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Exporting Gay Rights

It was a telling speech, Hillary Clinton’s address to the United Nations Human Rights Council in recognition of International Human Rights Day. The secretary of state drew attention to the brutal treatment of homosexual people around the world: lesbians raped by groups of men, gay men murdered after public rallies denouncing homosexuality, and other instances in which homosexuals (or those simply suspected of homosexuality) are “arrested, beaten, terrorized, even executed.” There is indeed plenty to protest against, and Article 5 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides an explicit reason to do so: “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.”

Enforcing the existing standards of the Universal Declaration, however, was not the Obama administration’s goal. “Gay rights,” Clinton declared, “are human rights.” Being a homosexual is “like being a woman, like being a racial, religious, tribal minority,” and therefore deserves the same affirmative protection that other minorities should receive. As the speech, and a White House memorandum released the same day, made clear, the administration wants to enroll sexual liberation in the larger human-rights movement.

Clinton observed that the “obstacles standing in the way of protecting the human rights of LGBT people rest on deeply held personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs.” And, “People cite religious or cultural values as a reason to violate or not to protect the human rights of LGBT citizens.” She is right to suggest that our convictions often become excuses for exercising our perverse love of violence. Moral judgments focus the fury of those who inflict gruesome public punishment, and they incite vigilante mobs that track down transgressors. Women are stoned for adultery or become victims of honor killings at least in part because their real or imagined transgressions evoke moral horror. The same is undoubtedly true of violence against homosexuals.

There are ways to humanize our moral horror and reduce its capacity to lead to violence and injustice. Christianity urges us to adopt the disposition of charity or love that allows us to see and affirm the intrinsic dignity of the human person, an inviolable dignity we should not deny, no matter how we feel about the person’s actions. Hate the sin; love the sinner. It’s a formulation much mocked by gay activists, but drawing a distinction between transgression and the essential humanity of the transgressor limits our moral horror, focusing it on actions rather than persons.

In the early modern period, a secular and pragmatic way of thinking largely superseded religious rationales as a way of moderating the blows of moral judgment. Liberals encouraged the virtue of tolerance, a disposition that involves enduring what one objects to. After all, perhaps there’s not a lot we can do about what we find morally repugnant, and therefore we have to live with it. Or maybe we see that punishing or denouncing would do more harm than good. Or we recognize that when it comes to objectionable behavior our own lives are not exactly spotless. So we repress our impulse to denounce and punish: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

The contemporary liberal solution is quite different, involving the typically modern desire to get at “root causes” and promote “systemic change.” We are often told that we must overcome the obstacles that Clinton identifies”“deeply held personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs””not by rooting them in the humane and humanizing elements of these beliefs, as the Christian way of charity seeks to do, nor even by limiting or moderating them with pragmatic considerations that encourage tolerance, but by eliminating them.

Humanizing or moderating moral horror is not easy to do, and modern liberalism imagines it to be much simpler to deny the moral horror in the first place. This helps explains the long-term ambition of gay activists to get rid of the cultural and religious basis for thinking that homosexuality is immoral, a goal that requires vigorous censorship and reeducation, as we see in the major media, the universities, and the other institutions controlled by contemporary liberals.

Am I reading too much into the speech? I don’t think so. In promoting gay rights, Clinton turns to the usual analogies. “This is not unlike the justification offered for violent practices toward women like honor killings, widow burnings, or female genital mutilation.” And then for good measure she points out that people have given religious justifications for slavery as well.

The supposed forces of progress need not worry: “In each of these cases, we have come to learn that no practice or tradition trumps the human rights that belong to all of us.” Clinton is confident that those whom she suggests are barbaric, irrational bigots and the cultural and religious traditions they represent will be defeated by enlightened views about sex. “As it has happened so many times before, opinion will converge once again with the truth, the immutable truth, that all persons are created free and equal in dignity and rights.” Sexual liberation owns the future, and so Clinton concludes with one of the most chillingly cruel slogans of modern ideology: “Let us be on the right side of history.”

