The Gist of My Prepared Remarks
Culture and Politics - Sex and Culture
Written by Douglas Wilson
Wednesday, 27 February 2013
Below are my prepared remarks for the debate this evening with Andrew Sullivan. I presented this (at the event) in two pieces, and didn't quite get all of it in, but this does provide you with some idea.
Good evening, all. I would like to begin by thanking the Lord for how everything has come together. I would like to thank you all for coming, and the organizers of the debate for all the work they did. And I would like to thank Andrew for agreeing to this debate, and for coming a great distance to participate in it.
I would also like to thank him for editing this book—Same Sex Marriage: Pro & Con. I thought he did a fantastic job of pulling together capable representatives of both sides of this issue, and I was very pleased at the absence of straw man argumentation, name-calling, and indignant screeching. I thought the position I am representing here tonight—opposition to same-sex marriage—was treated with an appropriate respect throughout, and I am grateful for it.
In fact, I would like to use the mere existence of this book as one of my arguments, and since I am already here, let me begin with that.
While the opponents of same-sex marriage are sometimes compared (to their disadvantage) to various conservatives of yesteryear who were trying to conserve things they shouldn’t have, the overall effect of this book is to make the reader think that the leaders of the opposition to same-sex marriage are morally serious people, whether mistaken or not. They are not driven by irrational hatreds, or characterized by blind phobias. In short, we do not show up in this book as haters, with the appearance of a Bull Connor sort of opposition.
Now this means that to the extent Andrew is willing to treat his opponents as morally serious people, who have arguments that should be engaged respectfully, to that same extent he appears to be undercutting the view that the continued unavailability of same-sex marriage is a foundational civil rights issue. If it is a civil rights issue, how could morally serious people be opposed to it? If it is not a civil rights issue, then why is it being pressed upon us in those terms?
A similar problem shows up in the arguments this book contains against measures like the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). On the one hand, it is argued that states have historically had the right to have different views on the exact boundaries of legitimate marriages, and that the whole thing is a matter of settled laws and procedures. This is actually quite true, for example, in a situation where two states have different boundaries when it comes to the issues of consanguinity—cousins marrying, that sort of thing. Nothing to see here folks, keep moving. But to the extent that same-sex marriage is a civil rights issue, then the arguments against the miscegenation laws (also found in this book) come fully into play. If the Supreme Court could do to a state’s prohibition of same-sex marriage what they did in the Loving v. Virginia case in 1967, then what would the stance of the gay activists be then? Would they be against that move because it violated states’ rights? Not likely.
On top of that, nobody appears to be arguing that marrying your first cousin is a basic civil right. Still less is there a national controversy about it, with “let-cousins-marry-cousins” parades in our major cities.
So if it is a civil rights issue, then the necessary agenda has to be to “not stop” until same-sex marriage is the established law in all fifty states. If it happens state-by-state, then they would be fine with it, but I doubt if the same-sex marriage activists would object if the Supreme Court gave them 35 states in one stroke. But if that end result is not on their agenda, then it is not really believed to be a civil rights issue.
Another good thing about this book—a really good thing, actually—was that it represented a serious attempt to have all the basic arguments, pro and con, fully aired, with credible attempts at suitable ripostes for each. But, perhaps not surprisingly, one of the major arguments that I would want to advance this evening was answered in a way that seemed to me to just exude inadequacy. Is that a nice way of putting it?
First, it was notable that in these essays the advocates of same-sex marriage came back at the so-called “polygamy argument” in a “no, of course not” sort of response. There was no attempt to swallow the reductio and say, “Sure, this entails polygamy. So what?” The inference that same-sex marriage would be a strong shove down a slippery slope was adamantly rejected. But such a rejection has ramifications of its own.
In his essay “Three’s a Crowd,” Andrew responds to William Bennett and Charles Krauthammer on this point, and I would like to press the point because I think Andrew actually missed what a serious challenge this is. Perhaps the fact that some politicians were chortling when they first advanced the argument distracted Andrew. There is a real issue here.
Before laying out the particular argument, I want to note that this resistance that Andrew has to polygamy grants me a very important point. That point is the fact that in between what we currently call marriage and what some crazies out there might want to call marriage, there is a line that we must not cross. Andrew and I actually agree on this. He draws one of those lines at more partners than two, for example. I draw it more tightly, but we are both drawing a line, and we are both of us in favor of denying marriage licenses to consenting adults who want one, and who claim to be deeply in love.
