The Future of Marriage
Last summer, billionaire hedge fund manager and major Republican donor Paul Singer put up $1 million to launch American Unity. His goal was to break down the Republican partys opposition to gay marriage and thus remove political resistance to the triumph of gay rights. Singer and his billionaire peers”Jeff Bezos ($2.5 million), Bill Gates ($500,000), and Michael Bloomberg ($250,000) were among those who gave $12 million to the campaign for gay marriage in Washington”will probably succeed. My former hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, recently passed an ordinance that added sexual identity to the list of protected categories (race, sex, age, disability, and so forth) given legal protection against discrimination. At the public hearings, no recognized public figure showed up to testify against the ordinance, other than a courageous assistant football coach from the University of Nebraska.
Thats sadly typical. In the main, our leadership class, right and left, either actively endorses gay marriage or remains cautiously silent. In the coming months, were sure to see many announcements that this or that conservatives thinking has evolved on the issue. This is to be regretted, but expected. Politicians and the regiments of pundits and commentators organized around their quest for power cant put together majorities unless they reflect majority opinion, as well as raise vast sums of money to mobilize it. They know that a portion of America”by no means all, but nonetheless a significant and often very wealthy and powerful portion”wants to redefine marriage.
In a New York Times interview about his support for gay marriage, Singer justified it as consonant with his conservative convictions, saying that redefining marriage very well fits within my framework of freedom. People should be able to do as they wish, provided they dont hurt anybody or limit anybody elses freedom.
As I have observed, along with many others, redefining marriage weakens the culture of marriage”and that does hurt people, children especially, but also adults. We need to confront Singer and others like him: Much like no-fault divorce and the sexual revolution more broadly, gay marriage is a luxury good for the rich thats going to be paid for by the poor. He and his allies are contributing to the social impoverishment of the very people most economically disadvantaged by the processes of globalization that have made him so rich. Hell deny thats the case, of course. In his interview, he made the fatuous claim that gay marriage will promote family stability.
Given the results of the last election”and the vast wealth now available to gay-rights advocates”we can easily become demoralized and defeatist. Ive certainly had my gloomy moments. But we need to face up to the realities of contemporary society and do our work in it rather than wring our hands. As Jesus warns, No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.
So lets challenge Singer, his powerful allies, and the voters in Washington, Maryland, Maine, and elsewhere. After getting what they want, are they willing to support pro-marriage efforts? Will they fund and support advocacy groups that pressure school boards to require middle-school students to take courses in marriage education that teach children that marriage is the best choice for nearly all men and women? Thats something people should be able to endorse, whatever their views about homosexuality. Are they willing to lobby state legislatures to tighten divorce laws? The sociological data indicate that divorce is a socially destructive behavior. Why dont we treat it like smoking? Or sugary drinks? Deterring divorce is a cause that Michael Bloomberg should care about.
And we have many things to do ourselves. For example, what about fighting for dramatically enhanced tax benefits for married couples? We have very generous tax credits for investors who rehabilitate historically significant buildings, and we do so because we think preserving the architectural fabric of the past is a social good. Why not give very generous treatment to individuals willing to renew the culture of marriage by venturing its commitments? Why not tie these tax benefits to new laws that create an option for covenant marriages, nuptial contracts that forgo the option of no-fault divorce?
We cant win if we only play defense. Its important to go on the offensive. Marriage is vitally important. Its one of the most essential ways we make the kinds of commitments and accept the kinds of responsibilities that make us adults, and it provides us with the most reliable social safety net of all. For these and other reasons, by most measures, in spite of its perils and difficulties, marriage is one of the surest sources of personal happiness. Its also the single most reliable institution for the renewal and transmission of social capital, which is why a healthy culture of marriage is such a crucial component of the common good.
A great deal is at stake. We should by all means try to block further initiatives that weaken marriage. But lets not neglect opportunities to strength it”even if gay marriage is allowed. If people like Paul Singer are true to their claims that they only want to extend marriage equality rather than undermine it, perhaps we can persuade them to join us in the cause of strengthening it. Marriage is something they should support if they are genuinely concerned for ordinary people rather than fashionable causes. Then, in places like Washington, Maine, and Maryland, it will be possible to begin to take one step forward even after taking two steps backward.
