Sunday, April 16, 2017

Rod Dreher's Wake Up Call

Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option has been out for a few weeks. As a Christian, I’m hoping the book puts down deep roots, that it escapes the fate of most books on the culture, which make a brief stir, then slip off the radar. Dreher’s book doesn’t deserve such a fate.

Dreher has been writing on a “Benedict Option” for years. He coined the term in echo of a passage near the end of Alasdair MacIntyre’s classic After Virtue, where the Scottish philosopher argues that what the West now needs is a figure similar to St. Benedict. Referencing our current state, MacIntyre wrote:

What matters at this stage is the construction of local forms of community within which civility and the intellectual and moral life can be sustained through the new dark ages which are already upon us. . . . This time however the barbarians are not waiting beyond the frontiers; they have already been governing us for quite some time. And it is our lack of consciousness of this that constitutes part of our predicament. We are waiting not for a Godot, but for another--doubtless very different--St. Benedict.

After Virtue is one of the most cunningly constructed philosophical wrecking balls ever to be swung at the edifice of Enlightenment ideology, and MacIntyre's deep critique of modern bureaucratic culture and the “emotivism” that modernity has spawned leads him to put new emphasis on communal practices as the only viable basis for a meaningful ethics. Dreher, seeing the need for a similar return to Christ-guided practices among Christians, and taking the seminal case of St. Benedict as touchstone, slowly began compiling what would become The Benedict Option.

I come to Dreher’s book from a unique place, a personal history that all but forces me to recognize the troubling truth in his main arguments. Dreher insists that American Christians have for a couple decades now been ignoring their real position in American culture. He is right. What’s more, I believe his widely misunderstood ideas about what must come next, if Christianity is to survive, are right as well.

For most of my adult life I counted myself on the left. As a student in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, I was active in the Divest from Apartheid movement and very active in the nuclear weapons freeze movement. My theory-heavy area of study, Comparative Literature, left me with a keen sense of the subtle powers of ideology in discourse, whether political discourse, or literary, or in the everyday. Many lifelong friendships began in Madison, and this web of friends for many years kept me committed to a politically left reading of the world and American culture. That commitment, however, started to crack in 2011.

Already back in university I was something of an odd man out, because I was also Christian. I defined myself as a “left Christian”, of course, often stressing the social doctrine side of the Gospel, and was unorthodox in my speculative, often agonistic, theological struggles, seeking to ground a new understanding of the faith. I had a strong sense of the divine Presence in the world, of a Mystery that wasn’t to be seized in language but must nonetheless be reverenced. Early on I understood that this reverence for God was connected to anything the West might mean by human rights. The faith had a world-historical importance--one might say the world-historical importance--even as it pointed beyond the world. My focus on European literatures gave me in addition a deep respect for the Western tradition.

All through those years, and up to the start of the new century, there were things in the American left I didn't support; causes my peers considered progressive but that I stood against. At that time, back in 1989, in 1995, perhaps even in 2003, this was still possible: I could be a faithful Christian but still part of the American left.

All that has changed. The new century has seen our “left” almost completely abandon the goals that kept people like me in solidarity. Worse, it has seen the rise to prominence of all the elements I didn’t support: the shrill identity politics, the speech codes, abortion “rights” as the meaning of womanhood; and most noticeable of all, the now fanatical fetish of sexual self-definition--the more perverse the better--as the very meaning of "progressive".

As Rod Dreher lays it out in The Benedict Option, what we are seeing in all this is the final, decisive victory of the Sexual Revolution that began in the 1960s, the LGBT movement its final avant-garde:

The advance of gay civil rights, along with a reversal of religious liberties for believers who do not accept the LGBT agenda, had been slowly but steadily happening for years. The U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision declaring a constitutional right to same-sex marriage was the Waterloo of religious conservatism. It was the moment the Sexual Revolution triumphed decisively, and the culture war, as we have known it since the 1960s, came to an end. In the wake of Obergefell, Christian beliefs about the sexual complementarity of marriage are considered to be abominable prejudice--and in a growing number of cases, punishable. The public square has been lost.

Dreher is especially persuasive in arguing that this victory is not merely a matter of the previous culture “loosening up” its sexual mores or expanding the range of acceptable sexual behavior. He sees it rather as a thoroughgoing shift in cosmology, a culture-wide rejection of the Western understanding of our place in the universe and its replacement with something utterly different. What we are undergoing, according to Dreher, is a far-reaching redefinition of the meaning of sexuality and of the individual’s relation to his or her own being. With the Sexual Revolution’s triumph, sexuality is no longer grounded in any metaphysical truth of human nature, but has become a pure expression of the self’s supposed ability to define itself. One’s sexual being is no longer a given, grounded in one’s sex. Thus, in our new order, “We are married” no longer presupposes a sex-based understanding of what that means; nor, with more recent developments, does the statement “I am a man” even presuppose a male body.

One good reason to read The Benedict Option is to get a sense of what this shift means in relation to the millennia of cultural life that came before. Dreher lays out some of the intellectual history that prepared the soil for the shift, but he’s especially strong in his depiction of just how different this new version of humanity is. He is right, besides, that Christianity can make no peace with this revolution. Biblical anthropology stands on completely different grounds, a vision of the meaning of sex as rooted not in individual desire, but in male and female as embodying a supra-individual cosmic mandate. Sexuality in the Christian rubric was not mostly a matter of what turned individuals on, but of how individuals were to fulfill their relation to that divinely given purpose.

How did this revolutionary victory, once realized, affect the culture? Myself I noticed a very tangible shift in the terrain during Obama’s second term. I now attribute it to awareness among liberals and leftists that, with “marriage equality”, the old regime had finally been routed. This meant a new kind of relationship to those like myself who were, on some matters, still part of that old regime. If previously the left could consider me one of them, a somewhat eccentric religious guy whose “heart was in the right place”, suddenly there was a new coldness. In the past it had always been “Well, Eric, you subscribe to a religious interpretation, I don’t”--but our conversation, whatever the subject, would go on. Now any time the discussion, whether face to face or online, got near any part of my Christianity, their point seemed to be that the conversation would not go on. I’d get the equivalent of a scowl, as if even mentioning the Christian tradition was repugnant: all such thinking needed to be finally and utterly pushed out of sight.

I’d always had gay friends, written on gay writers, supported gays and lesbians in their struggles against the anathema conservatives placed on them. I’d always found the bourgeois Christian stigma on sexual sin over the top; it was often cruel and un-Christian--seeming to imply as it did that sexual sin was in a special category that made it worse, even qualitatively different, than sins like pride or greed. I never thought this way myself. But any nuances in my thought made no difference in the new climate. When it became clear to liberal acquaintances that I didn’t agree to their fickle redefinition of marriage, they jumped straight to ostracism. It was not any more that I “disagreed” with them (as I always had on abortion)--no, I had to be made to disappear. Those who held to the old view of marriage were to have no place in our Brave New World. They could be given no place even to speak.

Why such weight put on this particular issue? I’d disagreed with my fellows on the left before, and my right to such disagreement had been recognized. Why now was it suddenly necessary to censor me?

I now see it as related to something Dreher and others have been onto for years. The logic of Enlightenment, the way this logic has been pushed and combined with the Sexual Revolution, has in fact made sexual self-definition the very center of a new cosmology, even a new religion of sorts. On this Dreher has learned much from the brilliant sociologist and culture critic Philip Rieff:

In Rieff’s theory of culture, a culture is defined by what it forbids. Each culture has its own “order of therapy”--a system that teaches its members what is permitted within its bounds and gives them sanctioned ways to let off the pressure of living by the community’s rules, which are traditionally rooted in religion. Moreover, the asceticism in a culture--that is, the ideal of self-denial--cannot be an end in itself, because that would destroy a culture. Rather, it must be a “positive asceticism” that links the individual negating his own particular desires to the achievement of a higher, positive, life-affirming goal. . . . A culture begins to die . . . “when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling, first of all to the cultural elites themselves.” . . .

What made our condition so revolutionary, he said, was that for the first time in history, the West was attempting to build a culture on the absence of belief in a higher order that commanded our obedience. In other words, we were creating an “anti-culture,” one that made the foundation for a stable culture impossible.

That is, instead of teaching us what we must deprive ourselves of to be civilized, we have a culture built on a cult of desire . . .

“Eros must be raised to the level of a religious cult in modern society, not because we really are that obsessed with it, but because the myth of freedom demands it,” says political philosopher Stephen L. Gardner. “It is in carnal desire that the modern individual believes he affirms his ‘individuality’. The body must be the true ‘subject’ of desire because the individual must be the author of his own desire.”

In declaring myself against “same-sex marriage” in 2011, I was thus offending against the very core of this new Sacred. Soon to follow the redefinition of marriage there came the supposed right of individuals to define their gender, indeed to invent dozens of new “genders” to correspond to whatever their self-mythicization might project:

The Romantic ideal of the self-created man finds its fulfillment in the newest vanguards of the Sexual Revolution, transgendered people. They refuse to be bound by biology and have behind them an elite movement teaching new generations that gender is whatever the choosing individual wants it to be.

Back in 2011, during the marriage debate, what struck me most was the almost apoplectic fury of liberals when faced with any disagreement. It was a visceral hatred, flaring suddenly, accompanied by the most vulgar insults and sometimes even veiled threats of violence. And this from people who knew me as someone more or less in their camp on other issues.

Deep hatred of anyone who doesn’t march lock-step with LGBT dogma is now widespread. I remember once going to a Facebook page in support of Barronelle Stutzman, the soft-spoken 72-year-old Washington state florist now being sued out of house and home because she told a gay customer she couldn’t arrange flowers for his wedding. Here were the two first visitor comments that appeared:

And Barronelle, a woman who’d always treated this particular gay customer well but only demurred on wedding flowers--these people would have you believe that she is the hater.

