Can Conservative Religion Survive Gay Marriage?
I. Orthodox Judaism and Gay Marriage
A leading Catholic writer, my friend and former colleague Joseph (Jody) Bottum, shocked the conservative world last week with the publication of an argument for Catholic acceptance of gay marriage. Jody’s essay in the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal is wrong on many counts but sounds an alarm we ignore at our own peril.
All the major branches of American Orthodox Judaism oppose the legalization of gay marriage. In a joint statement issued in 2011, four Orthodox organizations—Agudath Israel of America, National Council of Young Israel, Rabbinical Council of America, and the Orthodox Union—averred, “We oppose the redefinition of the bedrock relationship of the human family… Society’s mores may shift and crumble but eternal verities exist. One is marriage. Its sanctity must be recognized and its integrity preserved.” After the Supreme Court struck down parts of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act in June, Agudath Israel and the Orthodox Union expressed unequivocal opposition. The OU wrote, “We believe that our Divine system of law not only dictates our beliefs and behaviors, but also represents a system of universal morality, and therefore can stake a claim in the national discourse.”
A few Orthodox rabbis counter that Orthodoxy should stay out of the debate on pragmatic grounds: Jews defend shechitah and b’rit milah against legal attempts to prohibit them on the grounds of religious freedom in a democratic society, and should refrain from any action that might appear to restrict the freedom of others. For Rabbi Josh Yuter, the issue is not the prohibition of homosexuality, not to mention homosexual marriage, “but Judaism’s expectations of non-Jews.” The trouble is that “there does not seem to be a moral objection to same-sex marriage which is not somehow based in a religious tradition… With institutions like kosher slaughtering and circumcision being challenged in court, we should be careful not to impose our own religious beliefs on others.”
The Orthodox majority holds that some Torah values embody a “universal morality” which Jews are obligated to defend in the public square. Yuter’s dissent from the majority Orthodox view is legitimate, if (in my view) wrong on two counts. First, as the Catholic philosopher Robert P. George and two of his students argue in a recent book, there are strictly rational grounds to oppose gay marriage. Second, the dissent underestimates the risk that legal enforcement of the legitimacy of gay marriage may intrude on the autonomy of Jewish institutions.
To argue that Jews should seek to preserve their own practices and ignore government sanction of moral decay around us is an unusual view in the Orthodox world, but not exactly a man-bites-dog story. For a Catholic to take this position, by contrast, is front-page news. When Joseph Bottum, former chief editor of the conservative Catholic monthly First Things, published a 10,000 word essay entitled “The Things We Share: A Catholic’s Case for Same-Sex Marriage” last week, the New York Times sent a reporter to interview him at his home in rural South Dakota. The trip required a full day of travel, with a change of aircraft and a two-hour drive from the Rapid City airport. I made the same trip in 2009, when I was a senior editor at First Things.
II. Catholicism’s Future
Jody Bottum’s essay, published last Friday, came as a surprise, but Jody has surprised me often in the past. The first occasion was a brilliant 1995 dissection of the religious verse of T.S. Eliot, usually presented as a hero of Christian letters. Eliot’s faith was instrumental rather than genuine, Jody argued, a striking dissent from the prevailing view. I followed his subsequent work closely; here was a devout Catholic writer unafraid to challenge conventional thinking, unique among his peers in that corner of English letters. Jody surprised me again when he reached out to the pseudonymous “Spengler” – my nom-de-plume when I wrote anonymously for Asia Times Online – to solicit a 2007 essay on Franz Rosenzweig’s devastating and usually-ignored critique of Islam. I refused payment for the piece (out of reluctance to reveal my name) and asked him instead to meet for dinner. We became instant friends; I had never met a Catholic intellectual with such sympathetic curiosity about the Jews. He hounded me for a year to write an essay making a theological case for the Catholic Church to support the State of Israel. When he became chief editor after the death of First Things’ founder Richard John Neuhaus, he surprised me again by asking me to join the masthead. During the subsequent two years I had the privilege to edit material by Prof. Michael Wyschogrod, R. Shalom Carmy, R. Meir Soloveichik and other Orthodox thinkers. When Jody left the magazine in 2011 to write books, I did the same thing, although I still contribute occasionally.