The First Thousand Years
Take heed, Moses tells the Israelites, lest you forget that the Lord God delivered us from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. In remembering, Israel enters into her everlasting inheritance.
What we remember shapes the future, and its the legislating power of memory that gives The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity a special importance and force. This elegantly written volume by Robert Louis Wilken takes readers from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus to Charlemagnes imperial coronation and Prince Vladimirs prenuptial baptism. In thirty-six short, well-focused chapters, Wilken gives us vivid snapshots of key people, movements, controversies, and episodes, and a highly readable overview of the Churchs extraordinary breadth and diversity.
In telling the story through its many twists and turns of theological controversy, political intrigue, and spiritual striving, Wilken often returns to the culture-shaping power of the Christian faith, the slow drama of the building of a Christian civilization. This history offers us helpful guidance as we think about our own lives as Christians in what is becoming a post-Christian civilization.
Wilken”the chairman of the board that governs First Things ”returns again and again to the fundamentally personal character of Christian witness. Wherever Christianity took root in the first thousand years, the Church was organized around the bishop, the head of the local community of believers. When the Church was no longer persecuted, the powerful witness of the martyrs shifted. Monks committed to self-denial became key figures.
There is an important lesson for us here. Over his long life, John Henry Newman emphasized the power of personal influence over every other mode of evangelization: Men persuade themselves, with little difficulty, to scoff at principles, to ridicule books, to make sport of the names of good men; but they cannot bear their presence: it is holiness embodied in personal form, which they cannot steadily confront and bear down. God has a human face, not only in Christ, but in each of us.
The great power of personal witness does not operate independently of institutional life. A large part of the drama of Christian civilization comes from the way in which the Church adapts and develops her basic rituals and her confession of Christ as Lord.
The sacramental life of the Church, for example, reordered inherited pagan notions of space and time. In a particularly helpful chapter on architecture and art, Wilken explains how early Christianity reordered the relations between sacred rituals and secular life. Constantine gave the Church the status and resources to construct public buildings. However, Christians did not adapt the most obvious pagan analogue, the ancient temple, for their purposes. It was typically a relatively small structure dedicated to the provision of sacrifices that did not require public attendance. Instead, Christians adapted the basilica for worship. It was an ancient architectural form developed to accommodate crowds in a large space where they could witness speeches and other public events.
The effect of this architectural decision was to fuse, in an implicit way, the sacred economy of our relation to God with the political and social realities of secular life. Not surprisingly, therefore, in the history of Christianity we find endlessly complex, difficult, and never entirely resolved tensions and conflicts between Church authority and secular authority, between altar and throne. The Church often entered into alliances with secular authority that led to unholy tradeoffs, and there was to be a great deal of meddling by kings and princes in Church affairs.
But Wilken resists the temptation simply to criticize these alliances. Christs kingdom is not of this world, but a Christian civilization”a culture leavened by the gospel”must have a political, secular dimension. This can compromise the spiritual integrity of the Church, but thats a problem we must deal with rather than avoid.
In much the same way, Wilken deftly navigates the complex and much-studied theological and political history surrounding the formulation and affirmation of the great creeds, helping us see how the Church was forced to engage and transform intellectual culture. Christian intellectuals had to do more than become competent in the rhetorical and philosophical disciplines of antiquity. They had to sift through them in order to make them fit to serve the truth of Christ.
Similar to the shift from ancient temple to basilica, the effect was to fuse the philosophical and intellectual life with the institutional and ritual realities of religious practice, two dimensions the ancient world had largely kept separate. It is telling”and typical”that one of the greatest Christian intellectuals, perhaps the greatest, had as his main job preaching sermons, sitting in judgment of court cases, and running a diocese. St. Augustine was a bishop.
Do this in memory of me. What we remember shapes the future, and to this end Robert Louis Wilkens survey of the first thousand years of Christian history serves us well. A clear picture of the Christian past prepares us to work toward a Christian future.