The insults I was getting from my fellow leftists were not far from what these “progressives” dished out to Ms. Stutzman. Which made me realize: Were they actually my fellow leftists in any meaningful sense? Could I in any way work together with people who obviously wanted me in a prison camp?

To interpret such visceral hatred, I now think it useful to focus on the revolution part of Sexual Revolution. We might look at previous political revolutions to get some idea of where we’re at as orthodox Christians. American historian Crane Brinton, in his Anatomy of Revolution, was one of the first to analyze the stages a revolution goes through.

Revolutions are typically won by a coalition of political actors working together. Once victory is clear, there is often a brief “honeymoon period” where it seems to the victorious classes that anything is possible. For obvious reasons, this euphoria wears off quickly. Because it’s not long before those who backed the revolution realize that life goes on much as before: Utopia has not been established on earth. A growing malaise combines with the fact that the revolutionary leaders are used to living in battle mode, and thus comes the predictable next step. Moderates among the leadership are accused of not being radical enough in their policies--“We must not give in to these backsliders!”--a purge takes place, and the radicals take over. The ambient ardor left over from the initial revolution is then refocused on two new tasks: 1) ensuring ideological purity; 2) mopping up what remains of the defeated classes, who are depicted as all that stands in the way of Utopia’s final arrival. Thus begins the Terror. During this immediately post-revolutionary period, wholly new planks are often introduced into the ruling committee’s platform, typically of a more extremist nature than what was originally demanded in the revolution.

If we view the Sexual Revolution through this lens of past political revolution, it’s pretty clear where we are at present. The revolution has been won, sexual Utopia still hasn’t arrived (because, duh, it never can arrive) and the only thing that might keep our successful revolutionaries busy for the next decade is mopping up what remains of those who refused to drink the Rainbow Kool-Aid when it was first served--i.e. us orthodox religious people. Religious conservatives must be mopped up because, according to the logic, it is our mere existence that prevents Utopia’s final arrival.

This is in fact just how it is playing out in America, in our media and in our courts. Note especially the new plank that was quickly added to the revolutionary platform: the trans movement. There’s really no surprise in the meteoric rise of this raging trans craze. All the revolutionary zeal left over after the victory on marriage--something had to be done with it, no? To keep momentum going, the woke among the liberal intelligentsia had to quick set about destroying the very idea of sexual difference. “Yes, let’s invent thirty new genders and demand citizens use new pronouns. Those who don’t will face fines. Let’s put biological males in teen girls’ locker rooms. See how the rubes like that!”

It’s all both supremely perverse and, given where we’re at, depressingly predictable.

Liberals often accuse Christians of being obsessed with sex, but really there’s nothing like the obsessive focus on sex we see in this new mainstreamed liberalism. The reason for it, again, is the need to make the desiring individual the very center of the Sacred. To balk at a man who demands you refer to him as they or ze rather than he is now a kind of sacrilege. And they want punishment for those who don’t conform. (Cf. the struggles of Canadian psychology professor Jordan Peterson.)

So who here is really obsessed with sex as the Center of all Personal Meaning--Christians or this SJW rainbow crowd? I think the answer is obvious.

None of which is to say that sex is unimportant in Christianity. But the Christian understanding of sex is radically different. Dreher:

In speaking of how men and women of the early Christian era saw their bodies, historian Peter Brown says the body “was embedded in a cosmic matrix in ways that made its perception of itself profoundly unlike our own. Ultimately, sex was not the expression of inner needs, lodged in the isolated body. Instead, it was seen as the pulsing, through the body, of the same energies as kept the stars alive. . . .”

Early Christianity’s sexual teaching does not come from the words of Christ and the Apostle Paul; more broadly, it emerges from the Bible’s anthropology. The human being bears the image of God, however tarnished by sin, and is the pinnacle of an order created and imbued with meaning by God.

The sexual binary of male and female is an integral fact of this created order. In itself it bears metaphysical meaning: “The significance of sexual difference has never before been contingent upon a creature’s preferences, or upon whether or not God gave it episodically to a particular creature to have certain preferences,” writes Catholic theologian Christopher Roberts. He goes on to say that for Christians, the meaning of sexuality has always depended on its relationship to the created order and to eschatology--the ultimate end of man. “As was particularly clear, perhaps for the first time in Luther, the fact of a sexually differentiated creation is reckoned to human beings as a piece of information from God about who and what it meant to be human,” writes Roberts.

Contrary to modern gender theory, the question is not Are we men or women? but How are we to be male and female together? The legitimacy of our sexual desire is limited by the givenness of nature. The facts of our biology are not incidental to our personhood. Marriage has to be sexually complementary because only the male-female pair mirrors the generatively of the divine order.

Gay marriage, as Dreher indicates, denies this complementarity and thus cannot be actual marriage. “Similarly, transgenderism doesn’t merely bend but breaks the biological and metaphysical reality of male and female.” Dreher again cites Philip Rieff:

Rieff, writing in the 1960s, identified the Sexual Revolution--though he did not use that term--as a leading indicator of Christianity’s demise. In classical Christian culture, he wrote, “the rejection of sexual individualism” was “very near the center of the symbolic that has not held.” He meant that renouncing the sexual autonomy and sensuality of pagan culture and redirecting the erotic instinct was intrinsic to Christian culture. Without Christianity, the West was reverting to its former state.

It is nearly impossible for contemporary Americans to comprehend why sex was a central concern of early Christianity. Sarah Ruden, the Yale-trained classics translator, explains the culture into which Christianity appeared in her 2010 book Paul Among the People. Ruden contends that it’s profoundly ignorant to think of the Apostle Paul as a dour proto-puritan descending upon happy-go-lucky pagan hippies, ordering them to stop having fun.

In fact, Paul’s teachings on sexual purity and marriage were adopted as liberating in the pornographic, sexually exploitative Greco-Roman culture of the time--exploitative especially of slaves and women, whose value to pagan males lay chiefly in their ability to produce children and provide sexual pleasure. Christianity, as articulated by Paul, worked a cultural revolution, restraining and channeling male eros, elevating the status of both women and of the human body, and infusing marriage--and marital sexuality--with love.

What we have now, in the West, are two incompatible anthropologies. Worse, those who support the Sexual Revolution are uninterested in classical liberal pluralism, which would allow for space in the public arena for the two anthropologies to compete. After Obergefell, many Christians expected, as the LGBT activists promised, that the legalization of same-sex marriage would not impinge upon the rights of Christian institutions to live by and teach their own understanding of marriage. It is turning out quite otherwise, with a mounting wave of lawsuits that threaten the very existence of Christian schools, universities and charities. The gay lobby pursues these cases with evident glee. It is they who do not want to live and let live.

What then must be done given 1) the post-revolutionary fury with which the LGBT movement seeks to expel orthodox Christianity from the public arena, and 2) the necessity for Christians to remain faithful to biblical principles for the church to survive and thrive? What is Rod Dreher’s advice for Christians at this juncture?

My writing here so far, especially if read by liberals, likely gives the impression that The Benedict Option is little more than a handwringing conservative lament on American sexual ethics. It is nothing of the sort. Rather, Dreher’s book as a whole presents a multi-faceted strategy for revitalizing Christian life through intentional life choices and a renewed engagement with earlier Christian practices--the faith as it was lived and practiced before the 20th century flood.

Part of Dreher’s assessment of current Christian culture is based on research done by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. What Smith and Denton discovered, through study of the beliefs of actual Americans, was that the de facto “Christianity” now practiced in America, particularly among the young, has very very little in common with the traditional faith. They coined the term Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD) to describe this new American religion. Compared to the historical faith, MTD is doctrinally paper thin, and can be summed up in a few bland credos, among them: 1) God is looking over us but not much involved with happenings on earth; 2) God wants us to be nice to each other and to be happy with ourselves; 3) Good people, when they die, go to heaven.

Dreher believes, and I agree, that this way of living our faith is both widespread and seriously inadequate. He also believes that the churches--too much in the business of flattering the feel-good vanities of the flock and not enough concerned with forming souls--are deeply implicated in the spread of this eroded version of what the Apostles taught. He insists that we as a people, the earthly body of Christ, stand no chance of surviving the corrosive secularism of this new century if we continue muddling along in this milquetoast therapeutic version of our faith.

Many of Dreher’s chapters are dedicated to studying alternatives to our current state, and he begins, aptly, with a long chapter on the Benedictine monks of Norcia, Italy. This portrait of a group of men, our contemporaries, who’ve willingly given up everything and dedicated themselves to prayer, contemplation and the works of mercy, allows Dreher to delve into what a more authentic Christian understanding of work, community and spiritual life might look like. It proves a good starting point, as it gives Dreher the chance to clarify a general thesis: that we, as Christians, though not all called to monastic life, are nonetheless called to bring our everyday life activities as much into harmony with Christ as we can. We are failing in this, especially as regards our attitudes to community and work, which for most of us have been shaped almost entirely by the secular culture we were raised in. According to Dreher, this inability to let Christ into our communal and work life has made us into little more than churchgoing versions of the late-modern Standard Issue Human: egotistical but lost, ethically without rudder, consumerists dragged to and fro by advertising, fashion, zero-sum-game politics, Facebook “likes”.

