Defending Marriage: Before the Fall

Note: This is the first part of a series on Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity.This series is meant to be read along with my reviews of Robert Reilly’sMaking Gay Okay,which I (try to) publish on Tuesday evenings. You can read my introduction to both series here, and a preview here.


When Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry responded to my post “Relax, Nothing Unravels” a few weeks back, he basically disagreed with everything I wrote. But he conceded one thing: “It is in my view indefensible,” he wrote, ‘to claim that ‘Christian sexual morality’ or ‘Christian gender roles’ or whatever shake down to ‘the morality of middle class white America circa 1955’ or something.”

The prologue to Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanityactually starts with an image meant to represent the morality of middle class white America circa 1955. Okay, take “middle class” out and replace it with “working class.” The point remains the same. Esolen writes:

In my mind’s eye I see a photograph of my parents before I came into the world. They are relaxing on the beach at a local lake, one of those little picnic areas with a concession stand for hamburgers and fries, and an arcade with skee-ball and other games of skill and luck, and picnic tables, and plenty of ordinary people with their shouting troops of children.

In those days you didn’t have to discern which lakes were good children and which weren’t, since every place except for a few of the taverns were for children, and people comported themselves accordingly. I never got the impression from my mother and father that such modesty implied any sacrifice or exercise of self-control. It was the natural expression of an innocence they had kept whole and hearty into their young adulthood.

Though his parents weren’t able to marry right away, they refrained from having sex. Not, Esolen tells us, from prudishness or simple deference to tradition, but from a deeply-felt understanding that they were meant for each other, that this understanding was written on their very bodies, and that waiting was the only to uphold the sanctity of this understanding.

You won’t catch me disparaging Esolen’s portrait of his parents’ marriage—it’s touching, and as I’ll explain in a bit, characteristic of Esolen’s best moments as a writer. Of course, the existence of virtue in one type of family is not an argument that good can be found in no other type of family. More on that in future posts.

But I do take issue with the way Esolen is using that portrait: as a snapshot of a more virtuous time. The reason that Gobry refused to boil good sexual morals down to “the morality of  middle class white America circa 1955” is that there are certain ways in which that culture was immoral, and certain ways in which our culture—flawed as it is—is more moral. Gobry explains this in an earlier, absolutely brilliant post from this June:

I think the Sexual Revolution and its various consequences have created a confusion in the minds of many people who believe themselves to be “traditional” Christians, which is to associate the sexual morality of the pre-Sexual Revolution era with the sexual morality of the Gospel; consequently to see anything that has happened between, say, 1968, as consisting only of decline and apostasy, and to look at the pre-1968 world through rose-colored glasses; consequently to believe that the mission of the Church is to return the world to this Golden Age.

It shouldn’t need saying that this point of view is, from the standpoint of Catholic Tradition, erroneous and even idolatrous. First of all because, for the reasons I have explained, there is no Golden Age. Second of all because the sexual morality of any given society or era is going to come drastically short of the Gospel. If you doubt me, read the Magisterium of John Paul II, who clearly embraced the good of what came post-1968.

I’m sure Gobry and I differ about what, specifically, was immoral about the pre-sexual revolution world. But he gets it. There were certain things about that world (yes, even in the realm of sex and gender roles) that needed to change.

Esolen doesn’t get it. Though Defending Marriage is ostensibly a book about gay marriage, and Esolen will have plenty to say about Teh Ghey (believe me), it’s really a book about what happened to America and to Western culture at large in the 1960s, a massive confluence of cultural movements that he distills into three words that he spits onto the page with such venom that they seem acidic to the touch:

The. Sexual. Revolution.

It’s a book about a before and an after, and an unrelenting attack on what came between. Having written so lovingly about his parents in the 1950s, in the next chapter Esolen will give us this contrast:

‘If you’re not with the one you love,’ sang the rockers at the Woodstock festival, ‘love the one you’re with.’

‘I’m with you,’ said a girl to a perfect stranger.

That’s a snapshot from the so-called Summer of Love. It rained hard over that weekend, and the irresponsible and childish organizers of the festival hadn’t prepared for that eventuality. No surprise, since they hadn’t prepared for the crowds, either, so the concert degenerated into a vast, muddy, litter-strewn field smelling of human waste, with thousands of people wet and cold and hungry, so that the National Guard had to be brought in to nurse them.

Two asides:

1) This is a good example of Esolen’s relationship to the facts: first, he misquotes the lyrics of “Love the One You’re With,” then he says that “rockers at the Woodstock festival” sang that song when, in fact, Stephen Stills didn’t record the song until 1970, and his band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, did not perform it at Woodstock. Also, he says that Woodstock, which took place in 1969, happened during “the so-called Summer of Love,” which was 1967. But, whatever, man. Facts are for squares.

[Germans? Forget it, he’s rolling.]

2) Reading this, don’t you get a better understanding of the exasperation gays and lesbians feel in serving as scapegoats for all of the moral problems in the world? Some chick gets high in a muddy field in 1969 while listening to Country Joe and the Fish, so now we can’t recognize a gay couple’s lifelong, loving commitment of mutual self-sacrifice?

