I owe a lot to Maggie Gallagher. I’ve only met her once, and that was brief. But I was glad that it gave me the chance to tell her that The Abolition of Marriage hit me like a bolt of lightning, not so much a book as a life-changing event. It revolutionized my thinking about this whole issue – and many others as well, because many of the key lessons she taught me on marriage were transferrable to other major public controversies.
Now I owe her again, because her essay on David Blankenhorn hit me in much the same way. (If you haven’t read it yet, drop whatever you’re doing and read it. We’ll wait.)
I come to this conversation as a topical “insider” but a relational “outsider.” I’ve spent a lot of time reading and thinking about the marriage issue, thanks to Maggie Gallagher more than anyone else. Yet I don’t know her, nor Blankenhorn, nor many of the other personalities involved in this discussion. So Gallagher’s essay on Blankenhorn, which is so highly relational, was a real window into a new world for me.
Yet the big lesson at the end of her essay is not about personalities. It sums up, better than I have yet managed to do, some of the issues I’ve been wrestling with as I struggle with the same dilemmas she and Blankenhorn have both clearly wrestled with.
Blankenhorn says “we have to live together.” Gallagher replies:
Yes we do. But here’s what I want to say to David and to you: a comity that is bought by surrendering principle is submission, not comity at all. The truth about something as important as marriage cannot be the price we pay to live with each other. The challenge of our time—and it is a deep challenge, not an easy one—is to find new ways to combine truth and love. Giving up marriage is too high a price to pay. And it is not the last good we will be asked to surrender, unless we find the courage to stand.
Yes, this is exactly right. But the other side is saying the exact same thing.
I was raised with conventional views on homosexuality – it’s exactly the same, just another way of loving, etc. It took a long time for me to change my thinking. And when I finally did, I lost one of my closest friends in the world. In her mind, I had become her enemy. She felt it would be morally wrong for her to continue to be on good terms with me if I could no longer affirm her lifestyle. So she cut me off, and we haven’t spoken since. It still breaks my heart.
Now, why did one of my closest friends in the world feel like her conscience required her to cut me off? Because a comity that is bought by surrendering principle is submission, not comity at all. The truth about something as important as marriage cannot be the price we pay to live with each other. Giving up marriage is too high a price to pay. And it is not the last good we will be asked to surrender, unless we find the courage to stand.
But, you will reply, I wasn’t trying to force her to affirm my views. True enough, but I did (and still do) support a policy that would deny her a society constructed in such a way as to give her what she thought justice demanded. And this denial was (and still is) couched always and everywhere in terms of a “war” in which each side is fighting to defeat and subjugate the other. Within that social framework, I was in fact her enemy.
Gallagher talks about the “deinstitutionalization” of marriage; that idea was what hit me like lightning back when I read The Abolition of Marriage. But there has also been an institutionalization of enmity.
If “winning” means the preferences of our cultural subgroup are enacted as policy, there is no hope for victory in the culture war – for either side. We will not submit because our consciences don’t permit it, neither will they for the same reason, and there is no serious prospect of either side eliminating the other. As long as we aim for a “victory” in terms of dominance for our cultural subgroup, the war will grind on. All we will accomplish is the fragmentation of society, the hollowing out of what used to be a real moral consensus and shared culture across religious divisions, and the ongoing destruction of the relational capital that might provide a basis for “living together.”
Gallagher says, “the challenge of our time—and it is a deep challenge, not an easy one—is to find new ways to combine truth and love.” Truer words were never spoken. If we want to rise to them, we have to rethink what counts as victory in the culture war. Victory means a truce we can all live with. We have to find a way to live together that doesn’t require either side to sacrifice its conscience.
I am not giving up the fight against gay marriage. I am with Gallagher, not Blankenhorn. Opposite-sex marriage is a permanent reality grounded in human nature, however various its legal expressions have been through the years; same-sex “marriage” is not. And we don’t do anyone any favors by helping them live in a false reality.
In fact, not knowing Blankenhorn personally and having no relational investment to restrain me, I can say something that perhaps others can’t – there is something decidedly Stalinist-show-trialish about what Blankenhorn has written. He himself admits – insists – he has not changed his mind. Yet he adopts a different position in order to please the powers that (apparently) rule him. I don’t know the man, and I don’t know how it seems to anyone else, that comes across to me as decidedly creepy. It’s like the “workers of the world unite!” sign in the Prague shop window that Vaclav Havel writes about in “The Power of the Powerless.” The real message of the sign is not that the workers of the world should unite; the real message is “I am afraid and therefore unquestioningly obedient.” Now re-read Gallagher’s final sentence with that in mind.
But I do think it’s time to stop thinking about winning a war. Distinctly conservative religious subcultures, even if they all banded together (which itself is a difficult undertaking) would probably account for no more than a third of the U.S. population. And even if we had a majority, our beliefs give us no right to rule our neighbors. “Man, who made me a judge or arbitrator over you?” (Luke 12:14)
Policy needs to be based on a moral conesnsus that is shared across the religious subgroups of a society; otherwise we cease to be a free people. There is plenty of evidence that Americans beyond the conservative religious ghetto know what makes for a good life, in natural human terms: marriage, work, church and civic involvement. The objective conditions for moral consensus are there. If the social elites would just “preach what they practice,” in Charles Murray’s terms, the culture would right itself.
This outcome would not be seen to be a victory for conservative religious subgroups. Indeed, it would probably be framed in terms that were sometimes unwelcoming to us. The elites would need to reassure themselves that when they preach marriage, work, church and civics, they are not thereby agreeing to be ruled by a bunch of crazies. Yet this outcome would give us what we claim to want - a culture that affirms the basic structures of decent human life. Wouldn’t that be a victory worth having?