The Norcian monks are just the first of many intentional Christian communities Dreher touches on. Another of them, also in Italy, a group that charmingly calls itself Tipi Loschi--in Italian, “the Usual Suspects”--is practicing a radical form of community building and youth education that also might offer no small light to those seeking a Christian way out. Of course Dreher also interviews people in many intentional Christian communities in the US, whether Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox, seeking to answer the question: What does a “Benedict Option” lifestyle really look like? How can one be part of American culture, yet also establish a distance that allows for the cultivation of the soul in a community of like-minded others? Dreher gives multiple examples of the joys and potential challenges.

Not surprisingly, Dreher also addresses one of the starkest challenges serious Christian families now face in America, namely how to raise children in the faith and keep them from being corrupted by the trashy ethos the dominant culture now models for them 24/7. These chapters on youth and education are some of the most interesting in the book, and they address everything from options for schooling (Dreher advises, if at all possible, that you get your kids out of public schools) to the threat posed by smart phone culture.

But what of Christian politics? How should Christians engage in the political process? This is one of the areas where Dreher’s work has been most widely misunderstood. Far too many have seen in Dreher’s project a call to “run for the hills”, to “retreat” from public life; a call to “let the public arena go to hell on its own” while hiding out in the catacombs. Many of these critics, to read them, seem not to have read the same book I just finished. Their reaction to Dreher’s project might have been understandable before the book was out, but now that the book is on the shelves, I think they might need to take a more careful look at the actual arguments, the double-directedness of the project. On this, Dreher quotes with approval one of the Norcian Benedictines, who speaks of the need to have "borders" behind which we live to nurture our faith, but also the need to "push outwards, infinitely." This double focus has always been implicit in Dreher's writing on the Benedict Option, so it's odd how often it's missed. Some critics, I suspect, are mainly afraid to face up to what's happening in America.

Given our decisive rout in the culture wars, you’d think we Christians would step back a bit and ask ourselves if we weren’t doing a few things wrong. Dreher identifies the virtual fusion in many minds of Christianity and the Republican Party as one of the biggest mistakes of recent decades. A sizable demographic, he argues, came to think of their Church as “the Republican Party at prayer”. The problem here, in my analysis, was not so much that power corrupts, but that imagined power corrupts. How so?

Far too many conservative Christians came to believe that, as long as their governors were in office, or as long as a Republican was in the White House, the Gospel was doing well. This was a grave error. It was an example of bad faith, shirking off responsibility to others, in this case to a political party that was more interested in serving its corporate interests than in smoothing the way for the Kingdom. Meanwhile, as American Christians told themselves that all was right with the world because the GOP held enough seats, the GOP was simultaneously self-justifying its relative inactivity on abortion or economic justice or religious liberty by saying that, after all, they were just politicians, and if the churches could not gather enough public support for what they wanted and couldn’t manage to sway corporate opinion as to their demographic clout, who were they, mere politicians, to do anything risky? After all, they needed to ensure they’d get elected next time around.

The degree to which this kind of mutual bad faith weakened Christian witness in America over the recent couple decades would be hard to exaggerate. Dreher, always an astute political observer (his blog is must reading) saw just what would follow once the corporate world realized that money was to be made in cozying up to the LGBT movement. And so in Indiana, when modest religious liberty protections were proposed in 2014, and the corporate boards decided to virtue signal by threatening the state with boycotts should they actually enact such “bigoted” legislation, GOP governor Mike Pence didn’t stand his ground. Under pressure from the business lobby, the Indiana law was swiftly rewritten to the point of making it toothless. This, Dreher has said repeatedly, is what you will get if you put your hopes in the Republican Party.

Which is why Dreher now insists that putting too many of our eggs as Christians in any political party’s basket is a mistake. When push comes to shove, the Republican Party will sell us out. What is necessary for us at present is to build up solid Christian communities. Because, if our eyes are open, there is little hope in anything else.

In one fascinating chapter, Dreher offers portraits of two famous Czech dissidents under communism, Vaclav Havel and Vaclav Benda. These men, he argues, offer examples of the kind of “antipolitical politics” we should begin to practice as Christians. Both Havel and Benda realized the importance of resistance at the individual, everyday level. And they understood the necessity of building alternative communities under or parallel to the overarching, oppressive national political order. One gains hope from these examples of anti-communist resistance because, as surprised even them, their steady underground resistance finally bore fruit. Similar dynamics in Poland also saw the Church prove decisive in bringing down totalitarianism.

But we in America are not (at least not yet) under such intense political pressure. Which is all the more reason, according to Dreher, for us to be both strategic and steady in our political efforts. Being joined at the hip to any political party is not strategic given where we’re at. The only cause Dreher insists we should be intensely involved with (as in paying attention and organizing and pressuring our representatives) is the constitutional cause of religious liberty. Because if that is lost, so much else of what we can accomplish, through schools or charities, will be lost too.

Dreher is emphatic about this fight because it is by no means certain that we will win it. It is all too obvious that the new Sexual Identity Commissars are busy 24/7 trying to take away the rights of Christian schools and universities to teach the faith and run their institutions on Christian principles. We must remember that vast swaths of the liberal intelligentsia no longer even believe religious liberty exists as anything other than “an excuse for hate”.

And so I come full circle, back to the question of the threat posed by LGBT activists and their ever-supportive SJW ranks. These people have already gained far too much sway over our courts, schools, and media, not to mention the sway they’ve gained in many denominations. Aside from fighting for religious liberty, how should orthodox Christians meet this threat in the public arena?

One thing I wish Dreher had included in this book are his thoughts on what might be called the rules of engagement between orthodox religious people and the sexual revolutionaries. How are Christians, in the public arena, to communicate with a public that largely supports the “reforms” demanded by Team Rainbow?

My intellectual background convinces me of one thing: Language is the crowbar of ideology. It is language, the manipulation and coining of terms, that ideology uses to pry its way into social consciousness. It is via new concepts, embodied in language, that new ideologies set up shop.

In many circles in America people no longer bat an eye when someone refers to Rob’s “husband”. And it’s growing ever more common for people to refer to some biological female as he or they or even ze. It’s now considered correct to accept and make an effort to use whatever pronouns an individual demands--otherwise one is a bigot. Courts have already come down on the side of people insisting on these new pronouns; fines have already been levied. In Canada, which now has it worse than we do, refusal to use these newly minted pronouns is literally illegal.

The man next to one says: “I’m Ryan. This is my husband Dave.” The woman next to one says: “I’m nonbinary. My pronouns are they/them.” My question: Should Christians agree to use any of this language?

This question is not a trivial one, nor is it easy to answer. On the one hand, Christians must show concern and love for others, regardless of ideological differences, a truth Dreher underlines repeatedly. In this vein, how would it show care and concern if one refused even to acknowledge an individual’s married status? To insist on using partner rather than husband for a married gay couple would now widely be seen as openly disrespectful, besides being, in many instances, legally actionable. Perhaps this will soon be true also with the many new gender pronouns. Shouldn’t Christians just agree to use the terms society is using, as a gesture of peace and goodwill? Can’t Christians just maintain their disagreement in their hearts and in the more closed confines of their communities?

It may be best to do so. But the cost is huge. Because, as I’ve suggested, to use another’s descriptive terms is already to agree to the reality they are promoting. To refer to a woman’s partner as her “wife”, even to do it out of politeness, is to agree that their relationship is actually a marriage. To use ze (rather than he or she) to refer to an individual is to admit that there is such a gender that corresponds to that term. And so: When a Christian agrees to use this terminology, isn’t that Christian more or less burning a pinch of incense to Caesar?

I’d be very curious to see how Dreher might answer these questions on linguistic rules of engagement. I was somewhat surprised he didn’t address such issues in his book. I won’t quote the Havel passage in full, but I wonder: Every time we utter one of these demanded terms, aren’t we forfeiting the bravery shown by the greengrocer who refused to hang the “Workers of the World” slogan in his shop window?

I admit that I’m not sure of the right way forward on this. Is it better, on terminology, to err on the side of peace-making? Or should we ensure that our speech always testifies to what we believe is the truth?

Dreher’s Benedict Option is a brilliant call for Christians to return to the basics of the faith, to recognize how far we’ve been led astray in our hyper-consumerist secular culture. He has made a compelling case for return to an earlier Christian understanding, the authentic one, and for changing our daily lives through a more thoughtful, principled Christian practice. The book doesn’t answer every question (no book can) but it makes for a worthy “starter manual” of sorts for those who recognize the need for serious change. I’m hoping the book puts down deep roots.

Check out Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation

Check out Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory

And for something completely different, check out my Idiocy, Ltd.


Andrew said...

I found this article linked from Rod Dreher's blog, and I have an opinion on the idea that Christians are being driven from the culture. For the record, I am a gay man from the South.

"I’d always had gay friends, written on gay writers, supported gays and lesbians in their struggles against the anathema conservatives placed on them."

No, Mr. Mader, you didn't support gay people. You considered us fundamentally sinful and deviant. That you were less cruel than others of your faith might have made you tolerable, but as people have gotten a taste of actual freedom, of not having to compromise their own lives because you say so, your message is revealed to be just a less rotten spot of the same foul fruit, and we'd rather turn elsewhere. And now that we can see and feel the difference, we recognize the danger in your stance. The careers ruined, the families destroyed, the lives lost to what you would consider "reasonableness." And we don't want to put up with it anymore. But you can't see that because of your faith, and so to you it seems that we have turned against you.

People like you are just abusers who knew how to not leave bruises. You are resentful that you are now recognized as such. You will continue to be allowed to believe what you will and to worship as you please, and, yes, you will continue to see your reputation decline as the rest of the world is unpersuaded by your stance. It's not oppression but rather a failure of your own rhetoric. But you are, as always, free to believe it otherwise.

Anonymous said...

"...You will continue to be allowed to believe what you will and to worship as you please...."

