As a young Christian, I arrived at college in the fall of 2004 with some of the usual intellectual difficulties: evolution, creation, the authority of Scripture, and so on. But I could think through them undisturbed, working them out in my reading rather than in debates. No one was asking, “Where do you stand?”
With gay marriage on the horizon, that soon changed. It was a time when everyone was supposed to evolve—and I did, just not in the way I was supposed to. Coming around to approving gay unions as marriages never became a possibility for me.
Jesus asked the disciples, “Have you not read that he who made them at the beginning made them male and female, and for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?” Well, yes, I had. What I hadn’t appreciated was how fundamental this teaching is for Christians. Challenged by my peers, I was driven more deeply into the Bible.
Sexual difference is woven into all of Scripture. As N. T. Wright observed in a recent interview, Genesis begins with “complementary pairs which are meant to work together”—heaven and earth, sea and dry land, man and woman. Marriage is the great scriptural sign of how these complements can be reconciled in their difference, which is why Christ calls the Church his bride and describes our salvation as a wedding banquet. Tug on the strand of sexual difference, and you risk unraveling the whole.
Campus life presented a rather different vision of sex. Venturing out on a boozy sea of casual acquaintance, my friends and I experienced what the gay Christian writer Eve Tushnet has called “the great unweaving”—the separation of sex from procreation, cohabitation, and commitment. The appeal of such a separation is plain: We crave intimate contact even when we are unable to secure it with commitment. When sex comes to be seen as a universal good unbound from what once accompanied it, denying it to anyone appears terribly cruel.
I felt the pull of the campus tide (who didn’t?), but my thoughts were taking me elsewhere. Somehow I came across the philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe’s essay “Contraception and Chastity.” She offered a challenge: How could I reject homosexual sex when I didn’t reject contraception? In her account, both acts are wrong because they unwind the sexual act’s tightly bound meanings, one of which is procreation. If one accepts contraception, Anscombe states, “there is no reason why for example ‘marriage’ should have to be between people of opposite sexes.”
So just as my classmates were coming to accept gay marriage, I found myself in the curious position of doubting contraception. This is not how a college education is supposed to work! Anscombe clarified for me that the Christian teaching on gay marriage isn’t just a stand-alone prohibition falling heavily on one class of persons, but instead is part of a more comprehensive vision of the good that poses difficulties—and opens possibilities—for us all.
By the time of my 2008 graduation, Prop 8 was in the news and gay marriage was the defining issue. I remember getting an email from a friend who had come out. He expressed confusion, anger, and more than a little self-righteousness at my persistence in views he perceived as backward. I wrote back telling him how much I loved him, how grateful I was for the times he’d let me cry on his shoulder. But I challenged him. Did he really believe that everyone who thought as I did was a bigot? He never replied.
It was not an easy evolution. I often felt isolated or defensive. I was tired of apologizing for my views without support from anyone in my circle. The problem solved itself: My circle shrank.
And my reading broadened. One source I turned to for intellectual friendship was Nicolás Gómez Dávila, a Colombian aphorist who’s helped me see through the clichés of our time. The merits of the argument for gay marriage, such as they are, are obscured by the movement’s extreme rhetorical shallowness. Advocates seem to think that progress is inevitable, that history only turns one way. Against such a conceit, Gómez Dávila whispers a warning: “The fool is disturbed not when they tell him that his ideas are false, but when they suggest that they have gone out of style.” Accusing someone of being on the wrong side of history says nothing about whether he is on the right side of the argument. It is a mere threat, and a somewhat hollow one. History is an arbitrary enforcer.
Buttressed against the shallow rhetoric of those I disagreed with, I began to recognize some deficiencies in my own. The rhetoric of rights wielded so effectively against the evil of communism still shows its power in the struggle to end the murder of the unborn. For all its force, however, talk of rights is ineffective when it comes to explaining the purpose and meaning of marriage. Even appeals to the right of a child to be raised by a mother and father won’t necessarily trump.
Many of my teachers had found in the language of liberalism a natural ally in the assertion of timeless moral truths, but my like-minded friends and I had come to eye it more warily. Christians suffered from moral aphasia on the topic of gay marriage. Was it because they had become monolingual liberals?
Like many other young Christians, I began to feel the need for a new vocabulary, one that could speak about community as eloquently as about autonomy, that could describe limits as loving, discipline as desirable. Confronting the issue of gay marriage pushed us toward traditionalism and localism. We dissenters from the consensus weren’t the only ones feeling their pull. The indie hit of 2009 was a sparkling synth track from Animal Collective. The song admits, “I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls,” swearing “to provide for them when they ask . . . with my heart on my father’s grave.” Heart on my father’s grave! Brooklyn bobbed to the decade’s most full-throated statement of conservative sentiment.
Four years later, Ezra Koenig, lead singer of Vampire Weekend, promoted his new album by talking about Brideshead Revisited and the need to “think more seriously about your life and your faith.” He told one interviewer, “I’ve learned how provincial I really am. . . . You’re supposed to be a citizen of the world but then you realize that’s a stupid thing to aspire to.” Even those who see sex as separable from marriage want a world in which life’s meanings are more tightly woven.
I returned to campus last month and ran into an old friend who had recently gotten engaged to his boyfriend. The two of them asked about my job and, understanding the public commitments of this journal, asked in a winsomely direct and gentle manner what I thought couples like them should do. We were headed in different directions, and I admitted that I was probably incapable of offering a satisfying answer on the spot.
I am not optimistic about doing so here, either, but let me try. A week after my admission to my friend, I was sitting at a wedding Mass listening to the reading of a prayer written by the bride and groom. It asked that “all called to the generosity of the single or celibate . . . might inspire [name of bride and groom] by their conformity to Christ, and always find in them fiercely devoted friends, and in their house a second home.”
The prayer moved me, in part because I’d been going through my own period of loneliness, but also because it reminded me that the movement for gay marriage is absolutely right to demand that the institution be made more inclusive. Where it goes wrong is in supposing this can be done by asserting a free-floating right to marriage, rather than by insisting on the duty of every marriage to become a place of welcome. We can’t and shouldn’t redesign marriage under the illusion that it can directly include everyone. We need more than one form of solidarity.
Despite my eccentric evolution on gay marriage, I’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy a certain fugitive solidarity with those whose paths differ from my own. Much of the intellectual discovery and growth in friendship I’ve experienced these past years has come about not despite, but because of, the vexations of the gay marriage debate. Those with whom I disagree have helped me see how the strands of the Christian sexual ethic combine to form a great tapestry, the patterns of which would be much more obscure had they not prompted me to think through how sex intersects with Scripture, nature, culture. For this, I owe them a great debt. I hope that in the years to come I can do something to repay it.
Matthew Schmitz is deputy editor of First Things.