Proponents of same-sex marriage frame their cause in terms of civil rights. There are no significant moral or cultural differences between homosexual couples and heterosexual couples, they presume, and therefore limiting marriage to heterosexual couples amounts to discrimination. Fairness and justice require giving men the right to marry men and women the right to marry women. Q.E.D.
The recent success of the New York legislature in redefining marriage indicates that this way of thinking has traction. As Albert Mohler recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, we find ourselves in a “most awkward cultural moment.” Sex is now largely thought of as a matter of personal choice, and for the most part heterosexual couples couple as they see fit. Words like fornication seem musty and archaic. Established gender roles for men and women are held in suspicion. Almost everyone, even Catholics, regards contraception as a self-evident good. Children are an option, not the self-evident responsibility of adult life. These views make it difficult for many today, including folks in church pews, to see what earlier generations thought crystal clear: that marriage unites a man and a woman.
Changed attitudes toward sexual morality provide the clearest example. The one almost universal belief about sexual morality is that it must be “safe” and “responsible.” This means two things: respecting the autonomy and well-being of one’s partner and preventing pregnancy. Nothing men do with men, or women with women, stands in the way of satisfying the first principle, and their interactions positively satisfy the second. The imperative of fairness immediately presents itself. If traditional condemnations no longer apply to guys and gals hooking up, then why should they apply to guys and guys, or gals and gals? If John and Jane can live as they please, perhaps sleeping together in college, then living together for a few years, and then marrying, then why not Joe and James? It is indeed an awkward cultural moment.
The relaxation of sexual mores follows as much from anxiety as from hedonistic exuberance, as much from existential fear as from animal lust. During the twentieth century a cultural consensus emerged that sexual satisfaction is necessary for mental health. Although Sigmund Freud actually endorsed a rational management of sexual repression, his psychoanalytic theory revolved around traumas associated with sexual development, reinforcing (or perhaps resulting from) other cultural trends that emphasized instinctual urges as the defining features of our personalities and regarded their repression as the primary cause of unhappiness and social conflict. Being true to oneself therefore becomes largely a matter of being true to one’s desires, especially one’s sexual desires. Let it all hang out.
This view quite naturally leads one to view moral censure as an attack on humanity. To deny one’s sexual desires is to deny one’s identity. Our desires are part of “who I am” or even “how God made me,” and anything like the traditional demands for sexual self-control means an inner spiritual death. Many religiously observant Americans think this way, or at least feel this way, which is why so few sermons are preached on sexual morality.
Fear of the presumed dangers of sexual repression helps to explain the broad cultural acceptance of the sexual revolution. People today are not libertines. They don’t in fact let it all hang out. Most expect fidelity from their sexual partners, and many seek the permanence and stability of marriage. Parents counsel their children to be sexually prudent, worrying about their emotional vulnerability as well as the health risks they face.
But when it comes to sexual morality, nearly everybody willingly obeys the new great commandment: It is forbidden to forbid. We continue to view traditional sexual disciplines as far more existentially dangerous than contemporary sexual freedoms. We shrink from the old language of sin, impurity, and perversion, fearing that it implicates us in an inhuman regime of soul-destroying repression.
Of course, marriage is not only about sex. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that sex is rarely only about sex. As the Bible reminds us in many places, the urgency of the sexual union of a man and a woman binds them together, taking on the social and religious significance of covenant. Contrary to legal conceits about privacy, our sexual identities and practices have a complex and fundamental public significance, for sexual desire is the most primitive engine of sociality. Not only does sex draw men and women together, encouraging a fundamental, perhaps the fundamental, reconciliation of human differences, sexual union also produces children and plants the seeds of domestic stability.
Marriage seals and protects the social and domestic trajectories of erotic union. Nearly all societies, whatever exceptions they allow for divorce and separation, invest the union with the promise of permanence. Bound together by the force of custom and law, the married couple fulfills in an institutional way the unbending, unquenchable, and all-consuming desire of erotic love. As the Song of Songs puts it: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is strong as death.” Moreover, marriage provides the congenial context for children, who embody the promise of the future, both for parents and society as a whole. It is not surprising, therefore, that the male–female bond of marriage is the most primitive social and political institution in human history and remains the foundation of society.