Allowed. This coming from someone protesting earlier oppression. Truman had it right. Every group that suffers, once it gains power, turns around and oppresses another.

bouletheou said...

Your analysis of the function of language is spot on. As a pastor, I realized many years ago that a large part of my office had to do with the privilege and responsibility to form and/or re-form my flock's understanding of reality according to the Bible..... to say "You think what you are experiencing is "x" and that assumption is having these harmful effects on your life. According to God, you are actually experiencing "y" and accepting that definition will produce these good effects in your life." Rod quoted some academic within the past month on his blog (can't remember who) to the effect that the power of a culture is the power to name things and thus define reality.

Given that self-evident truth, the radical power of simple Christian proclamation becomes easy to see. Christian proclamation is simply speaking God's truth contra the distortions of reality produced by fallen minds and fallen hearts in a fallen world. The early church was doing exactly this when it said, "These so-called gods are no gods at all, and we will not do the thing that society is demanding that we do regarding them. We will not agree with lies, even in the name of civic harmony."

If that is true, then the rubber language questions resolve themselves. Distortions of reality must be calmly, lovingly challenged. The price will be very high.

bouletheou said...

Andrew said...


"Allowed. This coming from someone protesting earlier oppression. Truman had it right. Every group that suffers, once it gains power, turns around and oppresses another. "

Do you happen to have a better phrasing for "you will not be oppressed in the manner in which you believe?" The Gays are not coming for Christians, but I don't think there's a way for me to say that in English that couldn't be interpreted to suggest we have the power to do so and that we only restrain ourselves out of magnanimity.

Nobody is going to prevent Christians from worshiping or holding their beliefs. Christians may occasionally be limited in public life if the practice of their beliefs conflicts with the day-to-day operation of society, but no sinister gay cabal is going to push for the oppression of Christians. Is that phrased neutrally enough for you?

Troublemaker said...

"Nobody is going to prevent Christians from worshiping or holding their beliefs."
Except when it is time to move into Christian churches and regulate them there. I use to believe that the LGBT movement would stop at the churches door. But not more after Eric Walsh. This is why we do not believe you when you way that there is no interest in oppressing Christians.

Anonymous said...

@Troublemaker: unless you're a florist, a baker, the owner of Memories Pizza, a church that opens your door for a "public function" (nearly all church functions are public functions) a university professor, a lawyer, a physician, a pharmacist, etc. etc.

Yeah. No real problem there.

Anonymous said...

Oops, meant to address that to Andrew.

Anonymous said...

I'm not really sure what the author is asking for here. Surely he believes that people have a right to find a position morally abhorrent. I assume he would not want people ordered to glad-hand with positions they find morally reprehensible. I assume he thinks, were he to encounter an anti-Semite or an avowed racist at a cocktail party, that he has every right to treat them coldly and then wander off to other conversations.
So where is the tyranny here? Would it not be tyrannical to DENY people the right to find his positions unwelcome?
I understand that he finds this situation unpleasant. Who wouldn't. And I understand why he feels disoriented; opinions on this matter have shifted rapidly. But I fail to see the wrongdoing. Such is the price of living in a society. People will start to dislike you if they find you morally or ethically abhorrent. There's no revolution or tyranny in that fact. Just freedom of conscience. Freedom of association. And change.

Anonymous said...

Sorry .. .I guess I'm anonymous 2.

But to Anonymous 1: do you not think society has a right to prohibit discrimination in the market place? On racial grounds? ON religious grounds? Seems to me that we've had this debate already, and we - as a country - quite firmly decided that it was within the state's power to bar discrimination on certain characteristics. Why should sexual orientation not be among them? After-all, in all of the instances you mentioned, the anti-discrimination ordinance was enacted democratically (not imposed by a court).

Anonymous said...

Why is Mr. Mader surprised to find himself ostracized by his gay acquaintances and their friends when he declares that their marriages are no such thing?

How eager would he be to keep company with people who declared that Mr. Mader wasn't 'really married'?

Mark K. said...

Another good and poignant read in the same vein but with a broader scope is Atheist Delusions by David Bentley Hart. Highly recommend.

Eric Mader said...


You know nothing about my past actions in support of gays and lesbians, and know nothing about my current friendships with gays and lesbians, who besides know my thinking on these issues but remain my friends. What I write about in my article are the reactions of friends and acquaintances who consider themselves part of the progressive left. Not all of my friends are in that crowd.

But hey: Though your comment verges on obnoxious in its presumption, I'm going to do something that your team has recently proven itself incapable of doing. I'm going to let it stay up. I'm not going to censor it.

Re: which, the first Anonymous gets it right. "You will continue to be allowed . . ." Except you know what, Andrew? I don't think I or any orthodox Christian group would be allowed to function if LGBT activists had their way. Rather, to shut up those who disagree with them, I'm now convinced these activists wouldn't flinch from using any draconian, illiberal methods available, including jail or worse.

And so: Though I have LGBT friends I love and respect, I have little but contempt for the politics of the American LGBT movement.

@Brian Carpenter:

Many thanks for your remarks, which you frame brilliantly. You've made me see one of the challenges of having a flock--made me see it in terms of the kind of linguistic wisdom I write about at the end of my review. I fear, in our search for "relevance", too many of us are losing the ability to state things clearly. And yes, I think we have to face it that the price for speaking the truth will be high, as it has often been in history.


Certainly I recognize people's right to find my positions abhorrent, or to not wish to talk to me because of things I believe. I recognize their RIGHT to this, but in my review I am commenting, specifically, on two things: 1) the odd and sudden FURY they demonstrated (given that, hey, all of them had grown up in a society where it was taken for granted that marriage was between male and female); 2) the fact that they'd swiftly demonize someone who agreed with them on much else JUST BECAUSE OF this one issue.

In short, sure, that crowd always had the right to do what they like, but I have the right to NOTICE their fanaticism and to try to explain it, as I did above.

@Mark K.:

Will check out the book. Thanks.

La Lubu said...

Hoo boy. Where to begin? You've said a number of thought-provoking things here, most of which veer off into different arenas. I'll start by means of introduction: I'm unquestionably on "the left", but perhaps a different sort of left than what you're used to...I'm an old-school, blue-collar, labor union person. A lot of what is labeled "left" these days...isn't, IMO. On the other hand, I'm Gen X, and grew up with the typical Gen X template of male/female equality. That was probably amplified by growing up a religious "none" (meaning: no formal or informal education in any religion). To strangers, I'm "spiritual but not religious"; if I can trust you, I'm pagan. So.

Don't make the common conservative mistake of naming the Sexual Revolution as being primarily about sexual intercourse (or the feelings associated with sexual intercourse). The Sexual Revolution is at base, about the equality of men and women. You didn't "lose" on the marketing advantage of the term "marriage equality". You lost---and make no mistake about it, you lost long before this was even a battle---because of the previous rejection of traditional marriage. Not as a catchphrase, but as a practice. Egalitarian marriage is different from traditional marriage---very different, and once that became the norm, there was no going back. It isn't just birth control that changed the parameters, but the addition of those pesky words "and sex" into the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I actually agree with conservatives that point out the flaws in arguments that equate race with sexual orientation. But---it is impossible to allow for discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation ("carve-outs" in civil rights law for religious reasons) without also allowing for discrimination on the basis of sex (which, given the realities of our world, would mean a de-facto negation of the Civil Rights Act for women).

It is wise also to not make the common conservative mistake that these issues are about "feelings" (emotions). They are not. They are about doings. What we do shapes who we are and who we become. It's what I find intriguing about Rod's assertion of the Benedict Option, as that practice (however it develops in any given community) insists upon doings as the bedrock. It's also why I'm surprised (but perhaps shouldn't be) at the pushback he is receiving. I think his critics need to read (or re-read) "Shop Class As Soulcraft" or Richard Sennett's "The Craftsman". What you do shapes who you are.

That's true for all of us. But it has strong implications for conservatives who are going to have an increasingly hard time making a successful argument based in assumptions that their audience doesn't share or cannot relate to. (for example: "complementarian" arguments---nothing could possibly be more foreign to me!) On the upside, life isn't a zero-sum game. Take it from a pagan: it is more than possible to maintain a religious practice despite the majority of your neighbors not only not sharing it, but being actively hostile towards it, and despite not enjoying the power of the state or culture in maintaining it.

nnnnn said...

“When it became clear to liberal acquaintances that I didn’t agree to their fickle redefinition of marriage, they jumped straight to ostracism.”

I’m saying this completely in earnest. Apologies if it comes off as snarky or combative:

I think you may be literally incapable of understanding how tendentious this sentence is.

“Fickle”? Capricious, changeable, flighty, temperamental, unpredictable, unstable, volatile? Really?

Look, from our side, the crux of it is simply the principle that governments may not discriminate in terms of access to government-regulated institutions based on sexual orientation. The government controls an institution called “civil marriage”; it is not permitted to tell straight couples “you have access to this institution” and to tell similarly situated gay couples “you do not have access to this institution”. Just like the voting booth, or the public schools, or, I don’t know, parklands or the public library or whatever; absent a compelling interest that’s relevant to the government in question, the government is not allowed to say, *this* group of people may not have access to this public institution.

It really is that simple. It’s a minor working-out of one of the absolute bedrock propositions of the American project: that all people are to be treated equally by the government, regardless of the beliefs (religious or other) of any third parties.

Can you see how it would be, yes, infuriating, to have you brand this as “fickle”? As if, oh, we who support equal access to civil marriage for gay people are just capriciously, opportunistically supporting it so we can REALLY STICK IT TO THOSE RELIGIOUS PEOPLE, because that’s what our primary motive was in the first place!

