Every Last Detail

In “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss,” the cover story for a recent issue of the Atlantic , author Liza Mundy advances a simple thesis: “By providing a new model of how two people can live together equitably, same-sex marriage could help haul matrimony more fully into the twenty-first century.” By her reckoning, marriage today is still corrupted by assumptions about gender roles. Young couples tend to think of their lives together along somewhat traditional lines. Dad volunteers as the soccer coach; mom cooks most meals. If somebody stays at home to raise the kids, it’s overwhelmingly likely to be mom. Something like “patriarchy” still endures.

Thus the supposed benefit of same-sex marriage. “Same-sex spouses, who cannot divide their labor based on preexisting gender norms, must approach marriage differently than their heterosexual peers. From sex to fighting, from child-rearing to chores, they must hammer out every last detail of domestic life without falling back on assumptions about who will do what.”

Hammer out every little detail . It’s a telling phrase that provides a crucial clue: What Mundy is really commending about same-sex marriage is not a gain in justice but rather its therapeutic potential. Exploding gender norms, it provides us with the emotional freedom to restructure our intimate relationships in accord with our individual circumstances, feelings, and needs, allowing for the fuller realization of her tacit ideal of human flourishing as self-reflective, self-directed intimate life.

Danie, a housewife in suburban Washington, D.C., admits to being “obsessed” with a lesbian couple in the neighborhood. She has put her career on hold to be a stay-at-home mom. One of the lesbian partners has done the same, but unlike Danie’s marriage, which involves a hard-charging husband who works long hours and does not “get it,” the lesbian couple negotiates and balances. They do not achieve an equal distribution of burdens, but their commitment to constantly talking through “every last detail” strikes her as much more emotionally satisfying than life lived according to inherited gender roles. They are “so relaxed, so happy, so present” in their relationship”unlike her marriage, which bumps along in accord with traditional norms that are presumed rather than negotiated, unspoken rather than talked about.

Gay men also negotiate, Mundy reports, but about sex rather than household duties. Their sexual unions are more likely to be open than are heterosexual ones (or lesbian ones). The stability of their partnerships stems from negotiating flexible rules about sexual loyalty, tending toward “monagamish” arrangements, which means pretty much exclusive, but not always.

Mundy’s a bit squeamish about having gay marriage teach us all to be more accommodating to the often powerful male desire for sexual adventure, recognizing that women might come out losers (as they already have in the date-then-fornicate culture of the unmarried). But she focuses on what she takes to be the obvious and great good: frank discussion about sex. She reports the judgment of an expert: “In some ways, same-sex couples are healthier”they tend to have these negotiations more.”

As is the case with childrearing and career, so it is with sex. The great good comes from talking, clarifying what one needs and wants, brokering deals rather than making assumptions and relying on preestablished norms. We’re happiest when we’ve analyzed and negotiated our way to an entirely personal and individualized intimate life.

There’s a great deal to say about the gauzy upper-middle-class optimism of “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss.” Commenting on Public Discourse , Mark Regnerus observes that lesbian couples report higher degrees of satisfaction with their relationships but also break up more frequently than heterosexual couples. It’s good”until it’s not. He also points out that mainstreaming gay marriage may give wider legitimacy to a “monogamish” vision of fidelity, something heterosexual men are very likely to embrace as a “reform” of traditional marriage. So much for the end of patriarchy.

However self-deceived Mundy may be about the coming bliss, she’s surely right about the therapeutic significance of legalizing and normalizing same-sex marriage. It calls into question the authority of traditional norms in a particularly powerful way. As an Episcopal priest Mundy cites puts it, the old approach to marriage is based in “a doctrine of creation and procreation,” which means preexisting, nonoptional rules, norms, and standards. Now gay marriage is teaching us that marriage is “a kind of free coming-together of two people to live out their lives.” Hallelujah.

This presumed benefit of same-sex marriage reflects a widespread assumption about human flourishing. Rules hinder personal development, especially rules about the intimate realities of life. Genuine human flourishing begins with close examination of one’s own unique desires and then an endless set of negotiations with others”“a kind of free coming-together.” The young legal associate finds her own personal “comfort zone” as she balances relationships with career goals. A young couple presumes very little about male and female roles in marriage, being sure to have many deep discussions about their needs and feelings. Disenchanted old norms exercise little power; the field is open for new designs for living.