Here again contemporary Western culture has undergone a revolution. We largely think of traditional gender roles as unjust and suspect, leading us to be anxious and ambivalent about the male–female difference. True, our private lives remain highly charged by the difference, as the popularity of books like Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus suggests, and just as most people today live relatively modest lives of sexual freedom, by and large they also adopt relatively modest adjustments to traditional gender roles. Yet nearly all of us subordinate our private traditionalism to a powerful public ideology of gender equality in which maleness and femaleness are to have no social, cultural, or political significance.
Moreover, because of the widespread acceptance of contraception (backed up by abortion), the male–female difference has precious little biological significance either. Nearly all contemporary men and women want to have children in the usual way. Nonetheless, most of us—the vast majority—tacitly presume that most sexual unions, whether casual or permanent, are appropriately sterile: the assumption behind the notion of “responsible sex.” Children are products of our wills (“planned parenthood”). They are private choices within an encompassing culture of choice, a way of thinking that, once again, makes it difficult to identify a real difference between same-sex couples and heterosexual couples.
Thus, along with a fear that sexual repression is harmful, we have cultural assumptions about gender and reproduction that make it very difficult to articulate persuasive public reasons to resist same-sex marriage. If the woman can wear the pants in the family, then why can’t a man wear skirts, as it were? If women are to be encouraged to be active, independent agents in the public sphere and in family life—strong grooms of our older imaginations—then why can’t a man be the bride? If we are elevating choice and asserting the primacy of the affective over procreative aspects of the sexual unions of men and women, then why can’t gays and lesbians marry? Don’t they make choices and have affections just like the rest of us?
A successful, long-term defense of traditional marriage will require a renewal of our moral and social imaginations. We must continue to fight to preserve marriage in the courtrooms, legislatures, and polling booths. But these are largely holding actions. Until sexual discipline comes to seem humanizing rather than alienating, most Americans will find traditional sexual mores off-putting, and even those who endorse traditional norms will continue to downplay them in the public square—and in the pulpit. In a far more complicated way, the same holds for gender roles, childbearing, and child rearing. Until our common culture reaffirms the essential and inevitably social significance of the difference between men and women, as well as the role of fertility in sex and marriage, Americans will fail to grasp the skull-thumping obviousness of male–female union as the essential feature of marriage.
Proponents of same-sex marriage like to pronounce it “inevitable.” Their confidence is based on the progressive conceit that modernity always and everywhere weakens and dissolves the power of traditional norms and practices. But this is not true. During the nineteenth century the social influence of Christianity in America grew dramatically. Victorian England saw a profound remoralization of society. And the diffusion of modern economic systems, science, and technology throughout the globe in recent decades has not led to the diminishment of religious passions, as so many predicted, but instead their increase. History is not a ratchet that turns in only one direction.
When it comes to sexual mores, perhaps the ratchet is beginning to turn our way. Comparative data from the General Social Surveys in the 1970s and 2000s suggest that significantly more well-educated people twenty-five to sixty years old now think premarital sex is always wrong (an uptick from 15 percent to 21 percent over the intervening two decades, as compared to a somewhat greater but declining percentage among less-educated cohorts). College groups that champion chastity, like the Anscombe Society at Princeton, would have been unimaginable a couple of decades ago. Now they get a sympathetic hearing and enjoy surprisingly large memberships. Many urban black pastors have become outspoken proponents of sexual discipline.
At the same time a renewed Catholic priesthood and religious orders send an increasingly clear message: It’s not the case that sexual discipline damages and diminishes the self. On the contrary, it can provide a basis for self-possession and self-command that is capable of self-abandonment for the sake of a supernatural end that fulfills rather than negates our humanity.
Most people I know, whatever their religious or moral views, whatever life they are now living, desire in some small way the same self-possession. Of course, this impulse rarely leads to an affirmation of traditional sexual morality. Nonetheless, they want their sexual desires to be disciplined for the sake of love, or fidelity, or the duties of parenthood, or some other good that they hope will order and elevate their instinctual impulses. Thus my guarded optimism: They need only to be shown the way.
