, predatory and prostituted females, the fractured family, ravished relationships, and a desiccated sexuality” that has “left us as wounded warriors wandering alone on a devastated cultural battlefield.”

Um, wow. THAT book sounds right up my alley. Remember when we puzzled over Budziszewski’s use of Dante and Beatrice as his ideal for married love? Remember when I got to pull out two of my favorite Sidney sonnets so we could look more carefully at historic notions of marriage, love, and sex? This sounds like a whole book’s worth of that, though I expect Esolen to be a savvy reader of the texts he handles. I can hardly wait.

I’m not sure how exactly I’m going to do these two reviews. Longenecker says the two books complement each other (yay!), so I’m thinking about reading the two books together, and posting a review of a chapter from both books each weeks. But that also sounds insanely ambitious, so I’ll probably end up reviewing them consecutively. 

But the reviews are coming soon. Be ready!

 

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.