The tide is going out. Words like fornication have a musty, antiquated ring. Unwed mothers no longer suffer social stigma. Divorce has become common. The large, complicated human reality of sexual desire, mating, romance, and childrearing no longer finds itself ruled by elaborate and widely accepted social norms. And now, of course, we are in the midst of a drive toward same-sex marriage.
I’m not surprised by the latest development. In my years as an Episcopalian, I came to see that homosexuality plays in important role in the much larger phenomenon of changed social mores in the area of sex, family, and marriage. The image of two men or two women kissing gives a dramatic immediacy to the many aspects of sexual revolution: real people, genuinely felt desires, new possibilities, the courage to transgress old norms, and the hope for the lasting happiness based on love’s unifying power.
In other words, homosexuality richly suggests freedom from an old, restrictive moral order, freedom from the inhibiting power of shame, freedom from the burdens of judgment, censure, and condemnation. And it evokes the promise of existential freedom, the inner release from inhibition and fear of social censure.
The allure of existential freedom is not new. In 1859, John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, an argument for expanding the scope of human freedom beyond the realm of the political narrowly understood. In order to undertake what Mill famously called “experiments in living,” we need to be able to escape from “the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling.”
Mill was correct. We are social animals. Hardwired to want to fit in, all of us feel the soft coercion of cultural norms. As a result, a deep freedom to live as we please requires more than political rights. We need something like “social rights” that give us leverage over and against inherited culture.
To a very great extent, the cultural history of the twentieth century can be understood as the gradual acceptance of “social rights.” In America, a long dominant Protestant and bourgeois ethos eroded—and then in the 1960s collapsed. In a short decade, divorce went from something dangerously shameful to socially acceptable. Premarital sex and cohabitation followed the same trajectory. Acceptance of out-of-wedlock childbearing came more slowly, as did same-sex relationships. But the end result is now the same. Gay couples now have a social right to live their personal lives free from social censure.
Our courts tend to reflect social reality. In 1965, the Supreme Court was faced with a case (Griswold v. Connecticut) that challenged a law against contraceptives. In its majority decision, the Court identified a right to privacy. As a legal right narrowly understood, it means that the government has no business policing bedrooms. However, it has become more expansive, most notoriously to include right to abortion. Today, the right to privacy pretty much accords with Mill’s notion of freedom from “prevailing opinion and feeling.” It amounts to a right to conduct one’s personal life as one wishes, unhindered by other people’s ideas of right and wrong.
This expansive legal right has been reinforced by a new social consensus. Today, it is singularly gauche to announce that you regard someone’s marital, sexual, or parental choices to be “wrong” or “immoral.” Indeed, the very fact that I put scare quotes around “wrong” and “immoral” is telling. We are now heavily socialized to be tolerant and non-judgmental—with the exception, of course, of refusing to tolerate the intolerant and quick to judge the judgmental. But there is no contradiction. Both the tolerance and intolerance serve to provide and reinforce the now dominant culture, one that believes we should be able to live as we wish.
The controversial question of same-sex marriage is so interesting and important because it marks decisive new phase in our cultural drive toward an every deeper freedom to live as one pleases. Freedom from censure is no longer sufficient. Today, we see an emerging right to cultural approval and endorsement.
Some months ago, the Supreme Court of Connecticut handed down a decision that required the state legislature to make provisions for same sex marriage. The most interesting part of the opinion concerns the alternative of civil unions. As the Court recognizes, the artifice of “civil union” is a bloodless affair designed to remove the legal disadvantages that adhere to the private choices of same-sex lovers: matters of inheritance, health coverage, and so forth. The Connecticut judges deemed civil unions separate but unequal, and their reasoning is telling. Civil unions are unsatisfactory, because they lack the “transcendent historical, cultural, and social significance” of traditional marriage.
Gays and lesbians, by this way of thinking, have a right to a full range of cultural resources for defining their lives together, including the rich symbolic legacy of traditional norms for marriage. Privacy is not enough. It is unfair to deny public endorsement and quasi-sacred sanction to personal choices.
Therein lies the final act of the sexual revolution that has defined Western culture for the last fifty years. A traditional culture constrains and limits desire, especially the volatile complexities of sexual desire. The reasoning behind the drive toward same-sex marriage reverses the direction of authority. Our secular elite culture believes that desires—as long as they do not directly harm others—should command and shape culture. We should be able to make of marriage what we wish.
Result: the emerging postmodern Empire of Desire. In the past, the instruments of political power (e.g., the right to privacy) have been used to tear down official forms of limitation and censure so that desires can find their satisfactions. The soft power of culture has followed the same path. Our present and widespread social censure of moral censure inculcates and reinforces a non-judgmental ethos. Now we are embarking on a much more aggressive program. Everybody should have access to the cultural symbols of affirmation. Everybody has a right to feel normal.
This right to normalcy is very different from the right to privacy. Indeed, they can seem antithetical, since the former requires mobilizing the power of the state to redesign social institutions that we all must live with, while the later is focused on minimizing the role of government in people’s personal lives. Yet I think the right to normalcy follows from the logic of John Stuart Mill’s insights.
As social animals we don’t just want to be free from censure. We are not rugged individualists. We want to feel like we are part of the pack, and as everybody knows, feeling marginal can be very painful, even if everybody is smiling and nodding and uttering reassuring platitudes of acceptance. Therefore, if we really believe that human beings are most happy when they design their own lives, then eventually we will come around to the view that culture as a whole should be turned over to serve our desires. Moral traditions must be available for personal tailoring.
Thus, whatever one thinks of homosexuality, one can see that the judges in Connecticut framed the issue clearly. Same-sex marriage is about achieving a social or cultural equality for everyone, regardless of their experiments in living. It’s about our need to feel normal, and it’s about giving everybody access to institutions that confer feelings of normalcy and legitimacy. In the Empire of Desire, everybody gets ceremonies and ribbons and prizes and their fifteen minutes of fame.
But we cannot turn culture into the equivalent of a public access channel. As Aristotle explained in his account of moral formation and human flourishing, culture humanizes us by demanding our obedience. Happiness does not come from living according to your desires. It comes from desiring to live according to demanding and disciplining social norms that transcend individual desires.
The judges in Connecticut and elsewhere, as well as the larger same-sex marriage movement, are entertaining a fantasy. It is sociologically incoherent to imagine that we can both radically redefine marriage and transfer its “transcendent, cultural, and social significance” to same-sex couples, as if the former does not alter and undermine the later.
We cannot make culture serve our desires—or our ideals for that matter. We cannot turn traditional modes of moral discipline such as marriage into a ready resource for conferring feelings of normalcy or equality. To consciously modify the moral norms of moral institutions such as marriage turns them into something else: existential decoration, imaginary seriousness, or an engineered garment of meaning that cannot help but feel plastic and artificial. A bespoke “transcendent, cultural, and social significance” is ephemeral and short lived.
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and professor of theology at Creighton University.