One often learns more about the underlying issues from Jody Bottum’s mistakes than from the dutiful plodding of many of his peers. His essay elicited a snarky dismissal from the website of his old magazine First Things. My former colleagues’ response is disappointing, for there are insights in Jody’s essay which are ignored at one’s peril. Much as I disagree with him, I have learned some things from his essay about the state of Catholicism.
There are lessons here of importance to Jews. Wherever Jewish religious freedom has come under attack in Europe—in attempts to ban circumcision in Germany, or ban shechitah in the Netherlands and Poland, or to change the definition of Jewish status in England—the Catholic Church has defended our right to practice our religion as we see fit. But there is a different self-interested reason for Jews to hope for the Catholic Church’s success. In the United States, the Catholic Church has become the canary in the coal mine; if militant secularism succeeds in restricting the religious freedom of the country’s largest religious denomination, we will be next. We find ourselves in the same foxhole with the Catholics on the issue of religious freedom, and cannot be indifferent to its predicament.
Jody’s Commonweal essay addresses the gay marriage issue from the vantage point of a far weightier problem, namely the prospects of the Catholic Church in an increasingly hostile, secular world. First Things was in many respects a product of the papacy of Pope John Paul II. It bore the hope that Wojtila’s Poland, after its Catholic-inspired stand against Communism at the peak of the Cold War, would become an exemplar for a liberal democracy inspired by religious devotion. As Father Neuhaus wrote in 1994, “It is possible that in the new world of Poland they will get the questions of religion and society – including church-state relations – more nearly right than we have succeeded in doing here.” The journal strove to revive the role of religion in the public square, and became the host for the coalition of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, the potent combination of Christian religious conservatives that did so much to sway politics during the 1990s and 2000s.
First Things rode the first wave of post-Cold War triumphalism to an uncertain juncture today. The Catholic Church is besieged by secularism and suffering from the self-inflicted injury of the sex abuse scandals. The resignation of Benedict XVI, one of its great theologians and doctrinal leaders, left its leadership uncertain. Not only Catholicism but the American Evangelical movement—a mainstay of American support for the State of Israel—is caught by the receding tide. In an Aug. 16 interview with The Wall Street Journal, Russell Moore, the leader of the Southern Baptist Convention’s political arm, announced, “The Bible Belt is collapsing.” Moore added, “We are no longer the moral majority. We are a prophetic minority.” The Evangelicals have not retained their young people. The Pew survey reported in 2007 that 32% of Americans aged 50 to 64 are white Evangelicals, against only 13% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29. The public tide has turned against religion. Even if we are not affected today, it raises the risks to Torah-observant Judaism.
III. Arguments For and Against Gay Marriage
Gay marriage was political poison just a decade ago, but has triumphed today because of the sudden shrinkage in conservative Christian ranks. The gay marriage issue is a lightning-rod for the gathering storm of secularism, and for an obvious reason: sexual liberty has been the most effective adversary of biblical religion since Pinchas killed Zimri and his Midianite mistress. From the Temple prostitutes of Ishtar to the pederasty of classical Greece, paganism has offered sexual license while biblical religion restricted sex to marriage. Anyone who came of age during the 1960s remembers why traditional culture cratered in the handful of years before 1968: my generation was the first that was told that we could have all the sex we wanted without having to get married. The sexualized ambient culture has eaten the young of the Christian conservatives.
Jody Bottum writes:
One understanding of the sexual revolution—the best, I think—is as an enormous turn against the meaningfulness of sex. Oh, I know, it was extolled by the revolutionaries as allowing real experimentation and exploration of sensation, but the actual effect was to disconnect sex from what previous eras had thought the deep stuff of life: God, birth, death, heaven, hell, the moral structures of the universe, and all the rest.
