In January, at Georgetown College in Kentucky, Wendell Berry made a speech declaring his support for gay marriage. In February, I wrote a summary and analysis of Berry’s speech for First Things. In the last couple of weeks, two things have happened that I should note in order to update my account of Berry.
First, Georgetown has posted video of Berry’s entire January speech. This video also includes Scott Moore’s opening remarks, which I recommend. Professor Moore, a theologian at Baylor University, shares my puzzlement with Berry’s evolving position. But Moore also critiques with empathy and respect, with many quotations from Berry’s past work.
Second, Berry has published his argument in last week’s Christian Century (subscribers only). The first half of this essay is mostly about abortion, but the January gay marriage material has been adapted to constitute the second half.
In both January’s video and last week’s essay, Berry says that our current political impasse over gay marriage is absurd, since, he claims, liberals and conservatives are colluding in the delusion that government has authority over marriage, as if government could genuinely bestow or withhold the right to marry. Berry reasons that if our society is going to suffer this false politicization and imagine fictitious rights, then we should not withhold such rights from homosexuals.
My previous article explains why codifying and legalizing a fictitious right deepens rather than resolves the absurdity. My analysis still holds—or fails, depending on your point of view—with Berry’s publication, because his argument has not substantially changed. My article also lamented that in making his case, Berry demonizes his opponents, categorically dismissing concerns about gay marriage as bigotry. He should know better than that, but, alas, his powers of imagination seem to falter on this point.
However, the new publication sharpens Berry’s argument in at least one respect that is worth discussing.
In the January talk, Berry had mentioned that marriage is so difficult today because of the “values and priorities of our capitalist system, in which every one of us is complicit.” His meaning seemed to be that our consumptive, technocratic economy facilitates atomization. Perhaps, especially for a reader already familiar with Berry’s work, we were meant to infer that our present sexual chaos is what we should expect in an economy that creates loneliness and cultivates appetite.
In the new Christian Century article, Berry confirms and sharpens this point, saying forthrightly “we are talking about a populace in which nearly everybody is needy, greedy, envious, angry and alone.” He also adds an allied but new point about the role of government in such a society:
The collapse of families and communities—so far, more or less disguisable as “mobility” or “growth” or “progress” or “liberation”—is in fact a social catastrophe. It leaves individuals subject to no requirements or restraints except those imposed by government.
In other words, because an inhumane economy has reorganized our way of life, our relationships and subsidiary institutions have become too weak to handle difficult moral questions at the pre-political level. Our communities, which might once have incentivized sexual sobriety, have become so anemic that we are more or less forced into the absurdity of asking government to make moral judgments and to invent so many “rights.”
Berry has been writing about the economy’s toll on our community and family for decades. He is an elder statesman of American literature, not to be dismissed lightly. For the sake of present discussion, and without conceding anything on the legal side of the question, I think we can agree that the fabric of American life is weaker than it should be. Our economy may have its benefits, but it would be obtuse to deny it also has costs.
We can argue some other time about the ratio of the costs and benefits in our economy, but, for now, I would like to encourage Christians to accept the wisdom on offer in Berry’s presentation. In recent decades, thanks to philosophers like Alasdair MacIntyre and theologians like Stanley Hauerwas, Aristotelian ethics have enjoyed a revival. Among other things, this perspective reminds us that Christian morality is not supposed to be a solo sport, and that virtue flourishes when we have virtuous friends. Wendell Berry, even if he is wrong about the law, is helpful because he is similarly wise with respect to individualism and community.
Here is what Berry fails to imagine, but what his analysis helps us to explain: chastity for gays and lesbians is possible, but, like any type of chastity, it requires profound community support, or else, in our culture, it feels like pointless loneliness. We must organize family and parish life so that “lay celibate” is not a synonym for “lonely.” All due honor to the various therapists and groups already doing good work, but if we are going to counsel continence in today’s America, it is not enough to offer private therapy and support groups in the church basement.
The pro-life movement has aggressive legal strategies, but, as some have observed, it has also matured to realize that a frightened teenager needs support in order to make virtuous choices. Pro-lifers also applaud generous parents who adopt in ways that render abortion moot. What is the equivalent hospitality that the Christians should learn to offer homosexuals? How can we befriend gays and lesbians with apparently intractable orientations? All of us struggle with chastity in one way or another at some stage in our lives, so how can we discover and express solidarity amongst the many ways of patiently cultivating chastity?
As I explain in my article, I think Wendell Berry is confused about the law. I also think he is wrong to dismiss his opponents so uncharitably. But we do not need to dismiss him in the same way. He can help us pose certain questions, questions that will, in the end, make our case stronger and our imaginations more humane.