There are no tickets for that altitude
once held by Hellas, when the Goddess stood,
prince, pope, philosopher and golden bough,
pure mind and murder at the scything prow–
Minerva, the miscarriage of the brain.
Now Paris, our black classic, breaking up
like killer kings on an Etruscan cup.
-Robert Lowell, “Beyond the Alps”
A little more than a year ago, I wrote a brief piece on the inevitable national expansion of gay marriage, in which I tried to explain to self-described marriage traditionalists that they’d effectuated the inexorable demise of their of civil monopoly by making married people themselves into a special, privileged class:
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.
Remember, the immediate precursor to Obergefell was Windsor, a case about inheritance. Conservatives like to deride the liberal-ish, technocratic belief that ticky-tacky economic incentives can really drive human behavior, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that the huge accretion of exactly such incentives was the driving force and legal foundation of the claim that gays’ inability to marry represented a huge zone of civic exclusion. For all the #lovewins, for all Anthony Kennedy’s charming, if slightly embarrassing, raptures to the blessed dignity of the union of two souls, on a practical level, it was inheritance, tax, adoption, immigration, etc. that undergirded the long-term legal strategy toward marriage equality. With the possible exception (contested, I remind you, mostly by the same people who oppose gay marriage) of redressing severe and historic discrimination, the state shouldn’t confer legal, economic benefits of such scope and magnitude on any one group to the exclusion of another.
I remain ambivalent about marriage as the centerpiece of the struggle for LGBT rights, not in the least because, for all the reasons I mention above, it remains a restrictive and selective civil institution. Why, for example, shouldn’t a single person be able to sponsor the legal immigration of his best friend or an adult caring for an elderly person in her home receive the same tax benefits as a married couple? As of the last census, just 51% of Americans were married, after all. And, as a lot of LGBT activists have long pointed out, issues of discrimination in work and housing, homelessness, mental illness, addiction, etc. persist in the “gay community”—they are no less acute now that some of us are able to marry. None of this is to say that I won’t perhaps avail myself of the option now that it’s available. If I never especially imagined myself standing under a chuppah, I wouldn’t exactly mind, and as for all those benefits, well, the corollary to my old adage that you should never begrudge anyone his successful scam is that you should never turn up your nose at a good discount.
But regardless of my ambivalence—both practical and moral—I find the so-called traditionalist position ever more incoherent the more I encounter its variations.
“Just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s ethical,” said the Rev. Wilfredo De Jesús, the senior pastor of New Life Covenant Church, an Assemblies of God megachurch that has nearly 20,000 members on multiple campuses, most of them in Chicago.
“We won’t marry two men. That goes against our beliefs,” said Mr. De Jesús, who is known as Pastor Choco. He, like others interviewed, noted that over 2,000 years of Christian history, the church has often been at odds with the culture.
“We’re prepared to go to prison, or whatever occurs, but the church cannot change,” he said.
I put my head in my hands. Honey, you’re a Protestant. As I’ve written elsewhere, I take a much more sympathetic view toward religious particularism than today’s gaggle of loudly ignorant atheists, but while I can accept theological objections to same-sex marriage and to the so-called “practice of homosexuality,” anyone who wishes to propose “2,000 years of Christian history” as one of uninterrupted uniformity of moral vision and theology should go sit in the lonely chair for the next few hours to think about what they’ve done.
Easy enough to pick on American Evangelism, which has never been the most . . . learned of faiths. But even among the much, much smarter, I’m at once troubled and relieved by the weakness of the counterargument. My friend Wesley Hill, for instance, who has written frequently and movingly about his own choice to live as a celibate, gay Christian, has now written a couple of posts recently where, in regretting the decision—not so much gay marriage qua gay marriage as gay marriage as a symptom of a broader drift from what he believes to be a truly Christian sexual ethics—he places a great deal of the blame on his fellow Christians:
I think that for many, many (not all) gay people in America today, the options have not been (1) belong to a healthy, vibrant Christian community in which celibacy is held in high esteem and deep spiritual friendships with members of the same sex and opportunities for loving service and hospitality abound or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex. That has not been the choice facing many gay and lesbian people. Instead, for many (not all) today, the options have been (1) be ostracized (or worse) in church and effectively live without meaningful same-sex closeness of any kind or (2) be in a romantic relationship with a partner of the same sex.
In short: traditional Christian communities have failed to offer gay people fellowship, spiritual belonging, spiritual friendship, and have therefore put themselves in a position where they are not so much in opposition to the moral choices of LGBT people but utterly and starkly irrelevant to them, except perhaps as a bad memory.
I think this may be true, but I think that Wesley’s (and other’s) notion that while historic Christianity (or Judaism, or any of the major religions for that matter) condemn certain sex acts as wrong, it doesn’t necessarily follow that those people “or their partners are somehow irretrievably perverse and that all their longings and loves are any further removed from God’s design than their heterosexual neighbors’ are,” is frankly anachronistic and does a great disservice to the—I’ll use the silly phrase—practicing homosexuals who laid all, all, the foundation blocks of a modern society, including its Christians, that views people of minority sexual and gender identities as anything other than irretrievably perverse; that the back-reading of the Biblical focus on acts, not identities, ignores the plain fact that, for Paul or for the authors of Leviticus, those identities did not exist; that it was only the persistence of people engaging in those acts who, centuries later, said forcefully and at great personal peril, we do these things because of who we are, and that in so doing established a who for society to accept. Orthodox religion simply did not arrive, a priori¸ at the conviction that gay people were fine as long as they refrained from sex. The long tradition of what we’d probably call homosocial friendship notwithstanding, I defy anyone to claim that any modern Christian acceptance of gay identity, whether or not it also accepts gay sexual acts, was the proximate result of anything other than the social and political activities of men and women who did, in fact, have sex with people of the same sex. These impermissible acts were, in addition to being expressions of love and desire, inherently political and inherently moral; gay sex expanded the moral imagination. Put that in your Pride parade.
I should note that this isn’t meant as a criticism of those gay Christians who do choose to live celibately in their faith, a form of spiritual asceticism that I admire, and I also rather admire the open grappling with the idea that perhaps religion must abandon political opposition and turn inward in order to shine outward:
What I am interested in is Griffiths’ final sentence from this old blog post, which has haunted me ever since I first read it: The church’s calling now, and all the more so now that Griffiths’ hypothetical legalization of same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, is to burnish the practice of marriage until its radiance dazzles the pagan eye.
(Although I admit, my Jewish self can’t help but laugh incredulously at the idea of being called a pagan by a Catholic. LOL.) But in this very abandonment, the Christian case admits its inadmissibility in the present circumstance.
Any way you look at it, the religious case against civil marriage is very weak, ultimately little more than question-begging with an admixture of solipsism. It asks that its own moral prejudices be rewarded, literally, in the form of money and legal status but retreats into semantic obscurantism when confronted with the inequity of such an arrangement in a plural society. In a way, the opponents I most respect are the silly Southern judges now proclaiming that they’ll stop marrying folks altogether. It is the only actually morally consistent opposition position, although they arrive at it wholly by accident. Either civil marriage is secular, or sacramental marriage has no civil form. Choose.