In recent decades international institutions have emerged, some of them official bodies of the United Nations and others part of a large network of nongovernmental agencies that are funded by Western governments. These institutions, along with significant portions of our own diplomatic bureaucracy, as well as those in other Western countries, have largely adopted human rights as their rationale and source of legitimacy. This complex, interlocking network is part of the “soft power” that many liberals believe should supersede the “hard power” of military force. The long-term hope is that legal adjudication will replace force and intimidation as the motor of global politics.

As Clinton’s speech and an accompanying memorandum make clear, the Obama White House wants to add gay rights to the exercise of America’s “soft power.” The State Department will use aid recipients’ treatment of homosexuals to evaluate their suitability for aid, and will be setting aside $3 million to fund NGOs that fight for gay rights.

The change is not surprising. Guaranteeing sexual liberation”unrestricted abortion, sex education, easily accessible and subsidized contraception, and gay rights”has become one of the major commitments of the Democratic party, and it is natural for a political party to shape policies in accord with its core commitments. Yet in this instance I’m struck by the arrogance.

In the first place, and unlike the main elements of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, sexual liberation has no roots in the traditional cultures and religious traditions that shape the lives of the vast majority of people in the world. The world’s religious traditions are deeply complex, and it is true that they have endorsed many inhuman practices. Nonetheless, one can find plenty of Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and other traditional sources for condemning widow burning or for that matter slavery, as Andrew Wilson’s recent essay on the early sixteenth-century Dominican friar Antonio de Montesinos reminded us (“With What Right and What Justice?” December 2011).

But sexual liberation, especially homosexual liberation? It’s an imperative that seems not to have occurred to anyone until the emergence of a secular culture in the West. For this reason”and again unlike most of the rest of the human rights project”making sexual liberation and gay rights part of the “global consensus” that Clinton views as the inevitable direction of history will require a very aggressive campaign of cultural imperialism against traditional cultures and religions.

Some Africans certainly think so. Last October, British Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech not unlike Hillary Clinton’s, suggesting that his nation’s foreign aid would be cut to countries that did not recognize gay rights. The Nigerian response was to criminalize same-sex marriage and homosexual cohabitation. As Senator Ahmed Lawan put it: “This is to be pro-active so no one catches us unaware.”

In the second place, when Jimmy Carter made human rights an explicit priority in foreign policy, he was appealing to moral principles that the overwhelming majority of Americans have endorsed for a very long time. This is not the case with gay rights. The majority of Americans have many of the “deeply held personal, political, cultural, and religious beliefs” that are obstacles to the progressive goal of turning the sexual revolution of the 1960s into personal civil rights protected and advanced by the state. Under normal conditions, this fact would give our leaders pause. We have a long tradition of conducting American foreign policy on the basis of a broad national consensus that does not shift from party to party. Apparently the Obama White House does not think much of this long tradition, which it will not allow to stand in the way of gay rights.

As Urvashi Vaid, former executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and now director of a gender and sexuality program at Columbia Law School, observed about Clinton’s speech and the new Obama White House policies: “This is a breakthrough moment, achieved by a small group of U.S. activists and allies who have been working quietly to get the government here.” Yes, that sounds about right: a self-appointed progressive vanguard “working quietly” to overcome what Richard Socarides, a former advisor to Bill Clinton, described in his own reaction to Hillary Clinton’s speech as “the right-wing craziness we have here.”

So there we have American liberalism in a nutshell. Vaid and Socarides are not marginal people. On the contrary, they are members of the liberal elite that imagines itself the enlightened governors of the morally benighted. Americans have largely adopted a live-and-let-live attitude to sexual morality, but there is no domestic consensus about gay rights, in large part because Americans have a great deal of experience with liberal arrogance and recognize the authoritarian implications of Hillary Clinton’s talk of “obstacles.” This lack of consensus gives no pause. The White House is turning one of the most divisive issues in our current domestic battle over culture into a principle guiding the American effort to influence and shape culture throughout the world. Senator Lawan and his Nigerian colleagues are wise to be wary, very wary.