I am more optimistic about the male–female difference. It runs very deep in human nature, and therefore in human society. The most reasonable supposition, one supported by biological and social sciences, is that our present anxiety and ambivalence about gender roles will resolve itself into more-stable patterns of male–female difference. A renewed confidence in the reality of the male–female difference—its promise and its agony—will help us see once again the profound social and spiritual significance of the marital union of a man and a woman.
Last spring a billboard went up near my apartment. It featured the Beatles in their youthful splendor: healthy, bearded, smiling, and free. I marveled at their enduring allure, which I continue to feel, reminding me that, in spite of my moral and theological convictions, I too participate in the main currents of our era, the ones that now bring us same-sex marriage. Yet the engaging image of the Fab Four brought me up short. This photo of youth and freedom and new possibilities was taken nearly fifty years ago.
Culture never stands still. The promises that so engage the imagination of one generation are quite often broken for the next, especially if they are promises humanity and human society cannot meet. The end of sexual repression was one of those false promises. The same holds for the androgyny implied in absolute gender equality and the sterile, futureless freedom that comes from a contraceptive mentality.
That’s not to say that we’ll simply go back to older views. The sexual revolution of the twentieth century will necessarily influence our future, as will women’s liberation and the pill. But these influential movements and innovations are unlikely to inspire the future. On the contrary, as the wreckage of the American family among the poor—and not just the poor—makes evident, as well as the increasingly vocal dissatisfaction of single professional women without husbands, they have brought various forms of personal unhappiness and social dysfunction that we’ll very likely be struggling to overcome.
Here in New York, in the same Park Avenue apartments and swanky suburban homes where the old bourgeois consensus first collapsed more than half a century ago, one of the coveted luxuries of wealth is a large family with a stay-at-home mom. Does this mean a restoration of traditional sexual and marital norms? Hardly. But it does suggest a change of sentiment, perhaps the beginnings of the collapse of the now silver-haired bohemian consensus. Therein lies an evangelical opportunity.
Evangelicalism is a mode of being Christian, more missionary movement than official church. As a result, the 250 million or more evangelical Protestants in the world can be hard to pin down. All the more reason to take a look at the Global Survey of Evangelical Leaders recently released by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
The Third Lausanne Congress of World Evangelicalism took place in October 2010, in Cape Town, South Africa, bringing together more than three thousand evangelical pastors and lay leaders from all over the world. Pew’s researchers surveyed the participants, and the results provide a clear picture of what evangelicals are thinking these days—or at least what their leaders are thinking.
There are no great surprises. It turns out that almost all the evangelical leaders surveyed agree that Christianity is the one true faith, the Bible is the Word of God, and abortion is always or usually wrong. But there are a number of interesting nuances.
Evangelicals from what the pollsters call the Global North and the Global South (the geographically unsatisfactory but now standard names for European-dominated societies—the West—and the Rest) view themselves somewhat differently. Most agree that the Global South exercises too little influence within the evangelical movement, but those from the West are more likely to think that way (78 percent) than those from the non-Western World (62 percent).
Does this discrepancy suggest a post-imperialist guilt complex? Perhaps. But it might also reflect an exaggerated sense of self-importance among Westerners in general. After all, one must see oneself as supereminent in order to condescend anxiously. It’s very likely that the Korean and Nigerian evangelicals have the more accurate view: Westerners are rich and powerful, but not as much as they think.
The survey asked evangelicals to identify the greatest threats they face. Secularism and consumerism, as well as sex and violence in popular culture, top the list. Way down at the bottom? Catholicism. Only one in ten think that Catholicism is a threat to evangelicalism. Ecumenical goodwill in the post–Vatican II era? I hope so, though I find myself wishing for just a bit more anxiety born of worries that Catholic missionaries will beat the evangelicals at their evangelizing game.