No. Stop, please. That’s, frankly, offensive.

I don’t care about your religion, I really don’t. What I care about is equal access to civil institutions for ALL citizens. Mr. Obergefell should be able, without question, without government resistance, to have his name on his LEGALLY MARRIED SPOUSE’S death certificate, just like any other citizen. Ms. Windsor should not have to pay estate taxes on her wife’s share of the assets they’ve accumulated over the course of 40 years together.

Because that’s where the rubber meets the road. You are saying that the state of Ohio SHOULD erase the name of a bereaved widower from his legally married spouse’s death certificate. You’re saying that the IRS SHOULD force a bereaved widow to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in estate taxes — on stuff she’s part owner of! — when her partner of 40 years dies.

These things are unjust. Patently unjust. If you disagree with that, there’s really not a whole lot more to talk about. And if you disagree with it by claiming that we’re acting not out of a desire to fix injustices like these, but merely because of fickleness, or out of some sort of anti-religious spite, then it starts to look like you’re not arguing in good faith. You’re failing to faithfully represent our position. And yes, that’s a pretty good way to get people to avoid debating you, and to start trying to avoid you in general.

Anonymous said...

Christians have long been using the terms "wife" and "husband" for people who are not married in God's eyes. After 17 years of marriage, my father divorced my mother when I was 15 in order to marry another woman. Shortly after his second marriage, he and his wife joined a conservative Christian church, where they were welcomed with open arms. Within a couple of years, he was made a deacon. That was more than 40 years ago. I am a devout Christian woman who believes Christ's teaching in Matthew 19. Unless we Christians take seriously Christ's teaching on marriage and divorce, society is not going to be impressed by our protests against same-sex marriage.

Like you, I no longer am accepted by liberal friends as being a good progressive. My conservative friends also don't like my progressive beliefs. At first I was troubled; then I remembered that Christ warned his followers that we would win no popularity contests.

jpbenney said...

What has caused the change in the Left’s focus is the realisation that their original goal of equality of result for all – a goal that has been demanded by the working classes of Europe, East Asia and Latin America for as long as they have existed – is completely impossible under a moral system remotely resembling Christianity.

Added to this is the realisation that the political reforms between 1914 and 1980 had been only superficial compared to what was required to eliminate economic injustice.

Equality of result, in simple terms, means that people who take different choices in everything must be prevented from “receiving” unequal outcomes even if these might be inherent in their decisions. If this be at all true – even if true only occasionally or even rarely – the government logically has to devote itself to accepting lifestyles that lead to welfare dependence, higher rates of illness, or are economic liabilities for all but the very skilled.

As more and more different lifestyles become possible due to the expansion of public welfare for them, demand always becomes for more and more radical equality of outcomes.

Once this is realised, government focus on sexual and moral issues to the exclusion of economic ones is clearly understandable. The aim of absolute individual rights – which first became entrenched as a possibility with the music of AC/DC in the late 1970s and early 1980s – has become established as a prerequisite for the ancient goal of equality of outcomes, in large part because attempts at that goal without preceding radical dismantling of Christian moral prohibitions have lead to tyranny and no less inequality.

Eric Mader said...

@ nnnnn

My lens for looking at marriage is not that of American civil law, which from my point of view is far too narrow a lens. In fact, for purposes of meaningful debate, although I am Christian, my lens is not even that of Christianity. Rather, it is anthropological, or historical.

There are very few human universals. Most cultures respect the dead and have funerary rituals. They do not simply discard the dead, or use the bodies to fertilize fields. One true universal is the incest taboo: it is present in all cultures that have been studied. Another universal is marriage.

Although there are a vast array of marriage customs and a few different types (polygamy, polyandry, etc.) there is one basic universal that stretches through recorded human history: Marriage is between male and female, a unique bond linking male and female to each other and to the children that result from their union.

Think about that. Across the continents--Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas--across millennia, how many different cultures, religious orders, political systems, etc., have there been, and yet all these cultures have recognized a particular status that corresponds to what in English we call "marriage". And again, regardless of all this teeming variety, these cultures have recognized it as by definition heterosexual. (The counterexamples of small-scale cultures before the 20th century that have allowed variation in this heterosexual norm can be counted on two fingers. And even these were not examples of what we mean now by “same-sex marriage".)

On anthropological grounds alone, then, I would argue that, contrary to what you say, our national or state governments are not "in charge" of marriage, but rather that marriage is a human and cultural reality that long precedes the American state and is MORE FUNDAMENTAL than that state or its laws.

I would argue also that what I've presented to you in these comments on marriage as by definition heterosexual is not a "conservative Christian" understanding of marriage against which you could pose some "secular" understanding of marriage. No, the opposition your team glibly stands against here is much vaster than that. By claiming there is such a thing as same-sex marriage, you are not merely defying us orthodox Christians--you are defying the whole of recorded human history. You have taken it upon yourselves to redefine the universal HUMAN meaning of marriage: that basic male-female meaning recognized by Austronesians, Mongol herders, Aztecs, Chinese, Spaniards, Ethiopians, Finns, ancient Athenians, Tibetans, Vikings, Sumerians, Turks, Celts and Japanese. You think there is progressive wisdom in demanding such a sudden change? You think there is wisdom in redefining a universal human institution because of a domestic social movement that is, what, a few decades old?

I look at it and see something else. I think the redefinition is both unnecessary and irresponsible. And when I combined those two words, unnecessary and irresponsible, I came up with: Fickle.

The fundamental question here is: Should our culture have a unique status that links the biological parents of children to each other and to their own children? Should our culture have a term that designates that fundamental biological fact of humanity? I think it should. You think it doesn’t have to.

The term for that unique biological human reality, until a blip ago in historical time, was "marriage". Now that term has lost its specificity, as has the social institution of marriage that was designated by that term. I think some other form of legally recognized civil union would have served just fine for LGBT couples.

But no. To think that way is bigotry, right? Because although there is a discernible difference, we can never insist that there be different terms for different kinds of relations, right?

The results of the redefinition of marriage will play out over generations, and nobody knows what those results will be. But whatever, right?

La Lubu said...

You are trying to wrap the modern form of marriage (as a formal institution) around ancient forms of marriage (which were primarily informal/non-institutional, and more akin to our modern "living together"). But while we're on the subject of ancient practices, pre-modern socities without patriarchal monotheism had no difficulty integrating gay/lesbian/third-gender peoples or couples in their midst. They were recognized as (for lack of a better term) special cases, but perfectly within the spectrum of all-that-is. Many societies even regarded such persons as sacred, and/or better able to communicate across humanity, or even amongst the gods. There isn't really any reason patriarchal monotheistic societies could have adopted that practice, but....they didn't. Yes, there is a unique status that bonds biological parents to their biological children---DNA. The historical purpose of marriage was not primarily to unite parents and children, but to unite extended families and/or clan/tribal groups together.

You also need to remember when making comparisons to the ancient world, that in much of that ancient world, women were property. The real re-definition of marriage happened when women ceased being property---when we gained the same legal rights as men, and were considered as full, legal persons separate and apart from the men of our families. Boom. That changed the parameters of what "we" consider marriage, because for the first time in a long time, half the population had a say in that "we".

That's really the bottom line. Once the equality of women was recognized, all the other arguments re: tradition or biology or whatever were put to the test and found wanting. To be blunt, feminism exists because European colonization of North America put European women in contact with indigenous groups (especially the Iroquois Confederacy and the "Five Civilized Tribes" of the southern U.S.) where women enjoyed higher status, and the immediate reaction was "I'll have what SHE'S having!!" (shrug). It's the same way across the world---cultural exchange always favors egalitarian cultures (and why wouldn't it? would you choose to be a devalued person if you had the opportunity *not* to be?). Same-sex marriage exists because the arguments against it were already proven false by the practice of egalitarian marriage between heterosexuals.

nnnnn said...

“My lens for looking at marriage is not that of American civil law”

While I appreciate your full comment, I can stop you right here. If that’s the case, we literally have nothing to discuss.

The definition of civil marriage in America — the type of marriage that my then-fiancee and I went down to the courthouse and filled out a government form to avail ourselves of — is, by definition, elucidated in American civil law. There’s simply no other way to construe this! We’re talking about how people are treated under the law. That’s what’s at issue here.

If you and others who are part of your religion want to have different constraints on what constitutes a valid marriage, you are perfectly free to do that, and make it binding on whoever chooses to be a member of your religion. Maybe you don’t believe me, but I support that! Even if I think you’re misguided, even if my necessarily limited, probably cherry-picked outsider understanding of Christ’s teachings leads me to believe that you’re horribly distorting what he stood for, I nevertheless don’t believe it’s my place to opine about how your church organizes marriage for the people in that church.

What you’re not free to do is to demand that civil law conform to your religious doctrine, or to your faith’s understanding of “what’s always been true”. In a break with the 1700-odd prior years of Christian-informed tradition, our nation was founded with the principle that all people are equal under the law. As they say, this idea has consequences, and we’ve been working those out for almost 250 years. Religious doctrine was explicitly not given a seat at the table in this working-out.

[to be continued...]

nnnnn said...


Regarding the idea that marriage has always and forever meant a certain thing: that’s just not very persuasive to me as an argument for how we ought to organize contemporary civil law. For one thing, I think your anthropology is off (historical polygamous “marriages” of men with harems of wives supports your framework of “a universal human institution”, really??), but I’m not studied in this, and I’m glad La Lubu chimed in here as her knowledge of the relevant anthropology is way better than mine. The bigger issue for me is that gays were forced to live in the closet for basically the entire stretch of Christian-influenced European civilization. If the Tradition has explicitly anathematized the very thing we’re trying to investigate, then the fact that that thing is not very evident in the historical record under that Tradition is a pretty obvious result, and so “there’s no recorded history of this!” doesn’t have much weight as an argument.