Learning to Love

One hardly expects a Pulitzer Prize“winning novelist to treat religious faith in a sympathetic and sophisticated way, but Jeffrey Eugenides has written the unexpected. The Marriage Plot focuses on a small cast of characters, all students at Brown University in the early 1980s. Unlike Tom Wolfe’s cartoonish confection I Am Charlotte Simmons , Eugenides provides a far more emotionally accurate picture of the undergraduate lives of talented, morally disoriented college students. The atmosphere is decidedly post-sixties, which means libidinally liberated. But the main characters are spiritually anguished in all sorts of ways, each trying to attain a margin of maturity in a culture that provides them little help. They don’t want to be forever young.

Madeleine Hanna is an athletic, WASPy English major whose favorite authors are Jane Austen and George Eliot and who very much wants to be in love but lacks the emotional range and maturity to do so. Early in her years at Brown, she meets Mitchell Grammaticus. In his young imagination Madeleine becomes the perfect girl after whom he both lusts and wishes very much to love and marry. But she offers no encouragement. In her final semester, she falls under the charismatic spell of Leonard Bankhead, a handsome and brilliant fellow senior who crashes into depression just before graduation. Madeleine, confusing her intense desire to love with love itself, draws still closer to him, moving in with him after graduation. The two become more and more impossible as a couple, and the reader cannot help but feel a certain sympathetic agony when they all too believably but disastrously decide to get married.

Mitchell goes his own way. Reading Thomas Merton, St. John of the Cross, and Teresa of Avila as an undergraduate, he became increasingly aware of his own religious interests and desires. With vague but increasingly powerful spiritual impulses at work in his soul, he heads off for a postgraduate year of vagabonding in Europe and then India. In Athens he meets a born-again Christian. After talking with her he goes to the Acropolis, and there, falling down on his knees, he asks God for the power to speak in tongues. The divine does not give him so grand an outward sign, but he receives a quieter inward grace: a profound sense of how deeply he wishes to believe in God.

In Calcutta, he volunteers to work in one of the hospices run by Mother Teresa and after a few weeks of work is confronted by a dying man who has soiled his trousers and bed sheets. Unlike the volunteer from Arizona who says, “This is the body of Christ” while washing the dying, he cannot come to the man’s aid. He leaves, “knowing that he would regret this moment for a long time, maybe for the rest of his life.” His humiliating failure destroys the spiritual pride that has always been close to the surface of his youthful spiritual experiments.

After his year abroad, Mitchell meets the newly married Leonard and Madeleine at a party in New York City. The psychologically disintegrating Leonard seems to see what Madeleine needs, and he deserts her, sparing her the consequences of her illusions of love. Madeleine then turns to Mitchell for support. The way seems clear for a happy ending: The guy gets the girl he always dreamed of marrying, and the girl gets a guy who is a lot more stable and reliable.

But Eugenides draws this novel to a close with a more serious marriage plot. Mitchell returns with Madeleine to her parents’ house in a remote, leafy suburb. There she mourns her failed marriage. Over the course of the summer he goes to the Quaker meeting house on Sundays to sit in silence while others are moved by the Holy Spirit to speak.

At the end of August, on a Saturday night, Madeleine comes to his room, and they make love. The next morning, buoyed by bliss, Mitchell goes to the Quaker meeting, and for the first time all summer”for the first time in his life”the still, small voice speaks to him. As is nearly always the case for all of us who are captive to the glamorous fantasies of our egos, “it was saying things he didn’t want to hear.” Moved to tears, Mitchell realizes that it’s not just men who use women; women can use men. The night before, “Madeleine hadn’t been coming to him; she’d only been leaving [Leonard].”

What could God possibly have in mind by bringing to tears this young man who seemed to have found happiness? The answer, Eugenides suggests, involves the imitation of Christ. This final humiliation, which strips away his adolescent dream of marrying Madeleine, prepares Mitchell for his first adult act of love. Returning to the home of Madeleine and her parents, he does not press his long-sought claim to her heart. Instead, with graceful indirection he provides her with the opportunity to say she does not love him. Buffeted by his own spiritual poverty and in possession of painful self-knowledge, Mitchell Grammaticus lets go of his romantic fantasy, and in so doing he gives Madeleine, who is far behind him on love’s difficult road, the opportunity to begin to do the same.