Close to a majority of evangelicals identify Islam as a major threat, and those who live in Muslim-majority countries especially so (nine in ten). Moreover, 82 percent of those living in countries with Muslim majorities view Muslims as unfriendly toward evangelical Christianity. Unsurprising, perhaps, but things get interesting. The very same evangelicals from Muslim-majority countries were asked about their views of Muslims as opposed to their views of Muslim views of them. Although a majority of evangelicals worldwide view Muslims unfavorably, evangelicals living in Muslim-majority countries view them less unfavorably.
Come again? Evangelicals in Islamic countries think Muslims both more threatening and more congenial? There can be no doubt about the depth, significance, and sometimes violence of the clash between Christianity and Islam. But perhaps common enemies—secularism, consumerism, degraded popular culture—encourage sentiments of mutual respect. The survey results suggest that the closer one gets to Muslims, the more one feels the religious threat of their convictions—and the more one appreciates the strength of their convictions.
There’s another interesting set of findings, these about gender roles, that, like the crisscrossing views that evangelicals have of Muslims, is initially puzzling. When asked if men have a duty to serve as religious leaders in marriage and family, 79 percent answered in the affirmative. This strong affirmation of male headship reflects what St. Paul teaches in his Letter to the Ephesians: Wives are to be subject to their husbands, for just as Christ is the head of the church so the husband is head of the wife. Yet, 75 percent of evangelical leaders say that women can be church pastors. Only half say that men should be the main breadwinners, and just a third say that women should stay at home and raise children.
The results—on the one hand a traditional commitment to male headship of the family and on the other hand a broad affirmation of modern changes in the roles of women in society—suggest that global evangelicalism encourages what University of Virginia sociologist Bradford Wilcox calls “soft patriarchy,” a pattern of domestic life that seeks to harmonize biblical principles of male headship with contemporary realities of female empowerment (that are in some cases themselves the upshot of other biblical principles).
Over the years I’ve found that, at its best, evangelicalism is both fiercely biblical and eminently practical, often boldly experimenting with forms of worship and piety that blend traditional faith with modern realities. I’m often anxious that the blend tends to be too ad hoc and unstable. But that’s the high-church Catholic in me, I suppose. In any event, whatever one thinks of the cogency or practicality of “soft patriarchy,” the seemingly odd combination of gender attitudes reflected in this survey suggests an experiment we all need to be making. Modern feminism has achieved a great deal of lasting importance, but for the most part it has come to a dead (and often sterile) end. It’s time, as I suggested above, to find a way forward.
Aphorisms & Epigrams
Summer’s on its way out, and the first browning leaves of the sycamores here in Manhattan fill me with anticipation for the sharp, crispy crunch of summer’s canopy become autumn’s carpet underfoot. Snap, vitality, the tart taste of hard cider, the quickened pace of harvest time, fall fairly begs for concision:
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and then after heavy use it gets resurfaced with cynicism.
Conservatives like me were liberals mugged by liberalism.
The first step toward moral renewal: sincere hypocrisy.
Why do we often ignore reason? Because she often betrays her promises.
Pascal’s Rule: The certainty with which we can know things is inversely proportional to their significance for our lives.
A true patriot weeps more often than he brags.
Beware living your ideas rather than your life.
Yes, love is often blind, lacking cool objectivity and critical distance. But the deepest truths are written in braille.
Notes from the Editor’s Desk
Many flee New York during the hot month of August, but not at First Things. On August 1 our new junior fellows arrived: Matthew Cantirino, recently graduated from Georgetown; Mark Misulia, from Providence College; and Alex Ozar, who is wrapping up his rabbinical degree at Yeshiva University. We’re delighted to have them in the office.
But as we gain three, we lose two. When you read this, Kevin Joyce will have begun his studies for the priesthood at St. John’s seminary and David Lasher his work as a Tikvah fellow. Many thanks to both men, both for their friendship and their dedication to First Things. We will miss them.
Over the years we’ve been blessed to have remarkable and talented men and women as junior fellows. I’m honored to have worked with Kevin and David, and I look forward to the coming year with Matthew, Mark, and Alex.