Now if we agree that to expand the word marriage to include a state of marital bedlam and anarchy does not really expand the word, but in actuality destroys it, then the first order of business would appear to be what standard we might use to determine where that line is. This is one of my favorite questions—by what standard? I would want to appeal to the Word of God, and to do so in public, which of course has implications for secularism. Andrew wants to appeal to . . . what? If it is “democratic consensus,” then now it appears that polygamy could be in our future, at least in principle, because certain factions of the demos do appear to want it. Suppose they get organized? On what basis do we say to Abdul that a secular democracy necessarily limits the number of partners he may have to just one when the Koran says he gets up to four?
But more is involved than our rejection of Islamic marriage traditions. In addition, we are also placed in the odd position of insisting that there is no possible marital expression for bisexuals. If a man is attracted to men and women both, then if society restricts his options to just one partner, then he must opt for a same sex marriage, or a conventional marriage. His bisexual attraction the other way is one that we are arbitrarily saying may not be expressed in any legally recognized fashion. The best we can do, under these circumstances, is tell him to find a partner who is willing for an open marriage, who is willing for his bisexuality to be expressed through adultery. But this changes the definition of marriage also. Marriage has historically been placed as a marker of sexual exclusivity. Adultery has occurred, of course, but pre-planning for the adultery appears to undercut the whole point of marriage in the first place.
In response to this line of argument, Andrew argues that homosexuality occupies “a deeper level of human consciousness than a polygamous impulse” (p. 279). But questions immediately cluster around in my head, all of them chattering at me. Deeper impulse? How deep? And how deep does it have to be to get public recognition? And what scientific calipers do we use to measure the depth of Bob’s affection for Bill, as over against John’s desire for Suzy and Sally? How are supposed to measure such things?
If we grant the authority of self-reports, then the polygamist will avow that the depth of his desire goes just as deep as the homosexual’s does. He promises. If we measure by human history, homosexuality, polyamory, and promiscuity are all common enough, but when it comes to being enshrined in marriage, polygamy has a much more established record to appeal to. And if we measure by the diversity-is-good approach to culture, then where do we get off saying that diversity-is-good-until-we-start-to-get-some?
Andrew goes on, astonishingly, to say that polygamy is “an activity, whereas homosexuality and heterosexuality are states” (p. 279). But this starts off another round of Q&A in my teeming brain. This argument only works if these two states limit the person in such state to one and only one sexual partner. Homosexuality has to be a state with only one true lover possible, and any sexual partners beyond that one would constitute a perversion of some sort. This is the only stance that would allow us to dismiss that sort of thing as a mere activity, not worth codifying in marriage law. The same thing would go for heterosexuality. The position has to be that the heterosexual state necessarily entails one sexual partner and that is all, and that all other sexual partners are “activities” that must be gotten over. Andrew doesn’t exactly use the word repentance, but one gets the idea. Andrew has to argue that, in the current human condition, the desire for monogamous fidelity is as foundational a state as homosexuality or heterosexuality, which is a view that appears to collide with the data.
We also have the problem of definition again. How do we identify states except through activity? So judging from the activity, it would appear that lots of heterosexual males are in the state of wanting multiple sexual partners. And there have been many times in history and numerous places around the globe today where such desires have been codified in marriage laws. And it goes without saying that if the young male in question is between the ages of 13 and 19, he is in a state all the time.
Now to argue the way that Andrew has is to postulate the existence of a moral hierarchy that can be used to condemn certain sexual choices that numerous people have made. But surely this is odd coming from homosexual advocates? The issue for me is not whether Andrew is arguing for polygamy. I know for a fact that he is not doing so. But what I want to know is whether the arguments he is using for same-sex marriage work equally well when being pressed by somebody else with an entirely different set of goals than Andrew has.
If I am the clerk at the county courthouse deciding whether to give Andrew a marriage license, I can see the line that has formed behind him. I know that they don’t all want to marry in the same way, or marry the same kind of person. I know that. But I also know that they want to use the same arguments on me. What can I say to them that I couldn’t also say to Andrew? And what can Andrew say in reply to me that they can’t also throw at me? So while I may have been born at night, it wasn’t last night.