Good news for the privileged who are well trained in bespoke living”perhaps. But almost certainly bad news for most. Only a powerful, privileged person who is conveniently self-deceived can imagine that most people most of the time don’t need “stereotypes,” whatever their source, to navigate through life. It takes a fairly high degree of verbal aptitude and ample leisure to play well the game of “free coming-together.”

Most of us don’t play the game well, because we can’t penetrate very far into the fog of our inner lives and misjudge what we “really want.” We’re too hot-headed or depressed or inarticulate or distracted or tired or drunk or thick-skulled to fruitfully negotiate with our “partner.” When we must carefully and perpetually attend to “every little detail” of life, we flounder and falter.

There was a time when being a faithful husband or a devoted mother was sufficient to earn self-respect and even honor in one’s community. These were not inaccessible ideals. Fidelity, devotion, and other traditional virtues involve disciplines of the soul that require neither intelligence, nor education, nor wealth, nor leisure. By contrast, now I can be “monogamish” and a moral success as long as I’m articulate about how I negotiate the arrangements with my “partner””or can discourse on the social construction of marriage and the repressive character of traditional morality”or can cite sociobiological arguments about male sexual needs.

This redefinition of human excellence is extraordinarily convenient for the educated and powerful today, who are highly rewarded in our postindustrial society for their verbal skills and ability to manipulate symbols in fresh, new ways. In Mundy’s moral universe, the same skills make them virtuous almost automatically. The most admirable people”worthy of “obsession””are those who can talk about themselves in psychologically nuanced ways, know the ritualized verbal patterns of emotional “sharing” and negotiation, and have the postmodern stock phrases on hand.

The New Orthodoxy

I wasn’t surprised by the recent Supreme Court decisions about same-sex marriage. We have a new consensus in America: Declining to redefine marriage is hateful, bigoted, and irrational. As Michael Kinsley pointed out in the New Republic , in liberal establishment circles, “you may favor raising taxes on the rich, increasing support for the poor, nurturing the planet, and repealing Section 14(b) of the Taft-Hartley Act, but if you don’t support gay marriage, you’re out of the club.”

You don’t have to be a constitutional lawyer to see this new orthodoxy at work in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in U.S. v. Windsor . He embraces “a new perspective, a new insight” about the inherent dignity of homosexual sex and marriage. Disagree? He takes it as self-evident that the legislation defining marriage as between a man and a woman was motivated by a “bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group.” The law’s purpose, he assumes, is to “demean,” “disparage,” and “degrade.” Put simply: Only naked bigotry can explain resistance to the new consensus. Of course we can’t have bigotry. Therefore, DOMA must be struck down. Q.E.D.

I’ll leave it to the law professors to work out the details of Kennedy’s legal reasoning and to integrate it into established constitutional doctrine. But one argument I must rule out in advance. Many constitutional theorists justify the occasional suspension of democratic principle as necessary in order to protect unpopular minorities whose rights are trampled by unsympathetic majorities. They’ll want to read Windsor in this way.

It’s an unpersuasive line of reasoning. In point of fact, the Court does not protect unpopular minorities and never has, or at least not those whom established opinion regards as either too dangerous or too politically costly to protect. The Court did nothing to block congressional assaults on Mormonism in the nineteenth century, actions that culminated in the Edmunds-Tucker Act of 1887, which dissolved the LDS Church and authorized the United States government to confiscate its property. Nor did it prevent the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. For decades it offered no relief to black Americans.

The same goes for homosexual people. In earlier years there were gays and lesbians living fugitive, difficult lives, because for all sorts of reasons the established consensus wasn’t interested in protecting them. That’s the obvious reason the Court ignored their persecution.

But the consensus has changed. Gays and lesbians have high status in popular culture and enjoy a great deal of solicitude from many quarters, so much so that the most established and powerful institutions in our society are ready and willing to punish those who have anything negative to say. Most Fortune 500 companies, universities, and other establishment institutions endorse gay rights to one degree or another. The American military is now accommodating itself, a clear sign that homosexuals are the very opposite of a vulnerable, unpopular minority today. It’s this social change that provides the real explanation of the outcome of Windsor , not a high-minded principle.