Back to business.

Reading those two passages side by side, you see both the strengths and weaknesses of this book. Esolen writes with real warmth and sympathy at times, but only about members of traditional families. Anyone who falls outside of that category gets derision. He’s full of nostalgia for the working class of days gone by, but he alternates between contempt and condescension when he writes about today’s working class. As in Robert Reilly’s book, gays are always activist bullies, probably depraved; people who challenge his sexual mores are always unthinking hippies. Some unfortunate figures in the book are both: “I’d warn my daughter” he writes in Chapter 8, “away from any touchy-feely teacher who preaches that feminist poison that women need men as fish need bicycles. Cast your net somewhere else, Frustrata.”

You can see, too, that Esolen’s writing is lively—every sentence he writes seems to have been written while pounding on the table. That can be stirring when he’s got a good theme and a good argument; when he doesn’t, it just gives you a headache.

But the biggest flaw in the book, what undercuts Esolen’s occasionally insightful (really!) observations on marriage, is this inability to see beyond a Fall-and-Decline narrative, or what Gobry might call Esolen’s “fidelity to a ‘prelapsarian’ sexual morality.”


I promised you stories, and since Esolen started with his family, I’ll start with mine.

My maternal grandfather walked out on my grandmother when she was in the hospital delivering my mother. That was in 1952. I know nothing about him except that fact and his last name. He was never mentioned in my family growing up, neither by my mom (who passed away in 2009) nor by my grandmother—who is as sweet as they come, and whom I will never trouble with bad memories long forgotten. Although life must have been hard for my mom and grandmother, as far as I can tell he didn’t cause them any bitterness, since bitterness is as far from their character as Atlanta is from Amsterdam. My mom’s childhood, in fact, was fairly idyllic—she rode horses, she went to great schools, and she spent her summer days tramping around the Georgia woods with my great-grandfather, who taught her to fish. Years later, she would teach me to fish.

Was their situation rare back then? I guess, but it happened on the other side of my family, too: my paternal grandfather walked out on my Grandma Rosie. I know his name, I bear his name, as does my dad. This grandfather waited until he had four sons; and, whereas my maternal grandmother had a supportive family and a solid career teaching elementary school, my Grandma Rosie, the child of Danish immigrants, only had a high school education and no family nearby to help her out. She worked as a secretary, but she also depended on the maturity of her sons, who got jobs at very young ages because they had to. When I was young, my dad reconciled with his father, who by then had another family, but I think he and my uncles never stopped thinking of their father as the man who loved them for a time and then left them. I remember after my granddad’s funeral, listening to my dad and his younger brother talking: “It was so strange,” said my uncle to my dad, “to hear everybody talking about what a family man he was.” For this uncle, my granddad was the guy who walked out on his mother. On him.

Walked out. That’s a phrase that lacks currency these days, at least among the people I know. Marriage is pretty common among my friends my age; divorce is rare. That’s not just an anecdotal observation, it’s the norm for my demographic. Divorce rates peaked in 1980, and divorce is far more common among Baby Boomers than among the generations that came after them. And, as Brad Wilcox writes, people with at least a bachelor’s degree “now enjoy marriages that are as stable and happy as those four decades ago.” All of that despite the fact that people like me are more likely than average to embrace the tenets of (dum-dum-DUM) The. Sexual. Revolution.

I do know people who have gotten divorced, usually after marrying very young. But walking out on your family? My divorced friends who have children are still good parents. Imperfect, sure, like me. To compare them to the disappearing acts that both of my grandfathers pulled would be a denial of reality.

What’s my point? Well, it’s not just that bad things happened before the Sexual Revolution, too. Even Esolen would concede that.

My point is that certain elements of the culture led to those bad things, and certain elements made those bad things worse.

I don’t know what my grandparents were thinking about when they married, and I don’t know what caused my grandfathers to leave. I imagine that they felt trapped—that they looked at their lives and saw two options, one of which was to vanish forever. Today, they would have more choices. Would that make things better? I don’t know.

To be clear, I’m not trying to soil the image of the 1950s. There’s plenty I would bring back from that era if I could. But I wouldn’t bring back the stigma that attached to single mothers in those days and became a burden on their children, even when those mothers deserved no blame at all. I wouldn’t bring back the dependency that characterized women’s relationships to men. The ironclad connection of sex to marriage that Esolen praises came with higher teen pregnancy rates, lots of bad marriages and, at times, devastating consequences for women and children when those marriages failed. It came with a society where “spousal rape” was considered a contradiction in terms, where spousal abuse was probably more common, where the idea of “vocation” for a woman was horribly limited.

Esolen wants to talk about the Sexual Revolution. Great! But if we’re going to do it honestly, we need to talk about all of these things, and we need to have in mind more images than just his parents smiling at the lakeshore. If we can do that, it will be a fun conversation.

[By the way, Michael Boyle has a must-read post along these lines on the Synod and the crisis of the family. Also, I recommend this Stephanie Coontz column from last June. In general, Coontz is good reading if you want a historical perspective on marriage.]

Next Week: Defining the Sexual Revolution—and a Detour Into Shakespeare!

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