Neuhaus argued that marriage is a quintessentially public institution, and that the reason this battle is centered on marriage is because more is being demanded than tolerance of certain “private sexual practices”—the issue is rather “public acceptance and approval.” No one raindrop may believe itself to be responsible for the flood, but the cumulative effect remains the same nonetheless. On the back cover of Andrew’s book Virtually Normal, it states that the goal is to guarantee “the rights of gays and lesbians without imposing tolerance.” That is an interesting phrase—without imposing tolerance. I like it a lot, and I would say nice try, but I don’t know how, in such circumstances, it could be possible. Would caterers have the right to decline the business of a gay wedding reception? Would Christian owners of a B&B have the right to set limits on the use of their place? Wedding photographers?
If we are not imposing tolerance, what legal forms may the intolerance take?
At a certain point, allowing for changes in the direct object is actually changing the meaning of the verb. Andrew appears to agree with this, arguing for “monogamy as central to all marriage” (p. 281). Adding a third person would take away this central element, meaning that such marriages weren’t really marriages. Making the direct object two women instead of one woman means that the verb to marry has been altered. So there is a line that we must not cross. But who establishes that line?
I alluded to this earlier, but I believe that a great deal of our sexual consternation is the result of our secularism. We found that secularism worked great for a while, so long as we had moral capital to spend from our previous Christian consensus. Many of the things we believe to be “natural” about marriage were actually the results of a hard-fought battle over the course of centuries. But the prodigal son has been away from home for too long, and has bought one too many rounds for the house, and his wallet is considerably thinner. Actually, his wallet is flat.
I accept a good number of the natural law arguments presented in this volume, but I do not believe that they get us far enough. We need a voice of authority, and one of the things we need desperately as a culture is a willingness to listen to such a voice. That authority is not the history of human sexual practices, which would get us a good deal more weirdness than we are dealing with now. The authority is not the voice of the people, which shifts and changes election to election. Underneath such appeals to the democratic consensus is a serene confidence in progressivism, in the irrepressible Whig assumption that every day in every way, things are getting better and better. But vox populi vox humbug. That authority cannot be the ability of our intellectuals to argue, first one way and then another. This book is a regular push-me-pull-you, and does not show us the way out. One side wants to lead us down a dead-end, and the other side doesn’t want to go, but where should we go instead?
I do not see how we can get out of the impasse we are in on our own authority. As Dan Phillips has aptly noted, the most offensive verse in the Bible is not to be found in Leviticus or Deuteronomy with laws concerning homosexuals. It is not to be found in the New Testament when Paul tells wives to be submissive to their own husbands. It is not to be found in the places commanding the Amalekites to be smitten. The most offensive verse in the Bible is the very first one—in the beginning God created the heavens and earth (Gen. 1:1). This means that there are only two ways to go. We can work to discover the meaning of the world around us, a meaning embedded there by God. Or we can rebel against that meaning, and try to roll our own. Once we have rolled it, we usually try to smoke it.
Although there are constituent elements of marriage that contributors to this book testify to—very ably—more is going on with marriage than just issues of procreation or companionship. God decided to imprint His image in the world this way. “So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:27). This is in the first chapter of the Bible. In the third chapter, the image of God rebelled against its triune archetype, and our race fell into sin and rebellion. All our sexual confusions date from that point, many hetero-confusions included. But God promised that He would send someone who would crush the serpent’s head, and so the long history began of waiting for that Messiah to come. When He arrived, He was revealed to us in the character of a Bridegroom, one who had come searching for His lost bride. He won that bride through His death and resurrection. So that first marital statement about God’s image, defaced by our sin, was not abandoned by God. Rather, He determined to restore it through a much more glorious marital image—Christ and His Church.
Every marriage is therefore a proclamation of the gospel. When marriages go wrong, or blow up, or go cold, they are the marital equivalent of false teachers. When they are radically redefined, as same-sex marriage seeks to do, it is again false teaching. Now things have gotten bad enough in the hetero world that one might be forgiven for thinking that this is a sermonic form that has lost its usefulness. But I don’t think so. We must therefore guard against further erosions, while confessing that we are only in this position because of our very obvious need for a Savior.