Some conservative commentators have emphasized the limits of the Windsor decision, pointing out that the Court did not establish a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. But as Justice Antonin Scalia observes in his minority opinion, it won’t take much to transform Kennedy’s reasoning into a justification for a broad constitutional right for homosexual couples to marry, a goal the gay-rights movement has in view.

It is very likely that Scalia’s prophecy will be fulfilled. The Constitution is not infinitely malleable, but it flexes nicely, especially when the Court feels the need to adjust to the changing consensus of “the club.” Establishment opinion is consolidating around a new orthodoxy concerning sex, children, marriage, and family, and to a great extent ordinary Americans either agree or”and this is perhaps even more important”acquiesce. Unless that consensus changes or voters begin to have second thoughts about establishment leadership, it’s only a matter of time before the engine of the law will be redirected accordingly.

Let’s hope trends don’t continue unchanged, for the growing power of the new orthodoxy bodes ill for religious liberty. History suggests that when elite opinion finds communities or fraternities of opinion dangerous and threatening, it withdraws protections and endorses legal burdens. This was certainly true for Mormons in the nineteenth century, and to a lesser extent for Catholics as well. It was true for communists at various points during the twentieth century.

Today our new orthodoxy regards traditional sexual morality as an assault on human dignity: bigotry, discrimination, a “bare desire to harm.” The establishment institutions that represent this new orthodoxy will do their best to weaken and sideline those who teach the old orthodoxy. The tables are turning. By my reckoning, we’re now entering into the role of an unpopular minority, one that the Court may not be that interested in protecting. Which is why I also won’t be surprised if the Court’s majority doesn’t go our way in the contraceptive mandate cases and the coming wave of litigation that uses the “public accommodation” doctrine of civil rights law to compel broad public acceptance of gay rights.

Kinsley notes that the new consensus about homosexuality and marriage has arrived with remarkable speed. A decade ago, very few politicians supported gay marriage. Now they’re stampeding to endorse it. That gives it a frightening momentum, but it also makes it immature, unstable, and only partially formed. We’re a very substantial, articulate, and powerful minority capable of challenging the new orthodoxy on many fronts. Good legal advocacy can secure important protections for religious liberty. The acquiescence of many ordinary voters to what is now established opinion about sex and marriage can be redirected by astute political action. And most important of all, we have a rich, profound, and sophisticated tradition of reflection on the true nature and purposes of sex and marriage, a tradition that can influence thoughtful people who intuitively sense the inadequacies of our new orthodoxy.

So count me optimistic in my pessimism.

The Possibility of Holiness

The Solemnity of the Assumption is one of my favorites. It celebrates the end of the Virgin Mary’s life, when she was assumed body and soul into heaven. Defined by Pope Pius XII in 1950, it’s the last of the great Tridentine dogmas that give modern Catholicism its distinctive character”an exclamation point, as it were, to purgatory, the Immaculate Conception of Mary, and papal infallibility.

After the Reformation, Catholics were concerned that Protestants put forward a purely forensic account of salvation. To use Luther’s language, the righteousness of the faithful is “alien” and “imputed.” The concern at the Council of Trent was that this way of thinking doesn’t require us to be sanctified or purified. Put simply, Catholics thought that salvation as Protestants understood it wasn’t real enough.

Against what it saw as Protestant “legalism” (e.g., the sufficiency of God’s pronouncing us righteous in Christ), the Council of Trent”and the Church after Trent”took up the side of the gospel that emphasizes real, inward purification: “Faith without works is dead,” “Be perfect as my Father in heaven is perfect.” (Another side reinforces typically Protestant formulations: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith.”)

The doctrine of purgatory provides the obvious example. At the time of death, few faithful Christians seem remotely ready to enter heaven. The solution is purgatory, a time and place for us to undergo the purifications necessary to rid us of the stain of the sins that, although truly forgiven, nonetheless deform our souls.

Purgatory is a theological bridge, as it were, that allows us to walk from our present life of imperfect participation in Christ to a future life of perfect, spotless, sinless participation in Christ: “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” It’s an essentially optimistic doctrine: We really can be cleansed of the stain of sin.

