Perhaps the most heatedly denounced work of a distinguished scholar is Harry Jaffa’s occasional writing on homosexuality. The passions surrounding the issue distort understanding of these essays, but his purpose in them follows that of the rest of his mature corpus—the recovery of natural right and the great intertwined questions of reason and revelation. Jaffa’s writings on the topic need to be approached from the moral-political perspective from which they were intended.
These intentions are embodied in the Republican Party platform of 1856—“it is both the right and the imperative duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism — Polygamy, and Slavery.” Neither the Republican Party in 1856 nor Jaffa denied that these practices are ancient and widespread. They did insist on the fundamental difference between barbarism and civilization, and that some practices, whatever approval they might enjoy in public opinion, are nonetheless to be condemned. It is no coincidence that the Republicans linked the attack on slavery and the dedication to monogamous marriage. Both slavery and polygamous marriage threaten the American family (see Tocqueville) and thus American liberty, prosperity, and greatness.
As Jaffa’s close reading of Lincoln’s satiric Temperance Address teaches, advancing moral causes such as temperance (or abolition) requires a combination of moral fervor and logical argumentation that is sympathetic to the afflicted one: Hate the sin, love the sinner. This attitude makes possible a politics of the consent of the governed and a regime of religious and civil liberty. Both are necessary for a tolerant society.
Jaffa’s arguments on homosexuality are essentially the natural law arguments of the Catholic Church. He also argues that Plato and Aristotle agree with the Christian and other religious stances on this and other key moral issues. As distant as philosophy (or reason) and revelation may be in their understanding of the ultimate purposes of human life, they agree fundamentally in the substance of morality, a reflection of the natural law they both acknowledge. The exploration of these tensions and these inquiries is the pursuit that the liberal arts, the liberating studies should provide.
Jaffa’s spirited defense of natural law, focused as it is on homosexual conduct, drew distorted responses that labelled Jaffa a “bigot,” “homophobe,” and so on. Written in the 1980s, before the coerced adoption of same-sex marriage, Jaffa’s essays from then sound even more discordant than before.
In the most reflective of these polemics, Canadian writer Jeet Heer concedes that “None of the Straussians so eloquently described the nature of this philosophic friendship as Jaffa.” (Heer claims some familiarity with Straussian scholarship, having studied at the University of Toronto.) But he goes on to make fantastic claims, such as “The famous Straussian division between esoteric and exoteric writing can itself be seen as a metaphor for the closet.”
This air of authority may give weight to his wild charge that “Jaffa’s vile review of [Allan] Bloom’s book [The Closing of the American Mind], was one of the countless homophobic polemics he wrote in the last four decades of his life.” But actually reading the review shows that his dispute over the meaning of liberal arts cannot merit the label of “homophobic polemics.” Nor does Heer list or even cite their allegedly “countless” number. Jaffa deals with sexual morality in general and AIDS but never attacks Bloom personally. He makes a natural law argument, from which he makes deductions:
Nature is the ground of all morality, but maleness and femaleness is the ground of nature. The Bible, in describing man as created in the image of God, adds “male and female created he them,” implying that God's own existence is grounded in the same distinction as nature's. The so-called “gay rights” movement is then the ultimate repudiation of nature, and therewith the ground of all morality.
Jaffa is not saying gay people lack morality—far from it—but that the “gay rights” movement undercuts “the ground of all morality,” in nature. It’s clear from the context that Jaffa’s argument is about nature and morality, and ultimately the Declaration of Independence, not about sexual orientation.
The vast bulk of Jaffa’s review engages Bloom by presenting a more robust conception of the liberal arts, which in turn requires the recovery of natural law. One might disagree with Jaffa’s understanding of nature or interpretation of Genesis, or his incisive critique of Bloom, but these arguments scarcely count as “homophobic.” The political-moral problem, Jaffa’s interest in this subject, is with promiscuity generally and disordered families, against Rousseau and for Aristotle. (Compare Saul Bellow’s portrait of his friend Bloom in Ravelstein with Jaffa’s.)
Likewise, Jaffa’s provocatively entitled essay, “Sodomy and the Academy: The Assault on the Family and Morality by ‘Liberation' Ethics” (an appendix in his American Conservatism and the American Founding, 1984) deals almost entirely with contemporary academic thinking about morality and freedom in general and refers to homosexual promiscuity only as one example of what he is discussing. In order to pose a serious argument against Jaffa, his critics would have to allow him to make an intellectually honest argument against sexual promiscuity without mention of homosexual promiscuity.
In a brief interview with a conservative Catholic group seized on by critics, Jaffa again emphasizes the liberal arts as the goal. I believe he wanted his readers to consider the basis of a society that offers any minorities (homosexuals included) toleration and protection: “fundamental rights are linked to unchanging human nature.”
In fact, Jaffa in his writings and his personal manner reflect compassion, not scorn, for the miseries of students who should be enjoying their lives and studies of great books and great deeds of men and women rather than suffering with pointless studies that by and large deepen their sorrows. He always displayed concern for his students and how they might make their way in the world. In all the strident denunciations I have heard him deliver in fifty years of acquaintanceship, I have never known him to attack any students (or anyone else) for their sexual orientation. It would not be misleading to compare him with Pope Francis in that regard.
It is unfortunate that this brilliant teacher and scholar who showed how “The American book of books, is the story of America itself, as the story of the secular redemption of mankind” is denounced as a “homophobe.” Perhaps stunned by his daring to raise homosexual promiscuity, Jaffa’s critics miss the gift he is offering. Jaffa’s provocative essays call forth the power of the liberal arts—a good for all people everywhere and at all times—to free the human soul, each and every one, from every irrational prejudice.
Ken Masugi is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute.