Former First Things editor Joseph Bottum’s Commonweal essay, “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same Sex Marriage,” left me puzzled at first. I am pretty certain neither friends nor opponents can really grasp quite what he is after with only one reading. Blame him for that.
I’m telling him this as a friend. No, really. Jody is a friend, though unquestionably a maddening one. It works out okay, though, because in the short time we worked together, I too was his pain in the neck.
The essay meanders along a crooked trail, though not in a bloated, interminable sense (as more than one critic claims). We do eventually reach a conclusion, yet it is not quite what the subtitle (agreed to by the author) promises. Jody endorses no case for same-sex marriage. He merely notes that it exists as a matter of law in numerous states. The debate is over and it is here to stay.
Jody starts in Gramercy Park with a gay friend. Then he takes us gamboling through natural law, priest sex scandals, Catholic opposition to state-sanctioned same-sex marriage, then back to his gay friend and his friend’s transformation from Republican to functional Democrat, with an angry anti-Catholicism to go with it.
Yet we are not done. Invoking Max Weber, Bottum laments the “disenchantment” of culture. Weber argued that Enlightenment rationalism stripped mysticism, wonder, and God from Western life. Once we believed that “God is watching us” but no longer. We are indeed become disenchanted. What we see in the movement for same-sex marriage, Jody told me, is “modernity’s final campaign to eliminate the last elements of Christendom.”
When we get to the end of the essay—see, I said there was a conclusion—there is no ringing endorsement of same-sex marriage, there’s not even a half-hearted one. He is announcing what we already know: It is here. Now, he says, maybe traditional Christians, Catholics particularly, ought to back out of the public eye on this question and spend our credit elsewhere. That is hardly an endorsement of gay marriage.
We come only to his question. Can we “take same-sex advocates at their word, accepting that they really seek the marriages they say they desire” and back away from the dispute? Jody believes we can. He doesn’t “think that same-sex marriage is going to be the excuse America uses to go after its Catholic citizens.” He concedes a sliver of the public square, and that is all.
In a way, Bottum doesn’t go far enough for me. I think we should give up more than a sliver. The vestiges of Christendom and America’s Protestant establishment are languishing, and will not soon be rebuilt. Christianity can no longer expect a friendly reception. Open hostility to Christianity is, well, open, especially to those Christians who have not fallen into the Gnostic revisions of mainline Protestants or hyper-progressive Catholics.
The non-Gnostic churches should stage a strategic retreat from a disenchanted public square and voluntarily return many of secular society’s gifts to Christendom. Stop being registrars for state marriages, surrender property tax exemptions, give up the double-dip tax privilege that grants clergy a non-taxable housing allowance while letting them also claim a mortgage deduction, drop military ranks for chaplains in the armed forces. I can think of some other things.
If we are in the final stages of a disenchanted Christendom, fine. Caesar has all the marbles, anyway. As David Goldman puts it, like the Jews, Christians must learn how to be a minority. Let the churches press the gospel, and live or die by that.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew's Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.