The same really can optimism characterizes the Marian doctrines. Although the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary is formulated in a technical way that depends on St. Augustine’s explanation of the transmission of original sin, its fundamental import can be stated quite succinctly: With God’s grace, sinless perfection is a human, bodily, this-worldly possibility. There’s nothing about being human”nothing about being conceived, gestated, born, developing as a child and adolescent, and having a body, instincts, emotions, and so forth”that stands in the way of spotless righteousness. It’s our sinfulness that makes us sinful, not our created nature.

The doctrine of the Assumption intensifies the really can optimism of modern Catholicism. The Blessed Virgin is brought into the fellowship of heaven, body and soul. She arrives as a human being, not a disembodied spirit. This reminds us that there is nothing about being human that prevents us from attaining (albeit in an imperfect and partial way) what she enjoyed perfectly: supernatural life with God”that is to say, holiness. Again, the point is simple: The very highest things”even divine things radiant with holiness”are, with God’s grace, within our reach. This Marian-inspired optimism led Pope John Paul II to emphasize the universal call to holiness.

Purgatory and the Marian dogmas testify to the genius of Tridentine Catholicism, which was so resoundingly reaffirmed at Vatican II. The high things of God are far, far above the often sordid reality of our lives. Even the slenderest margin of genuine holiness seems unattainable, impossible. This is all true, but we should not despair. The human condition is not a curse, far from it. We are made for righteousness, not sin; life, not death. When it comes to our innermost spiritual ambitions and highest religious hopes, with God’s grace we really can .

Death’s Dark Visits

Robert Bellah’s death at the end of July from complications after heart surgery saddened me a great deal. At eighty-six, he was not a young man, but his vigorous, not to say combative, performance last December at the First Things seminar dedicated to his last book was very lively.

The seminar affected me deeply. In the contest between Bob’s inclusive pluralism and the Christian triumphalism so clearly represented by Paul Griffiths, both at the seminar and in our pages, I side with Paul. But I do so with a deeper sense of the difficulty men and women of faith face. How can abandoning ourselves to the jealous God of Israel humanize not only us in our faith but even the world in its unbelief? I’m very grateful to Bob for helping me see more clearly where I stand.

Jean Bethke Elshtain died in August. It was not a surprise. She was suffering from a debilitating heart condition. But it was nevertheless a shock, as the sharp blow of death so often is, even when we see it coming.

A longtime member of our advisory council, Jean was one of the indispensable voices of sanity in recent decades. She cared deeply about the common good, recognizing that faith, family, and patriotic solidarity ennoble the lives of ordinary people. So she defended those loves, often setting herself against the academic establishment and its dissolving ideologies. It requires determination and courage, both of which Jean had in very, very large measures.

There’s an ancient homily in which Jesus comes to Adam and Eve in the depths of hell, rousing them and announcing, “You were not made for death!” If ever a person testified to that truth in her life, it was Jean. She was a vital presence. Small in stature, she could fill a room. She pushed herself to testify to the truth in season and out. She pushed us all. We’ll miss her very much.

From the Editor’s Desk

Our new class of junior fellows began their year on August 1. Tristyn Bloom, a recent Yale graduate, has been with us as an intern since last winter. She’s joined by David Nolan (Williams College), Barbara McClay (St. John’s College), and Sandra Laguerta (Notre Dame). Sandra’s fellowship is being underwritten by the Collegiate Network, an important program of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute that supports conservative college newspapers and journalistic internships for gifted young writers after graduation. This is a talented group already making valuable contributions to our work. I’m delighted to have them on the team.

This year’s Erasmus Lecture will be delivered by Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of Great Britain. His title: “On Creative Minorities.” The lecture will be delivered on Monday evening, October 21. Give us a call or email ft@firstthings.com and we’ll send you free tickets.

We also sponsor seminars, offer lectures, and host art openings at our New York office. This fall’s busy ­schedule includes talks by Samuel Gregg of the Acton Institute (September 11), First Things regular David Hart (October 8), Maciej Zi?ba, O.P. (November 11), and Gregory Thornbury, the new president of the King’s College (December 3). With the Thomistic Institute we’ll host a conference on philosophical realism at the Catholic Center of New York University, November 9.

If you want timely notices about these events, please contact us at ft@firstthings.com . We’ll send our regular best-of-the-web digests and invitations to all our events.

Articles by R. R. Reno

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