Christianity is inescapably social, he writes. Its spread among new people had little to do with the conversion of individuals and everything to do with building a new society. Yes, were called to bring others to Christ, but lets not imagine that this ends with the first profession of faith, however earnest and heartfelt. Conversion is ongoing, never-ending, making a claim on our social and cultural identities at every level.
Just how we are to pursue this deeper conversion in our time is an important”and open”question. In our virtual world of disembodied hyper-connectedness, the human face of the gospel is certain to become ever more crucial. As our culture becomes more ideologically secularist, we need to affirm and defend the public character of Christian worship and belief, as well as the full participation of religious faith and practice in the intellectual life. The biblical concepts of freedom and dignity compete with modern liberal assumptions. We dont just need a new St. Benedict, as Alasdair MacIntyre famously wrote. We also need a new St. Augustine.
In these and other ways, The First Thousand Years is more than a good read. It gives us our task, the one facing the Church in every age: What Christianity brought could only be realized in the building of a city, to use Augustines apt metaphor in his book The City of God .
The Agony of the Catholic Left
In the week prior to the presidential election, I was visiting Omaha. Reading the local paper, I happened upon a column by a former colleague, Creighton theology professor Thomas Kelly. The gist was a criticism of the Archbishop of Omaha, George J. Lucas, in effect accusing him of misrepresenting Catholic moral doctrine.
In his election-season letter to the faithful, Archbishop Lucas had pointed out that Catholics should be especially concerned about social policies that permit or even encourage intrinsic evils, actions that the Catholic Church deems fundamentally immoral: abortion, euthanasia, embryonic destructive research, cloning, genocide, torture, racism, and the targeting of innocents in war or terrorism. He also emphasized that certain fundamental rights and moral principles are very important, such as religious liberty, as well as the sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.
Theres nothing intrinsically partisan about these moral reminders. No Catholic voter in 1950 or 1960 would have imagined that Archbishop Lucas letter provided reasons to stop voting for Democrats.
But its not Jack Kennedys Democratic party anymore. These days, nobodys confused about which party has an abortion-rights plank in its platform. Or about which presidential candidate expressed support for same-sex marriage. Or about whose activists promote doctor-assisted suicide. Or about which administration has taken a narrow view of religious freedom in order to ensure that Catholic universities, hospitals, and agencies pay for insurance that provides free contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs.
Thus the agony of the Catholic left. To think about abortion, euthanasia, marriage, and religious freedom is to bring to mind very profound reasons not to vote for Democrats. This tempts the Catholic liberal to play verbal games to try to deflect attention away from the obvious. Voting is about more than single issues, were often told, which is true, but doesnt make the clear moral issues any less important. Or were told that muddy questions of policy are in fact clear moral issues.
Thats exactly what Thomas Kelly did, evoking Guantanamo and insinuating that conservative ideas about economic policy and illegal immigration are intrinsically evil in the same way that abortion or euthanasia are. His rhetorical goal was to create an impression of moral equality, or, more accurately, of immoral equality. The reasons to vote against Democratic politicians whose policies directly support intrinsic evils and undermine basic moral truths such as marriage are no stronger than those for voting against Republican candidates who arent enthusiastic supporters of the modern welfare state or who insist on enforcing current laws about immigration. Thus a good Catholic liberal neednt feel as though his faith stands in the way of voting for Barack Obama.
The election has come and gone. But the difficulties facing the Catholic left remain. In fact, theyre sure to intensify. The Catholic Church has opposed many aspects of the cultural revolution of the last fifty years. Meanwhile, the Democratic party has become a welcoming home and reliable political vehicle for those who want to extend that revolution. The coming collision is inevitable, as the HHS contraceptive mandate and the Obama administrations narrow religious exemption indicate. It will be harder and harder to sustain the claim that the two political parties are essentially equal when it comes to core Catholic concerns.