“The fundamental question here is: Should our culture have a unique status that links the biological parents of children to each other and to their own children? Should our culture have a term that designates that fundamental biological fact of humanity? I think it should. You think it doesn’t have to.”

But you’re perfectly well aware, I’m sure, that the laws, regulations, norms, standards, and even, generally speaking, the Tradition of marriage has no mandatory dependency on biological children… right? Your question is wrong on its face: “Marriage” is not at all a “unique status that links the biological parents of children to each other and to their own children”. A marriage MAY involve biological children, but it doesn’t HAVE to; it’s not not-a-marriage if there are no biological children involved. Come on, you know this: Couples aren’t required to stipulate that they plan to have children to get a marriage license. Couples don’t have their marriages unilaterally dissolved by the authorities if they don’t produce children (intentionally or not). Widows and widowers with children are free, even encouraged, to remarry; and even more to the point, widows/widowers aren’t forced to use some alternative terminology — “civil union”, perhaps? — to describe the new marriage, even though the children aren’t the biological product of the relationship. Almost everyone (admittedly, not including the Catholic church) is OK with divorced people entering a new “marriage”. Infertile couples and menopausal women are free to get married. Adoption exists, and is a blessing to all involved.

SOME marriages result in families consisting of a married couple and their biological children all living together, but certainly by no means ALL. Nobody has any problem with any of these other variations of marriage — the fact that they exist, and the fact that they are called “marriages” — EXCEPT when the partners involved happen to be gay. Then, and generally only then, do we start hearing about how marriage is a “unique status” involving biological children.

[further-ly continued... there's a strict character limit here, apparently!]

nnnnn said...

“I think some other form of legally recognized civil union would have served just fine for LGBT couples.”

That’s lovely. Unfortunately for you, that ship sailed in the mid-90s. The situation would be a lot different today if religious conservatives had come out strongly in favor of civil unions back then, with a message like “we have a strong investment in the traditional meaning of the word “marriage”, but we understand that gay families need robust institutions that give them the rights and responsibilities that are bundled up in what we know as civil marriage”. You would have won over a big chunk of the mushy middle (like me, in all probability), isolated the fringe groups like ACT-UP, and deflated any momentum in the marriage equality movement before it even had a chance to build. Instead, you took a maximalist position that brooked no compromise and therefore read as just plain anti-gay (and, in particular, anti-gay-families). After that, it’s just human nature that your opponents went all in.

“But no. To think that way is bigotry, right? Because although there is a discernible difference, we can never insist that there be different terms for different kinds of relations, right?”

If you fail to insist on different terms for all the other variations and permutations of “marriage” listed above, and insist on it ONLY for LGBT people, then yes, that is prima facie bigotry. (And, you know what? You’re ALLOWED to be a bigot. It’s a free country. If you think LGBT people should be treated differently because of their sexual orientation, you’re perfectly free to think that — say it, yell it, publish it, build a church around it! Why are you and Rod D. so scared of being called bigots? Own it!)

“The results of the redefinition of marriage will play out over generations, and nobody knows what those results will be. But whatever, right?”

Edith Windsor has to pay the IRS $363,053 in estate taxes on half of all the assets she accumulated over 40 years with her late wife. But whatever, right?

Eric Mader said...

@ La Lubu

I think you make some good points re: the importance of egalitarianism in the current American practice of marriage. Also, though I haven't had time yet to reply to your first comments here, I did want to weigh in with a hearty nod to say that I hear you loud and clear on our 'left' not being in any real sense a left anymore. The recent shift of the mass of the liberal left toward 24/7 identity politics, meanwhile abandoning all the traditional bread-and-butter and world peace concerns of the old left, is one of my deepest disappointments of this new century. Our left is in fact no longer really even a left.

As for the anthropological questions, aside from your stress on how egalitarianism reframed concepts of marriage, I'd say you're making a mistake in posing such a simple dichotomy between "ancient marriage" and "modern marriage". In any case, my points in my last comment (4/21) are very specifically about marriage as heterosexual, and although the status of women in different cultural orders is relevant, in a way, it doesn't really answer my argument. Here you might notice that your points actually buttress my main claim. Because yes, indeed, you're right that many cultures over history have made space, even glorified, homoerotic love, so that the stigma on homosexuality was not by any means universal--not in the West, or the Americas, or Asia. But consider: Even as those cultures provided space for homoerotic love, sometimes even glorifying it, they yet IN ALL CASES maintained a basic understanding of marriage as male-female. Why was this so, why didn't previous known cultures, even those that didn't look down on homosexual love--why didn't they ever celebrate homosexual "marriages"? There really is no getting around this striking anthropological fact as a piece of evidence for whatever the universal human meaning of marriage might be.

Though I think she makes some valid points, I think nnnnn isn't really seeing my argument here. Like many I've debated with over the years, nnnnn somehow can't keep herself from coming back to the idea that my arguments are Christian. Are a matter of "imposing Christianity". In fact they are not. My argument could be equally made by Buddhists, Sikhs, Hindus, Chinese communists, animists, etc. In Asia, in Taiwan specifically, if you look at the recent push for same-sex marriage, SURPRISE, you see Taoist and Buddhist groups, secularists too, coming out in protest against such a change.

Eric Mader said...

[continued to La Lubu]

And so, again: *The push for same-sex marriage, looked at in anthropological terms, is not merely a push against intolerant Bible Belt Christians; it is a push against the whole human record.*

My argument is that this is not a small thing. If marriage was always understood as heterosexual by human groups in widely different spheres, with no historical connections between them, there are probably deep human reasons for it. To assume that we in the post-industrial world have somehow transcended the "old" human reality is a mistake, a widespread mistake in the 20th century, and one that has manifested itself in all kinds of mayhem on many fronts in modern history.

Eric Mader said...

@ nnnnn

I appreciate your comments, and think you make some solid points, but you haven't looked squarely at my argument and so didn't manage to reply to it.

You write: "If you and others who are part of your religion want to have different constraints on what constitutes a valid marriage, you are perfectly free to do that, and make it binding on whoever chooses to be a member of your religion."

And: "What you’re not free to do is to demand that civil law conform to your religious doctrine, or to your faith’s understanding of “what’s always been true”. In a break with the 1700-odd prior years of Christian-informed tradition, our nation was founded with the principle that all people are equal under the law."

That you can write these things proves that you didn't really read my remarks. Note that in my comment of the 21st I am NOT talking about "Christian-informed tradition" and in fact didn't even mention that tradition. Go back and read my remarks if you doubt it. I was talking about something quite different: i.e. the entire known human record.


Eric Mader said...

As you well know, there have been many many different cultures across the continents, many of them vastly different from Christian culture, yet they've all conformed to that basic heterosexual understanding of marriage. Even in matriarchal cultures we know of, this has been the case. So whether you like it or not, marriage across the human record (not according to me, but according to historians and anthropologists) is just what I indicate: a special status given to a heterosexual union that links that union to any children that result from it. Whether or not children do result from it. (And yes, in some cultural traditions, though by no means all, marriages that don't result in children are annulled or not considered binding. Likewise in some cultures the idea of elderly members committing to a new marriage would be seen as an absurdity.) In this anthropological lens, then, what we do in America might have wide variation, sure, but when it breaks from the basic heterosexual meaning of marriage, it doesn't in my mind add a "new kind to the list of marriage types"--rather, it arguably BREAKS FROM the human meaning of marriage as such.

You might think this break is a good idea, a matter of progress, of our contemporaries understanding something that medieval Russians, Pacific islanders, ancient Romans didn't understand. That's fine if you think that. But you should have the intellectual honesty to recognize that the newness and radically unprecedented nature of such a redefinition of marriage makes it reasonable for other people, people like me, to say that these marriages are not in fact marriages. And if I say this, you should be able to recognize that my position might NOT in fact be a matter of some kind of animus against gays or lesbians. That it may rather be an honest intellectual position, based on solid historical evidence and linked with a conviction of the delicacy of the social fabric and how societies might flourish or be undone. But look: instead of recognizing my argument in this way, you come back saying that I should just own up to the term "bigot". Sorry, but I think that's not really acceptable. Because I'm NOT in fact a bigot; I have a reasonable argument on my side.

Eric Mader said...

[cont'd to nnnnn]

Finally, you end by claiming that if I insist on a special term like "civil union" for gay couples, then I ought to have special terms for all the different types of marriage, otherwise I'm being bigoted. Again, you can only say this because you're not looking at the typology the human record suggests. So really, your final remark here on terminology sounds something like this:

"If you say that an orange, a papaya, and an apple are all fruit, then you need to also agree that broccoli is a fruit, otherwise you're a bigot."

The fact is, nnnnn, orange, papaya and apple all share characteristics lacking in broccoli. Which is why they reasonably share the category "fruit". End of story.

But thanks for the comments, both of you. Would be interested to hear any further arguments you may have. But in your case, nnnnn, you should know that though I fully understand your arguments on civil law and the American project, and even agree that these are strong arguments, I still don't think you've really absorbed my own main arguments of 4/21.

Wish you both a good weekend.

La Lubu said...

