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From Tolerance to Equality:
How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage

by darel e. paul
baylor, 256 pages, $39.95

In 2013, the Supreme Court reversed a determination by the Internal Revenue Service that $363,053 in inheritance taxes were owed on an estate of $4.1 million. One side of the American political spectrum swooned in joy—the left. These supposed opponents of inequality were largely indifferent to the financial element of the case. They were simply cheered by the fact that United States v. Windsor held that the Defense of Marriage Act had ­unconstitutionally limited the ­definition of marriage to ­opposite-sex couples. And so avoidance of ­inheritance taxes was celebrated as an achievement for equality.

We can see a similar dynamic when it comes to corporate politicking. President Obama said of the 2010 Citizens United decision, “This ruling strikes at our democracy itself,” and “I can’t think of anything more devastating to the public interest.” Yet one searches in vain to find progressive denunciations of the role played by corporations in several recent high-profile controversies about state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Acts. The governors of Arizona, Arkansas, and Indiana all retreated from enacting these laws when threatened with capital strikes and the relocation of major sporting events. Corporations successfully ousted North Carolina’s governor after he supported legislation that required transgendered persons to use bathrooms matching their biological sex. Far from decrying such corporate interference as a corruption of democracy, the left cheered it on. Frank Bruni wrote a column in the New York Times titled “The Sunny Side of Greed” in which he said it was “fine with me” if “big corporations will soon rule the earth,” given that they were “more democratic” than politicians—at least on issues of sexuality.

These examples encapsulate one of the strangest features of contemporary progressive politics: the transformation of the egalitarian agenda from an economic program into a movement for sexual liberation. The party that once promoted the interests of the working class now ­celebrates when wealthy couples dodge the “death tax” and corporations overturn democratic verdicts—all the while holding up signs displaying the equal sign.

Darel Paul, a political scientist at Williams College, details the curious convergence of elite interests and progressive sexual politics in his eye-opening book, From Tolerance to Equality: How Elites Brought America to Same-Sex Marriage. Paul catalogues how elites—especially a vanguard populating the universities, often lodged in the social sciences such as psychology and sociology—led the effort to normalize gay marriage.

From the beginning, this movement was about more than the status of gay couples. It assumed and celebrated a broader de-linking of marriage and childbearing that applied to heterosexual couples as well. A reproductive ideal of marriage with defined gender roles was replaced by a vision of marriage as an egalitarian emotional relationship that could be easily entered and exited. This, not incidentally, is the form of marriage favored by the managerial elite.

One of the results of the decoupling of marriage and childbearing is the decline of “patriarchy.” Fashionable as it is to denigrate this institution, it has long served a valuable function: the domestication of men. As Paul puts it, “Higher fertility ­creates patriarchs, men who understand themselves as attached to the family of which they are the head.” Whereas gay men were once likely to remain bachelors and straight men were most often fathers, both now converge in a new ideal of childless egalitarian coupling. A culture in which gay marriage is normal is one that is reconceiving not only marriage but manhood itself. 

Paul notes that men without ­children are much more likely to be approving of homosexuality. In a mutually reinforcing dynamic, “an increasing paucity of patriarchs . . . indicates a bright future for the progress of homosexuality’s normalization.” It is little wonder that corporations are expending no shortage of resources and marketing to effect such an outcome. They benefit from a world of men and women less likely to marry, less likely to have children, defined instead by expenditure of discretionary income, unconstrained free time, and self-indulgence. The sexual revolution’s egalitarian attack on patriarchy has been supported by corporations because it benefits their bottom line.

Paul also shows how the idea of diversity is used to protect elite power from any challenge. In practice, diversity often simply means embracing the values of the professional class—whatever is “urban, edgy, hip, fashionable, successful, and, above all, cosmopolitan.” Paul reports on studies revealing that people who embrace diversity do not tend to live among blacks and Hispanics, but do tend to live near concentrations of homosexuals. Calling this “diversity without tears,” Paul shows that for today’s elites, diversity is practically advanced through the embrace of a “gay cachet” that does not challenge class status.

Paul further explains how a powerful combination of institutions—the universities, corporations, and media—have shamed and silenced those who stand athwart the arc of history. Elites are able to invoke both moral and scientific arguments while subjecting any inconvenient scientific findings (such as those of Mark ­Regnerus) to a massive barrage of moral outrage framed as scientific refutation.