More than one hundred years ago, Catholic immigrants threatened the cultural power of a Republican party that was committed to native-born Protestant dominance, a commitment that translated into anti-Catholicism when it came to public policy and social influence. The princes of the Church were not fools. They encouraged among Catholics a fierce loyalty to the Democratic party, not necessarily because it was an ideal or even reliable vehicle for the Catholic vision of a just society, but because it was the political force that would defend them and their flocks.
Today, the Democratic party is becoming increasingly hostile to Catholics whose loyalty to the moral teachings of the Church threatens the cultural power of secular elites. And so were seeing a shift, and the beginnings of a new political alignment of Catholic leaders. Theyre making the same judgment call that the great leaders of the immigrant Church made: Get on the side that will defend the Church and protect the faithful, which today means the Republican party.
My advice to Catholic left is simple. Stop running interference for a Democratic party that is now bought and paid for by the secular left, the party that in all likelihood will try to push the Catholic Church and other religious voices out of the public square. Given the cultural and political realities of contemporary American society, they”all of us”can better serve the common good by working to reform the Republican party so that its a more reliable and responsible vehicle for the full range of Catholic moral and social teaching.
Its not going to be easy. The Republican party is a coalition tempted by libertarian dreams and dominated by interests that act as though keeping down the top marginal tax rate is the great moral issue of our time. But difficult is not the same as impossible.
Shocking, but not surprising. A forty-five-year-old man who goes by the name Colleen Francis is a student at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He thinks of himself as a woman rather than a man, which is why he goes into the womens locker room, where he walks around and sits in the sauna with no clothes on.
Evergreen was founded in 1967 for the purpose of providing alternative education, and ever since it has been faithfully radical, which of course means eagerly solicitous of the ever-expanding sexual revolution. But as at many colleges, childrens swim clubs use the pool. Parents naturally complained. The college swim coach kicked him out and called the police.
Uproar! Colleen is transgendered, and Washingtons anti-discrimination law identifies sexual identity as a protected category. This is not 1959 Alabama, Msr. (we need a more expansive range of honorifics these days) Francis harrumphed. We dont call the police for drinking water from the wrong fountain. The coach was forced to apologize. School officials huddled. Colleen has a right to be in the locker room.
But its a delicate issue, to say the least. The colleges solution: Put up privacy curtains in the womens locker room. The college officials arent happy about having to do this. The curtains have a certain stigmatizing effect on Msr. Francis, creating as they do the impression that somehow men who think of themselves as women dont belong showering with the high school girls swim team. But for now itll have to do.
Theres something very wrong with an approach to social equality and non-discrimination when it cant recognize Msr. Francis for what he is: a morally disoriented and psychologically disordered man. Theres every reason to treat him with kindness and understanding. But its absurd to re-describe him and his naked presence among teenage girls in terms of the civil rights movement and its goal of racial equality. Not just absurd, but more than a little nutty.
An online comment sums up the logic of the no-holds-barred gay-rights movement, which Washington has given the force of law, and the educators at Evergreen State College take for granted: Theres no evidence to suggest she committed any crime. She was simply naked in a space where nudity is allowed. The issue here is that she has a penis. However, having a penis doesnt equate to maleness. Sex and gender arent binary. These binary constructions are just that, constructions. The drama of this report comes from people not understanding complex gender identities and fearing the complexity of the human body. In other words, this is just transphobia. Nothing bad has happened here.
Welcome to the LGBT wonderland. Populated by real people rather than playing cards, its not a silly place; its a crass and vulgar world. And a selfish, callous one that has no sympathy for childhood innocence.
The Allure of Nihilism
We often find ourselves scratching our heads. How can people hold the view that were just clever pieces of meat in a universe with no meaning? Dont they find the implications of their views profoundly depressing?
Not necessarily, actually. The great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz explains why: A true opium for the people is a belief in nothingness after death”the huge solace of thinking that for our betrayals, greed, cowardice, murder we are not going to be judged.
For freedom Christ has set us free, writes St. Paul. Nihilism saves us from our bondage to sin as well”by reassuring us that there are no sins, at least none that matter in the long run, because there is no long run. Its unwise for us to underestimate the appeal of this gospel.
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The Future of Marriage