The resulting claim of amorality for almost any sexual behavior except rape reflects perhaps the most fascinating social change of our time: the transfer of the moral center of human worry about the body away from sex and onto…well, onto food, I suppose. The only moral feeling still much attached to sex is the one that has to hunt far and wide for some prude, any prude, who will still condemn an aspect of sexual behavior—and thereby confirm our self-satisfied feeling of revolutionary morality. Of course, the transfer of moral anxiety away from sexual intercourse might not be so peculiar. Think how often ancient thinkers, from the pagan stoics to the church fathers, would reach to gluttony and fasting, instead of lust and chastity, when they needed examples for their discussions of virtue and vice.
There is no question about where we have come, and why: the question, rather, is how to respond from a position of weakness. Jody’s case for Catholic acquiescence to gay marriage bears the same pragmatic stamp as Rabbi Yuter’s. He fears that rancor against the Catholic Church for its stance on sexual morality will isolate it. His essay recounts long conversations with a gay friend in New York, a Republican conservative in fiscal and foreign policy matters, whose anger at the Catholic Church has risen to insatiability.
He wants the church hurt, its tax exemptions and even property-holding rights stripped away until it not only accepts laws allowing same-sex marriage, not only encourages same-sex marriage, but actually performs same-sex marriage. Even that might not be enough; the institutional weight of the history of Catholic bigotry, he thinks, is probably too much for repentance and reformation to overcome. Best, really, if the Catholic Church is systematically outlawed.
And that is one Catholic fear about same-sex marriage with force—the fear that the movement is essentially disingenuous. That gays don’t actually want much to marry, but Catholic resistance to the idea is just too useful a stick not to use. That modern Americans, heirs to the class-based self-satisfactions of their Protestant ancestors, look at same-sex marriage and think how wonderful a device it proves for a little Rome bashing.
Packed into this pragmatic argument are a number of sidebars that sound like rationalizing self-consolation. Is gay marriage really worse than heterosexual adultery? And if we accept divorce (which the Catholic Church considers tantamount to adultery), why can’t we accept gay marriage? Jody writes:
G. K. Chesterton once suggested that if there truly exists such a thing as divorce, then there exists no such thing as marriage. The root of the paradox is his observation of the metaphysics implicit in marriage ceremonies: “There are those who say they want divorce in the second place without ever asking themselves if they want marriage in the first place. So let us begin by asking what marriage is. It is a promise. More than that, it is a vow.” If we allow divorce, then we have already weakened the thick, mystical notion of marriage vows. Adultery is an everyday sin. Divorce is something more: a denial of a solemn oath made to God.
I’m not trying to argue here directly for an end to the culture’s embrace of legalized divorce, much as the sociological evidence about the harm to children now appears beyond dispute. Rather, the point is that the legal and social acceptance of divorce, building in Protestant America from the late nineteenth century on, culminated in the universal availability of no-fault divorce. And if heterosexual monogamy so lacks the old, enchanted metaphysical foundation that it can end in quick and painless divorce, then what principle allows a refusal of marriage to gays on the grounds of a metaphysical notion like the difference between men and women?
Protestantism did not invent divorce, however: the Torah, which restricted sexual relations to marriage for the first time in history, allowed for divorce. Divorce was practiced under biblical law for a millennium and a half before the Catholic Church thought to forbid it. Chesterton might have averred that there is no such thing as Jewish marriage because Jewish divorce exists, but not Jody Bottum.
Unconvincingly, Jody Bottum suggests that “same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in chastity in a culture that has lost much sense of chastity. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in love in a civilization that no longer seems to know what love is for. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in the coherence of family life in a society in which the family is dissolving.” In other words, gay couples are better off in state-sanctioned monogamous relationships than in bars and bathhouses. This argument tacitly presumes that the gay population is fixed by some external factor, for example genetic mutation and that marriage is a guarantee–the only guarantee–of monogamy.
