Wendell Berry’s recent self-described “general declaration” in support of “homosexual marriage” shocked many, fans and critics alike. Berry, who once wrote that marriage “cannot be altered to suit convenience or circumstance” and has long argued that marriage is an inherited form premised on the embodiment of men and women, now treats sexual difference in marriage as optional.
Berry’s address, given to a conference at Georgetown College in Kentucky, remains unpublished as I write, the sole public record being the reporting of Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press, the only journalist who covered the talk. However, I have heard an unpublished audio recording of the address, and was able to transcribe much of it.
In the first half of the address, Berry reaches for bipartisanship. He laments any political attempt to define marriage—be it a liberal “right to marriage” or a conservative attempt to codify tradition—as a legal fiction, a false claim that marriage is something that government is capable of inventing or bestowing. Insofar as this debate politicizes what should be non-political, he likens it to Soviet totalitarianism, a statist erosion of the distinction between public and private.
Next he refers to his only prior “much-abbreviated” remarks on gay marriage—a paragraph in 2005, a few sentences in 2012—and faults himself for being incomplete. He then clarifies his belief that “the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval.” He argues that the relationship of any two people who care for each other in the home over a lifetime should be legally the same as marriage.
In this section of the talk, he professes to remain above the fray and beholden to neither side of the debate. His goal, on the one hand, is to deny that “marriage is a right, to be granted or withheld at the wish of whichever side may dominate the government,” but, on the other, to maintain that if we are going to have this fictitious right, the right should be more widely shared.
He concedes that this so-called “right to marriage is still birth-wet. It exists oddly only by reason of its being selectively withheld.” There is no reason for it “apart from its momentary political expediency,” he argues. “Whatever one may think of all that is presently implied and entailed by the legalization of marriage, surely nobody can claim that marriage is either the government’s invention, or the government has an inherent right to determine who may marry.”
He proposes that this right “depends upon a curious agreement between liberals and conservatives that human rights originate in government, to be dispensed to the people according to their pleading.” This, he says, “flatly contradicts the founding principle of American democracy that human rights are precedent to the government’s existence, that the government is established to protect them, and that the government must be restrained from violating them.”
He denies that the government can “establish a right solely for the purpose of withholding it from some other people,” thereby punishing “a disfavored group for no crime except their existence.” Liberals absurdly think government provides these rights, but conservatives, whose position “implicitly violates” the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, are “more darkly absurd” than the liberals. To deny homosexual people the right to marry, if there is such a right, “surely violates the Fourteenth Amendment.”
In other words, Berry seems to back into support for same-sex marriage, his hand forced by our contemporary absurdity, driven by his desire to limit government involvement and steer clear of arbitrary preference. Marriage is antecedent to any state or government, but we are being forced to treat it as if it is subsequent, as if it is the government’s gift.
When Berry says that this legal “right” is “birth-wet,” implying immaturity, perhaps he is also implying that his own position is open to revision or maybe even reversal. Until then, one can take Berry to be saying: If we are going to imagine a right to marriage, let us not pry into people’s bedrooms, and let us share this fictional right with everyone, gay or straight.
I wish Berry had stopped here. Had he done so, we might have taken him to mean that his older work was still persuasive to him, culturally and theologically, even if not legally. This older work, rendered over decades in countless essays, stories, novels, and poems, portrays marriage as fertility bound in fidelity and community. It is beautiful work, and it still persuades me.
I would like to hope that Berry’s new mistake is simply to overlook or underestimate the irony of his legal philosophy. His concession to the fictitious language of rights reinforces what he laments, extending government into the zone he wants to be private.
Consider: If marriage is grounded in the procreative potential of sexual difference, then it is grounded in something prior to the human will, and therefore prior to positive law. If marriage is the way we humanize and acculturate mammalian mating, then marriage has a rationale with which government interacts but which government does not invent.