For a long time transgression has been the calling card of the serious artist. Not so for Jeffrey Eugenides. The Marriage Plot has some salacious moments, but this is not a novel that celebrates transgression, nor is it designed to shock the bourgeoisie (or reassure them, as Tom Wolfe sometimes does). Instead, in this remarkable novel Eugenides wonders how the post-sixties generation”his generation and mine”can learn to move beyond pleasure and self-regard to love. His answer seems to be this: not by way of critique or irony, and certainly not through deconstruction, but instead by way of religious faith and spiritual discipline.

Praying the New Mass

I’m still replying, “And also with you,” when I should be saying, “And with your spirit.” The new translation of the Mass introduced at the beginning of Advent has disrupted long-ingrained verbal habits. Like a startled old dog by a warm fireplace, I’m still circling around and pawing at the familiar blanket so that I can settle back into my comfortable state of habitual prayer.

But it won’t be quite the same, which is undoubtedly a good thing. For example, at the end of the Eucharistic prayers the priest elevates the host”“Behold the Lamb of God””and reminds the congregation that it is a great blessing to be invited to “the supper of the Lamb.” The old translation had the laity responding, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed”” fitting words of humility and trust in God’s grace, but ones that suppressed the scriptural context. The new translation restores it: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.”

The words come from the Gospel of Matthew. As Jesus entered Capernaum, a centurion asks him to heal his servant, whom he has left in his house in perilous condition. Jesus responds directly: “I will come and heal him.” The centurion recoils in horror, saying, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; but only say the word, and my servant will be healed.”

Drawing an analogy to his own ability to command others to do his will, the centurion trusts in the effective authority of Jesus’ commanding words. Jesus certainly does not need to come into the unclean home of a Gentile soldier. As the episode ends, the centurion’s faith is vindicated. Jesus does not go to see the servant; instead, he says the word”“Go; be it done for you as you have believed””and indeed the servant is healed.

One consequence of regular liturgical prayer is that certain words and images get imprinted on our souls, and once there they can enliven and “scripturalize,” as it were, our sometimes too abstract ideas about faith. The old translation edited out the concreteness of the centurion’s response to Jesus’ promise to come to his house. Now, however, “under my roof” is becoming a habit of my tongue and eventually a habit of my mind, one that encourages me to think more concretely of my participation in the Mass along the lines of the story of the centurion. Now I see that when I present myself before the priest to receive the body and blood of Christ I am marching up to Jesus and brazenly inviting him “under my roof.”

In the past I fear that I took my reception of the body and blood of Christ too lightly, too casually. I was encouraged, perhaps, by the deliberate familiarity of the old down-style translation of the Mass, but my own spiritual laziness was the main cause. Now, with “under my roof” on my lips, I see that my participation in the Eucharist is as brash and perilous as if I were a peasant going up to my king and inviting him to a dinner party in my home, one that begins in just a few minutes. It’s a frightening thought, what with the mess in the kitchen and the bathroom that needs cleaning, and the dirty clothes piled on the couch, to say nothing of the fact that I haven’t actually started cooking. My soul? Is it all that different?

Some critics of the new translation complain that it makes the liturgy a bit more remote, a bit more formal, and in this way undermines the fitting familiarity of the old down-style translation. Yet reflection on the centurion’s very pressing and urgent worry about Jesus being under his roof suggests that being so familiar with Christ isn’t always fitting. Instead, it might tempt us toward complacency or presumption.

Christ is indeed intimately close to us in the Mass, but as the restoration of the concrete biblical turn of phrase “under my roof” makes clearer to us, his presence should not only feel easy and familiar but often frightening and perilous instead. Our houses are in disarray and full of diseases that only a purifying fire can rid us of. They are not fit places for a king. And yet he comes to us anyway, and speaks the word that heals our souls.