The Jewish view from the Sages onwards is that the sexual license implicit in gay marriage is part of a pagan removal of moral barriers. Rabbinic tradition teaches that even societies in the ancient pagan world officially sanctioned homosexuality and other sexual transgressions. Rabbi Yuter quotes Sifra (Acharei Mot 9:8): “What did they [the Canaanites and Egyptians] do? A man would marry a man, a woman would marry a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would marry more than one man. For this it is written, ‘do not follow their practices’ (Lev. 18:3).” State sanction of gay marriage makes it easier to recruit people to neo-pagan practices by bringing sexual transgression into the mainstream.
IV. Cultural Dissenters
In 2010, I sat in on a running theological discussion sponsored by First Things, convened originally by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles. Marriage was the topic, and Catholics, Protestants and Jews in attendance anticipated the likely triumph of same-sex marriage. Some of the Protestants and Jews in attendance suggested that clergy might refuse to conduct civil marriages, and restrict their officiation to religious ceremonies. But the Catholics in the room declared that this was unacceptable. The Catholic Church understands itself to be the universal church of all of mankind, such that its values must prevail in society at large. If the law of the land differed drastically from Catholic teaching on such a fundamental proposition as marriage, it would “confuse the faithful,” and destroy the moral authority of the Church. This is where Catholics can learn survival skills from Orthodox Judaism.
Jews never claimed that the whole world should adopt their practices, but that is the central claim of Catholic faith. We have learned to maintain the status of concerned outside observers, a countercultural opposition, who reject mainstream values that are pagan and immoral. We build our morality from our tradition and select the elements of the mainstream culture that conform to our views. Concession on something as fundamental as sexual values empties the Bible of any contemporary meaning. It also forfeits the moral authority of traditional religion to assert its claim in other matters: if the Bible was wrong about something so fundamental to human existence, where can it claim to be right?
It is hard for the Church to think of itself as a countercultural opposition rather than as the universal institution of the West. It has done this in the past when the law of the land makes a mockery of the religious understanding of human life. The Catholic Church has lived under conditions of official persecution. China’s 10 million Catholics still do. The Polish Church under Communism gave not an inch of ground in matters of theology, and its leader Cardinal Wojtila became the scourge of liberal theologians. Poland, though, was a special case, in which the Church remained the repository of national identity against Russian occupiers. The effect of same-sex marriage on Catholic morale in the United States appears to be as deleterious as the participants in the 2010 Dulles forum anticipated.
If worst comes to worst, American Catholics may have to learn to be a minority—to become more like the Jews. That was the view advanced for many years by the Catholic philosopher Alisdair McIntyre, as well as Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger stated in the 1995 interview-book The Salt of the Earth:
Perhaps the time has come to say farewell to the idea of traditionally Catholic cultures (the original German read Volkskirche, or people’s church–DG). Maybe we are facing a new and different kind of epoch in the Church’s history, where Christianity will again be characterized more by the mustard seed, where it will exist in small, seemingly insignificant groups that nonetheless live an intensive struggle against evil and bring the good into the world—that let God in (page 16).
Jody Bottum peremptorily rejects such a retreat: “We should not accept without a fight an essentially un-Catholic retreat from the public square to a lifeboat theology and the small communities of the saved that Alasdair MacIntyre predicted at the end of After Virtue (1981).” He mourns the loss of traditionally Catholic cultures, which he identifies with what Max Weber called “the great disenchantment of the world,” adding, “Marriage seemed one of the last places left where Weber’s ‘great enchanted garden’ of traditional societies could still be found.”
Bottum wants nothing less than the restoration of traditionally Catholic cultures, what he calls “the re-enchantment of the world,” the recreation of the receptivity of traditional society to Catholic faith, and he proposes to undertake this work of reconstruction where the prospects seem most promising. He argues:
The goal of the church today must primarily be the re-enchantment of reality.…
Is sex the place in which that project of re-enchantment ought to begin? I just can’t see it—not after the nearly complete triumph of the sexual revolution’s disenchantment, not after the way “free love” was essentially sold to us by the Edwardians as an escape from narrow Victorian Christianity, not after part of the culture’s most visible morality became the condemnation of those perceived as condemning something sexual….