By contrast, if marriage is grounded merely in legislative fiat—if government invents rather than recognizes marriage—then all marriages, heterosexual and otherwise, are premised on political largesse. When a government purports that the form of marriage is something it legislates rather than discerns or inherits, then that government is in everybody’s bedroom. In such a society, you are married only if Leviathan says you are.
This is Berry’s new and unwitting irony: Rather than returning marriage to a private pre-political sphere, the revisionist Berry enhances the power of the state and therefore fails on his own quasi-libertarian terms. It is not wrong to want to help people and facilitate domestic care, but by licensing a marriage any time two people undertake that task, Berry overreaches.
This new Berry is also playing at nominalism and gnosticism. His sexually generic marriages presumably feature vows and love, but these live in abstraction. If sexual difference is optional, then any connection with mating and biology is optional, even though those things are the reason marriage became a public rather than private concern in the first place. He wants the government to sanction coupling that is entirely contingent on idiosyncratic desires, which is odd for a man normally so articulate about the beauty of limits with respect to land and economy, marriage and community.
But alas, for all these inconsistencies, this first half of the speech was the good half. Berry did not stop there.
In the second half of the talk, he snarks at length about conservatives who defend marriage as it has been universally understood until just a few years ago. Here’s another quote (in the recording, you hear the crowd laugh): “Would conservative Christians like a small government bureau to inspect, approve, and certify their sexual behavior?” he asks.
“Would they like a colorful tattoo verifying government approval on the rumps of the lawfully copulating parties? We have the technology, after all, to monitor everyone’s sexual behavior, but so far as I can see so eager an interest in other people’s private intimacy is either prurient or totalitarian or both.” He goes on to charge opponents of same-sex marriage with “Christian bloodthirst . . . condemnation by category . . . the lowest form of hatred.”
He didn’t have to do that. No doubt far too many Christians are guilty of prurience and failures to love, and I understand why he would want to disassociate himself from that kind of poison. Being homosexual, chaste, and Christian is a hard, heroic life. All congregations should offer hospitality and solidarity to those trying to be chaste.
But the bitterness of the second half of Berry’s declaration, the lack of subtlety, the premise that anyone who disagrees with him is darkly absurd and hateful (who here is condemning by category?), make me suspect that Berry’s support for gay marriage is at least partly the result of triangulation, of trying to distance himself from coreligionists who embarrass him.
Berry’s talk does not hold together either in its logical implications or with the vast majority of his prior work, yet it makes some rhetorical sense if he is merely distancing himself from bigotry. But if so, he protests too much. His speech concludes with some lovely and mystical words about the interconnectivity of all creation, and it’s clear that he imagines himself on the side of the gentle and good. But as his own substantial earlier work demonstrates, and as should have been obvious to a man of his public experience, not every commitment to traditional marriage is irrational and poisonous. Berry’s philosophical shortcuts in this talk are not benign.
When he says that the “right to marriage” is “birth-wet,” I wonder if there is a voice in Berry’s conscience whispering unease with his new declaration. He surely knows better than he is saying.
The old Berry thought marriage was a cultural response to creation, a vow men and women take to humanize procreation, to embed fertility in faithful community. The new Berry thinks that marriage is a portable contract, suitable for any two autonomous individuals who want the law to facilitate their care for each other.
Explaining how his new declaration sits with respect to his earlier work would be a good way to begin answering this call of conscience. It does not make one bloodthirsty and prurient simply to ask: Is it really marriage every time a generic twosome decides to give it a try?
Christopher C. Roberts is the author of Creation and Covenant: The Significance of Sexual Difference in the Moral Theology of Marriage.
We launched the First Things 2023 Year-End Campaign to keep articles like the one you just read free of charge to everyone.
Measured in dollars and cents, this doesn't make sense. But consider who is able to read First Things: pastors and priests, college students and professors, young professionals and families. Last year, we had more than three million unique readers on firstthings.com.
Informing and inspiring these people is why First Things doesn't only think in terms of dollars and cents. And it's why we urgently need your year-end support.
Will you give today?