I like to describe my politics as anarchist by belief and conservative by temperament. I’m the product of a close, multigenerational family, and most of us still live within twenty miles of where my paternal grandparents were born. Individually, we occupy a wide spectrum of idiosyncratic political beliefs, but, as is the case with many groups bound by old familial ties and economic interdependence, we tend, at least among ourselves, to be broad-minded. The habit of linking clannishness to close-mindedness has its roots in a certain truth, but the countervailing truth is that close kinship permits a tolerance for eccentricity that larger society often does not. At least, that’s my experience. As a moody adolescent very convinced of his own uniquely poetical character, I was very much prepared for my coming out to be my operatic moment contre le monde entier, and I suspect, in retrospect, that I was a little disappointed when no one seemed to care very much. To my extreme mortification, my father bought me condoms.
I was raised Jewish; I’m a bar mitzvah—that was from my mother’s side, per tradition, although my father, despite having been raised Catholic (my grandmother is Italian), is also half Jewish. My paternal grandfather, Fritz, was of German Jewish descent. In fact, we learned through amateur geneaology that his people were not German Jews at all, but Spanish Sephardim who migrated out of the Catholic south to escape various waves of persecution. Well, my grandmother is fond of saying that theirs was a controversial marriage at the time, an Italian Catholic and a German Jew. “But,” she says, “your grandfather married the only Italian woman who can’t cook, and I married the only Jew with no money.”
In the strictest sense of the word, I am an atheist, which is not to say I’m wholly irreligious. I still go to High Holy Day services and still think of myself as a Jew, and I believe in some kind of superphenomenal, if not supernatural, world, despite being a strict non-believer in any sort of deities or controlling intelligences—even dei absconditi strike me as silly, willful anthropomorphizations of the jumbled taxonomies of the limits of human understanding. So, I suppose, I am an unorthodox atheist. I did spend a lot of time in my twenties heckling actual believers for their historical and ontological lacunae, but I find myself, more and more, in a sort of aesthetic sympathy with religious faith. Perhaps it’s only because, as a writer, I must believe in a magical world or else despair of my art.
Over at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf took issue with a Slate article that conflated all opposition to gay marriage with hatred, which moved Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber to complain that Friedersdorf was engaged in a game of canny semantics, eliding hatred and bigotry in such a way as to confuse the more fundamental truth that “Principled bigotry is still . . . bigotry,” that “Bigotry derived from religious principles is still bigotry.” Friedersdorf’s reasoning is a little sloppy, but Farrell goes out of his way to ignore or minimize Friedersdorf’s caveats. All of this, in any event, springs from a Ross Douthat article that I’ve been chewing on since it appeared last Sunday. “The Terms of Our Surrender” is the title, although the tone of it is rather Jewel-Voiced: the war situation has not necessarily developed to their advantage. Douthat knows that the juridical apparatus of the United States, a monster of momentum if ever there was one, is presently steaming in the direction of national gay marriage, and nothing is going to turn it around now. He is more gracious than his critics and interlocutors give him credit for:
Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution.
This may be no more than a rhetorical gesture; the other contents of the essay strongly suggest that’s the case. Still, it’s not nothing. “We should . . . remember our sins” is not an insignificant statement from a believing Christian, even if it’s in the service of an otherwise specious argument.
But as to that other argument, I’m really struck by a single line:
Meanwhile, pressure would be brought to bear wherever the religious subculture brushed up against state power.
This is the crux of Douthat’s complaint, not that the popular, cultural advancement of tolerance, acceptance, and understanding has eroded what he and others like to call “traditional” marriage and sexual morality, but that, having at last moved into the winners’ column after a few decades of pitched legal competition, the gay victors will now avail themselves of the coercive power of the state to mandate compliance—that adoption agencies will be forced to accept gay parents or close; that religious schools will find it that much harder to teach that it is wrong for two men to have sex with each other, two women to marry.
I’m not unsympathetic. The coercive power of any government is an extraordinary thing, and the American government is the richest and most powerfully coercive in the world. It compels us all to behaviors we find morally dubious. We are all dragooned into paying for wars and assassinations, for a vast archipelago of incarceration, for corporate welfare and bank bailouts, for dubious public works, for the excesses of legislators, ad inf. There are tens of thousands of laws on the books, and there is a fair case to be made that each of us is, in the strictest terms, a daily felon because of them. It’s bad enough when the municipal government keeps giving you extortionate tickets for alternate-side on-street parking when they don’t even bother to actually sweep the streets in the ostensible fulfilment of the rationale for the regulation; how then must it feel to have the full force and majesty of the state and Federal governments attack the core moral tenets of your faith? However incorrect or retrograde they may appear to outsiders, you still believe.
Yes, but it would all be that much more convincing were it not for all the decades in which precisely that power was used to prop up those tenets, often cruelly, often arbitrarily, and often brutally. And it would be more convincing if this sort of supposed moral traditionalism were not also tied to the rather incoherent economics and cultural nativism of American political conservativism. Let me suggest, as just a couple of minor examples, that actual universal health care and reasonably open borders would ameliorate some of the more dire injustices faced by gay partners denied access to legally recognized marriage. Legal marriage is larded with all sorts of benefits and privileges, and indeed, it was often the very proponents of marriage as a distinct social good who held the larding needle. Married people are a special class of citizen, and that is the crux of the matter. A society used inheritance incentives and insurance benefits to promote a sacrament; now you want complain that the sacred has been subsumed by the economic, the holy spirit swatted aside by the invisible hand. Quantus tremor est futurus, quando judex est venturus, cuncta stricte discussurus!
The easy rejoinder is that conservatives believe in “smaller government” and a less coercive state, but that belief has never been a practical commitment, only a rhetorical strategy. The state grows under conservatives, and it grows under liberals. The difference is only a matter of emphasis, and frequently not even that. The truth is that these marriage traditionalists were perfectly content with state intervention in and support of their sacred institution when it hewed, more or less, to their membership requirements. Only when a bit of money and a bit of politicking rendered it a bit less restrictive, only then did those same agencies of the state become dangerous and a touch tyrannical. Those who play with fire, you know, and those who live by the sword.