Waaaayyyy back, about a million years ago...well, it was really about a decade and a half ago (which in internet time roughly corresponds to an Epoch!), there was an argument winding its way through what was then the Feminist Blogosphere. The post may or may not exist anymore on the Wayback Machine, but basically....a woman who posted under "Bitch, Ph.D" set out to school some younger, proudly childfree feminists on "choice": specifically, that until *extraordinarily recently* (in human time), there was no choice---if you were heterosexual, children were just something that happened. The "choice" isn't to have children, the choice is the *very recent option* to not have children. (this was in response to any number of women who called themselves "feminist"...that mothers just needed to suck it up and deal with the specific forms of institutional and personal sexism that we endure, because in "choosing" motherhood, we also "chose" those forms of sexism as a two-for-one package, and that if we didn't want those forms of sexism we should have been childfree, so shame on us! Yeah, Bitch, Ph.D wasn't havin' it.

So yeah, you're right that trying to divide "ancient" and "modern" marriage isn't really do-able. That was inartfully phrased on my part. What I had in mind, but failed to say, was that there was a loooonnnngggg transition between the two, at different times and in different places. What it boils down to is, once human communities get over a certain size, we create formal institutions to replace the informal ones that sufficed for many (as in hundreds, or even thousands) of years. Formal institutions become necessary when one is regularly coming into contact with people whom one doesn't know (and vice versa). Formal rules of engagement are necessary when one can't count on another having the same cultural understanding or internal compass. Marriage was one of many of those institutions. To answer "why weren't same sex couples regarded as 'married' in even those cultures that didn't have a proscription against same-sex coupling", the answer is (a)sometimes they were, and (b)in many cultures, people of same-sex orientation and/or in-between gender were considered sacred---some called it "medicine", some called it "power", we'd probably call it "special skills and abilities"....and more often than not, sacred people weren't expected nor encouraged to have one-on-one relationships with anyone other than say, a student---some young person who had also demonstrated those special skills and abilities and needed guidance in how to serve their clan or tribe as such. Makes sense y'know, how could one person, living in a human body with a 24 hour day, have enough time and energy to meet the responsibilities to a spouse and their extended family (because that's what marriage *really* is---you inherit more family, regardless of whether or not you produce biological children), and still serve the gods?

(also side note: "celebrate" has become a loaded word recently. It never seems to be defined---or clarified: as in, what is the difference between "celebrate" and "recognize"? or such. We "celebrate" weddings---a far newer practice than "marriage"---but do we really "celebrate" marriage, per se? How does a person "celebrate" a daily, mundane status? And especially for those persons one doesn't even know, and has never met? To me, the word celebrate implies a level of intimacy and personal participation that simply doesn't exist outside one's personal circle.)


La Lubu said...

But regardless....I'm not really interested in arguments that rely heavily on "we've always done it this way", that are unwilling to engage other ways of being, other practices, that could serve better. Patriarchy is a practice that seemed to develop in times and places of war and famine---and then stuck around for thousands of years after. It isn't conducive to human thriving, as any side-by-side comparison of patriarchal vs. egalitarian societies show: you really can measure the worth of a system by how women fare within it. By any metric: physical health, mental health, longevity, nutrition, infant mortality, literacy/education, sanitation, you-name-it----all are better across the board in societies where women are equal to men. And wasn't all that long ago where right here, in this society, strong arguments were made against women's equality. Arguments strikingly similar to the ones offered against legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

That's no accident. At essence, it boils down to a person's place in society, and the degree to which one's biological sex should determine and delineate that person's position and relative value. I'll say it again: you can't have a society that values men and women equally, and offers men and women equal opportunities to develop and share their own inherent, individual abilities, that doesn't also require that same openness to persons who aren't heterosexual. What passed for the ancient, "universal" understanding of who women were and what women were for for literally thousands of years, was instantly upended when women got to be a voice in that conversation. Seems like women do a much better job of defining ourselves than men do! (*wink*) The limits placed upon us from outside, by custom, by culture, by law, by religion....didn't reflect what our actual abilities were, and are. To be blunt: they were lies. We've been in the process of undoing the damage ever since.

Heterosexual people like myself re-defined marriage from its more patriarchal understanding. (I really hate using that word, btw. It carries a certain baggage with it I don't intend, and I'm afraid it will leave you and others with the impression I'm coming from a perspective I don't have. But...other terms I can think of offhand carry even more baggage, or could come off as insulting, or could impose my own definition of where you're coming from that may not be "patriarchy" it is. If you have a different suggestion, I'm all ears). In the absence of patriarchal practice, a prohibition on same-sex marriage doesn't make any sense.

I do understand the emotional argument of wanting to keep the word "marriage" as specifically referring to one thing. Alas, in a pluralistic society, that doesn't make any sense either---outside, of course, one's particular church doors. The intellectual contortionism I've encountered from Catholics who try to assure me that as a heterosexual woman I would be "married" in their eyes and in the eyes of their church were I to ever do so again, because any male/female marriage under law is marriage....while at the same time, not meeting the actual qualifications under their church law as a marriagable person (previously married, unwilling to have more children, religiously Pagan) well, sad actually. It certainly isn't bolstering any argument that opposition to same-sex marriage isn't grounded in the thou-shalt-not of their religion.

nnnnn said...

Hi Eric,

Well, we’re obviously talking past each other at this point.

I’m pretty sure I understand your argument. Here’s a shorthand of how I understand your position, tell me if I have something wrong or am missing something:

1. Every institution of marriage, across virtually all known cultures and times, shares at least one common feature: opposite-sex spouses.

2. Therefore, applying the institution of marriage to same-sex couples now would be a significant redefinition of the institution, and we shouldn’t presume to do that.

Fair enough?

I’m going to break down the same argument into smaller steps, and explicitly list some of the implicit assumptions that I think are salient to the discussion. Please let me know if I’ve deformed your argument or if I’m being tendentious anywhere:

1. We have comprehensive information on all known cultures.

2. We have reliable information on all known cultures.

3. We have reliable and thorough scholarship on this information.

4. Due to 1-3, we know that every institution of marriage, across all known cultures and times, shares at least one common feature: opposite-sex spouses.

5. Because it’s the common feature, the opposite sex of the spouses is fundamental to “the human meaning of marriage”.

6. By the way, there is such a thing as “THE human meaning of marriage” in the first place. There’s an irreducible core of the concept that must be present in all examples. In other words, the definition of marriage is essentialist in nature, not inductive.

7. This “human meaning of marriage” is and should be a singular, constant and eternal thing.

8. Our marriage laws should be in accordance with “the human meaning of marriage”.

9. If our marriage laws contravene “the human meaning of marriage”, mayhem will result.

I’m sure you can predict I have problems with a number of these… I’ll get to that in a second. First, though, I think you might be surprised to know that — especially if you were to rewind me to about 1994 — I would probably agree with #4, and this would have made 1994-me much more open to #5 and #8. That’s why I say that, if you had come at me in 1994 with the Comprehensive Civil Union Rights and Responsibilities (but no “Marriage”!!!!) Act instead of the actual Defense of Marriage Act, it’s likely that I would have been on your side!


nnnnn said...


As it is, though, I find a lot of the steps problematic, such that the whole argument doesn’t convince me:

Because of the nature of the subject matter, #1-3 are shot through with problems. To wit: I think it’s abundantly possible that (a) we simply don’t know about all the cultures that have existed; (b) homosexuality was repressed in a large number of the cultures we do know about, and so (c) didn’t make it into the historical records of those cultures, and (d) such cultures certainly weren’t motivated to consider the marriage arrangements of their homosexual members; (e) the exaltation of “third gender”/gay/non-standard people in other cultures (cf. La Lubu) was also an instance of “othering” them, so what we know about *those* cultures doesn’t inform us much about run-of-the-mill gay couples who (presumably always, but especially nowadays) live exactly like everyone else; (f) much of the anthropological scholarship we have today is itself the product of a culture in which homosexuality was anathematized, and even scholars are unlikely to see what they’re not looking for — or will actively ignore it if they think it will offend their patrons or tenure committees; et cetera. And fundamentally, (g) homosexuality is rare enough (3-ish percent of the population, right?) that it could essentially get “lost in the noise” in all but the most peaceful, prosperous, technologically advanced cultures — the ones, like our own, that have the leisure to sit around and debate with each other. :-)

#4 I don’t have a big problem with, as I said, except nowadays I find it much less certain and definitive than I might have in the past because I’ve become more aware of the problems that are likely to exist in #1-3.


nnnnn said...


#5-6 are the interesting ones. This may actually be the biggest sticking point, and could be something on which we can never reach a meeting of the minds. #6 describes a proposition that, as I get older, I believe less and less: the idea that things relating to human culture, human psychology, human behavior, and human institutions are defined in an essentialist way, not an inductive way. Most elements of human culture, it seems to me, DON’T actually have an irreducible core that’s fundamental and dispositive. Rather, most of those things have collections of attributes that are collectively dispositive but individually non-mandatory — “symptoms” is the best word I’ve heard for it. The way you figure out if something is a member of a given class is that you start looking for the “symptoms” of that class, and if you find a critical mass of them, you can call the thing a member of the class.

Like, for example, take the question What is music? All human cultures make music, and it seems to be deeply important to us all; but we don’t go looking for a common nugget that’s “THE universal human meaning of music” that we then require all potential musical expressions to have, on pain of being deemed not-music. Gregorian chant, the Moonlight Sonata, a Hungarian folk song, The Rite of Spring, a twelve-tone composition, Tuvan throat singing, African drumming, Javanese gamelan, Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, Einstein on the Beach, a John Coltrane solo; all of them quite clearly qualify as “music”, but you’d be hard pressed to distill a single characteristic common to all of them that you could then define as “THE human meaning of music” and then use to draw bright lines that rule things in or out as music.