Paul is careful not to pass any personal judgment on the views he discusses. In fact, in the book’s first pages, he notes that “while this book indeed does not endorse same-sex marriage, neither does it oppose same-sex marriage.” He thus declares himself a mainstream Weberian social scientist, withholding value judgments in the pursuit of value-free, objectively provable social-scientific fact. Yet Paul also notes that precisely because he does not take an identifiable stance in favor of gay marriage, the book has been read by many as “a conservative project.” He predicts that “some will indeed condemn it as barbarous.” He thus exposes the profound tension that exists at the heart of a profession that claims, on the one hand, to provide objective and value-free information but functions, on the other, as a kind of new priesthood that advances a set of values.

As Paul observes, social scientists were some of the first professionals to advocate for gay marriage. This is in keeping with the long-standing aims of the discipline. The social sciences arose during the Progressive era in hopes that we could achieve the same kind of indisputable scientific knowledge about human phenomena that we have about natural phenomena. But the point was not just to understand humanity; it was to transform it.

The earliest creators of the social sciences framed this transformation in explicitly religious terms, as a new Religion of Humanity. Under this regime, old political forms would give way to technocratic managers who would rely on the findings of the new human science. Auguste Comte called this science “sociology,” with the hopes that the discovery of irrefutable social-scientific laws would lead to the divinization of humanity and a new “clerisy” of social scientists. (Indeed, Comte even modeled the organization of the “Religion of Humanity” on the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, declaring that he would be its first pope.) Far from being seen as a crackpot, Comte and his vision of a new science of society ushering in a divinized humanity were embraced by John Stuart Mill, hero of progressive liberals and “conservative” libertarians alike.

Sociology has not left behind its secularized religious roots. As Christian Smith argued in his 2014 book The Sacred Project of American Sociology, the field continues to advance a new idea of humanity by displacing traditional Christian beliefs. What this religion seeks to realize, Smith argued, is

the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-­directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures.

There is a striking alignment between this progressive valorization of self-creation and especially sexual autonomy, on the one hand, and free-market fundamentalists who seek the breakdown of all limitations to the freedom of individual consumers to barter and trade ­anywhere and everywhere in the world. Paul’s book helps us understand this close alignment between progressive cosmopolitans and “conservative” corporations.

Acquaintance with the religious aims of the first sociologists makes a few things clear. First, science is not simply science: It is the liturgy that will bring into being the New Age, the Religion of Humanity. Thus, the invocation of science is not undertaken in the tentative, skeptical vein we might typically imagine, but as an incantation that furthers the advance of history in its relentless progress toward a divinized humanity of autonomous, self-making beings. Secondly, this vision is shared by Comte’s heirs in the “soft” social ­sciences like sociology, political ­science, and anthropology (which have now colonized the humanities) and in the “hard” social science of economics. University students usually take a mix of classes in both postmodernism and economism. Whether they go to work in business or academia, they have a single ideology.

Paul’s book shows that these purported antagonists share a broad project of de-norming. They are particularly committed to displacing traditional arrangements of family, marriage, and child-rearing in favor of individual autonomy, self-creation, and lifestyle choice shorn of long-standing commitment. World-straddling corporations have a strong interest in fostering atomized, de-normed subjects. Because their “identities” arise primarily from appetites that can be altered through both marketing and technology, they are the ideal consumers. The ideological justification for this economic project has been long-prepared by the intellectual class, which over the last four decades has devoted itself to the project of displacing traditional norms in favor of theories of self-creation in a world governed not by tradition or natural law, but solely in accordance with the human will.

Paul’s book powerfully reveals why the progressive sexual agenda of the intellectual class and the profit motive of corporations have fully aligned. There’s both apparently limitless freedom and vast quantities of money to be gained in overcoming human nature’s final frontier: sexual complementarity and all that follows. It should be a wake-up call to those who continue to believe that capitalism is an unmitigated boon for conserving the blessings of marriage, family, and children.

Patrick J. Deneen is David A. Potenziani Memorial Professor of Constitutional Studies at the University of Notre Dame.