The Church (like the Evangelical movement) is in trouble because the sexual revolution already has re-enchanted the world with a wicked sort of magic. Nothing is more uplifting in the setting of a faith community and nothing is so corrupting when set loose. It is Dante’s She-Wolf in the first Canto of the Divine Comedy, the predator whom Dante could not pass, che mai non empie la bramosa voglia, e dopo ’l pasto ha più fame che pria (who never satisfies her greedy will, and after eating is hungrier than before). There can be no conservative religion where sexual morality has unraveled.
Even worse: I do not believe that giving in on gay marriage will buy good will or a respite of any kind for the Catholic Church. Militant secularism will not rest until there is not left one stone upon another where the Church now stands. That is the conclusion to be drawn from the Obama administration’s effort to force Church institutions to pay for abortifacient drugs as well as birth control—a dangerous action during an election year that bespeaks an ingrained fanaticism. The hatred for the Church that Jody Bottum chronicles in his essay will not be assuaged by concessions.
As the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore told the Wall Street Journal, Christians are becoming a minority. And what they best can learn from the Jews is how to be a minority, as I argued in a comment on a recent symposium on the future of First Things. There are some concessions that traditional religion cannot make without sacrificing its authority, and the character of the human family is one of these. Orthodox Judaism survived decades of cultural isolation when conventional wisdom predicted that it shrink to the status of an irrelevant sect. Orthodoxy has thrived, on the contrary, precisely because it refused to abandon Torah values, while progressive Jewish denominations are shrinking. Christians should take encouragement from the Orthodox example and remain true to their principles. And Jews should continue to set an example of faithfulness to Torah values in the public square as well as the synagogue. The robust growth of Torah-observant Judaism has a radiating effect on the culture around us, most of all through our influence on traditionally-minded Christians. That is why the Orthodox organizations are right to take a public stand against official sanction of gay marriage, even if the stance is unpopular.
The “enchanted garden” of traditional society described by Max Weber won’t be coming back.1 What Jody Bottum has raised is the most difficult of questions for a Catholic: can the faith that created the West survive the death of traditional society? As I report in my book How Civilizations Die (and Why Islam is Dying, Too), formerly traditional Catholic countries like Poland, Spain, Quebec and Ireland went into a secular tailspin as they were forced into modernity. If Catholicism recedes in the United States, what Richard John Neuhaus called “the naked public square” will be far less hospitable to Judaism. The acceptance of gay marriage in American culture sounds a warning not only for Catholicism but for Orthodox Judaism as well. “A Catholic Case for Same-Sex Marriage” is a wake-up call to us all to strengthen our roles as the center of moral opposition.
- I find Jody Bottum’s reading of Weber confusing. Weber borrowed the concept of the “disenchantment of the world” from the poet and philosopher Friedrich Schiller, who blamed it not on the Enlightenment, but rather on monotheism. Schiller’s poem “The Gods of Greece” mourns the loss of the colorful panoply of pagan gods, complaining, “Einen zu bereichern unter allen/Musste diese Götterwelt vergehn” (to enrich One among all of them this world of gods had to perish). “The Gods of Greece” should be read next to Schiller’s essay “Moses’ Mission,” where he claimed that Moses was adept of the Egyptian priesthood who sold a rationalist philosophy to the ignorant Hebrews in the phony guise of revelation. “How,” Schiller asked, “could (Moses) entrust to an ignorant, enslaved rabble, which his nation is, even the slightest comprehension of a truth, which is the heritage of a few Egyptian wise men, and which presumes a high degree of enlightenment, to be comprehended?… The true God concerns himself for the Hebrew people no more than any other people.”
Schiller was right to blame us for the world’s disenchantment. We were under orders to destroy Weber’s “great enchanted garden, to “destroy their altars, and break down their images, and cut down their groves, and burn their graven images with fire.” ↩
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