I think most elements of human culture are like that. What is music? What is art? What is a family? What is a people, a nation? What is a religion? What is a legitimate government? We all INDUCTIVELY know what these classes are, in the sense that they each have a set of criteria that, if a candidate meets “enough” of them, we accept that it’s a member of the class; but we don’t generally have hard-and-fast, do-or-die criteria that we use to rule things in or out, when we’re talking about human cultural enterprises. (And yes, I freely admit that “enough” is not a precise or definitive standard. As far as I can tell, though, that’s the way we adjudicate these things in human culture.)

This has consequences for #8. The proposition itself I actually agree with, as long as it’s referring to the inductive understanding of marriage, not the essentialist one. Specifically: Over the last 30 or so years, as gays have come out of the closet and become recognized as, apart from sexual orientation, by-and-large the same as everybody else, we’ve learned that lots of gay relationships have plenty of the “symptoms of marriage” — in fact, a critical mass of them. (At they very least, they have more of the important “symptoms of marriage” than does a hypothetical emir with a harem of wives.) So, applying induction, they should be recognized AS marriages. The fact that they don’t consist of opposite-sex partners means they don’t meet one of the set of criteria pertaining to marriage, to be sure, but this is no different from the way every other marriage (in general) fails to meet one or more of the set of criteria of marriage. At this stage, we have decided that committed gay couples meet “enough” criteria that they’re marriages.


nnnnn said...


It’s only fair to finish with a thumbnail sketch of *my* argument:

1. Human cultural enterprises are defined inductively, not essentialistically.

2. We have information on the definition of marriage throughout human history, but we have good reason to be skeptical that this information is comprehensive and reliable.

3. Perceived consistency in the definition of marriage over cultures and times is deceiving. The relationship of a chieftain with his harem of wives (for example) is way more different from Western democratic middle-class marriage than is the relationship of my neighbors Lenny and Steve across the street.

4. Admittedly, everything we know about the definition of marriage indicates that opposite-sex partners are one “symptom of marriage”. Particularly telling is the fact that what you might call “stressed communities” — those affected by war or natural disaster, or, I would assert, pretty much any pre-modern society, where the simple tasks of surviving (getting food, shelter, clothing, and safety) take up the bulk of everyone’s time — appear to observe this relentlessly.

5. But we don’t live in a stressed community. We live in a Western democratic bubble of (relative) peace, prosperity (for most), and safety (for most), the like of which has never been seen in human history.

6. Because of #2, #3, and #5, we’re justified in not considering opposite-sex partners an overwhelmingly important “symptom of marriage”. And also, especially, because…

7. …we’ve decided that gay people are just like everybody else. It’s 50 years since Stonewall, 50 years of gay people living increasingly open, normal lives alongside straight people. We’ve learned that they’re regular people, with all that entails, foibles right alongside glories.

8. Our marriage laws should be in accordance with “the human meaning of marriage”, considered inductively, per #1.

9. Meanwhile, there’s a whole other set of propositions relating to the fact that we live in the US and are talking about US civil marriage laws. In particular, we demand that all citizens, gay, straight, or whatever, be treated equally by the law.

10. Because of #6-9, gay couples should be included in the institution of civil marriage established by marriage laws.

11. Regardless, in accordance with #2 and #3, this is not a particularly dramatic “redefinition” of marriage. All that’s happened is that over time, one of the symptoms of marriage has lost some importance relative to the others. This same process has happened with several of the other symptoms of marriage, most notably, the status of women in the institution. This will not cause mayhem; rather, just like interracial marriage, within a few decades most everyone will be like “Really, that was once a matter of debate?”

nnnnn said...

Re: bigotry: I was a little more flippant than necessary, probably, because I find that whole line of argumentation to be sort of, well, passive-aggressive. At the very least, it’s a strawman. “I’m just dispassionately carrying arguments to their logical conclusion, but you mean liberals instantly brand me a bigot!” YOU’RE the one who brought up the word “bigotry” here, in your reply on 4/21 at 4:20. I certainly didn’t call you a bigot before that. It (together with “but whatever, right?”) seemed like a weird snark jag right at the end of an otherwise reasoned, logical comment, so if my reaction was unduly harsh, I apologize.

I would point out, though, that “I have a well-thought-out, logical rationale for why I want to discriminate against this group” doesn’t actually defeat a charge of bigotry the way you seem to think it does. I’m pretty sure that every bigot in human history has been absolutely convinced he has a logical reason for why he’s targeting the group he’s targeting! That’s why I say, Own it. The bottom line is that you want the laws of the United States to discriminate against this group of people. I think you believe that since you’re not doing it with hatred in your heart, it doesn’t constitute bigotry; but that still doesn’t make it right. At the end of the day, you want the laws to be set up to force the 80-year-old Edith Windsor to pay $363,053 to “inherit” the assets she accumulated with her wife of 40 years. (If I dropped dead at my keyboard here and my wife had to pay estate taxes on half of all our assets, she and our daughter would be homeless.) Whether or not it qualifies as bigotry depends on the precise definition of bigotry, I suppose. But in any event, it’s simply not right.

DR84 said...


Hope you don't mind if someone else jumps in. I followed the link from Rod's blog. Anyway, I dont have time to dig deep into your comments, but it seems to me that there is a significant blind spot in your reasoning. We can skip over history and past cultural practices entirely to see it too by zeroing in on your claim that Eric is targeting a group by taking the position that same sex relationships are not marriages. What group though? I know you are probably thinking homosexuals, but must so called same sex marriage involve homosexuality at all? Obviously not, it is not even limited to just two people. It is an institution, so to speak, that lacks any parameters, boundaries, or symptoms as you call them at all. Heck, if we apply trans ideology to so called same sex marriage, then so called same sex marriage is not even limited to same sex relationships. So your blind spot, in a nutshell, is that it appears in all your thinking about what marriage is that you have not seen that so called same sex marriage is really not anything in particular at all.

As someone who is married, that should bother you. It has real implications for marriage, it says marriage does not have to be faithful. It says marriage carries no moral obligations at all.

Eric Mader said...

@ nnnnn and @ La Lubu

I’m likely not going to do your comments justice, because you both raise so much. There are plenty of hard-hitting points, but I'll only be able to address a few of nnnnn's. Too many things on the plate.

La Lubu, you've made me see a few new angles re: egalitarianism and its repercussions over time.

nnnnn, you too have thrown some new angles at me. I appreciate the effort. I'll be honest and as brief as possible in my comments.

@ nnnnn

If we were talking past each other, well, it was likely because you kept talking about "rights" as conceived by one one particular postmodern culture while I was talking about universal human realities.

Looking at your numbered breakdown of my argument, I think it's clear that you underestimate what we know of the human record, as you underestimate *just how much effort* has gone into finding precedents for same-sex marriage in previous cultures. Those efforts have basically failed. The very few outliers only prove the rule. And so if the human record could vote on the meaning of marriage, my basic definition would win 99.9% of the vote, the *Obergefell* definition would win 0.1%. Not that I expect this outcome to mean much to liberals, who assume we can transcend every human meaning because, well, we are just so damned advanced. But still.


Eric Mader said...


The libraries of data are vast. The work of anthropology has *not* been trying to cover up the possibilities of same-sex marriage. Quite the contrary in recent decades. The record is much more telling that you might assume. But to change tack . . . .

Marriage is a human good, as I'm sure you’d agree. Here's another human good: motherhood. Do you think everyone should have the right to motherhood? I'm guessing you’ll say Yes.

Okay, but motherhood presupposes a woman, right? A woman gives birth to a child and so is defined as a mother. Yes?

Let's follow the same logic of "rights" you use in relation to marriage, and see how the future plays out.

Suppose some years from now technology allows biological males to carry a synthetic womb over their bellies, connected to their blood supply, in which a child can be grown for the full nine months and the man can actually go through the process of "birth". I don’t think such a thing is that far off given the speed of technological advances.


Eric Mader said...


Since motherhood is a human good, and "everyone has a right to motherhood", I'm guessing most folks in your team will be cheering on this new development of male motherhood in the name of this "right" to motherhood.

Me, I will not be cheering it on. Because in my (passive-aggressive?) mind, it offends against the definition of motherhood. End of story. Because for me, it is not *everyone* who has a right to motherhood, but every *woman*. And for me *woman* will always be defined as a person born with female chromosomes.

Here, in relation to motherhood, is the same logic you've been using on marriage. And I'm sorry but this logic isn't valid.


Eric Mader said...


Likewise, you may also, in that future debate on motherhood, come forward and argue that Mr. Larson shares "enough of the characteristics of motherhood" to allow us to call him a "mother" even though he doesn’t share "what all previous mothers had in common"--namely, a female body.

You might go this route, but can you see why it won't impress me much? It won't impress me because he won’t actually be a mother. What's more, I think you'll be making that argument about characteristics only because you're so heavily invested in the claim regarding "rights". Which to me, in this case, don't exist.


Eric Mader said...


If we’re talking past each other, then, it's because I'm still in the 20th century, talking about the definition of fundamental terms in a universal human context, whereas you are part of a culture that seems to think this thing called "rights" trumps every other reality. I'd actually say you're a fanatic, but that you don't notice the fact because there are so many fanatics around you.

Which is fine, btw, I don't mean any offense by the term "fanatic". Likely I'm a fanatic on other issues. And fanatics are some of the most interesting people in any case. Until they gain the power to suppress people who don't agree with their particular fanaticism.

As to your claim that I'm defining marriage in an "essentialist" way, that's just cheap political rhetoric. If I say that 3 is an odd number, I'm likewise defining 3 in an essentialist way, right? Or if I try to exclude broccoli from the category fruit. I'll still exclude broccoli from the category fruit even if people start including sweetened broccoli in fruit salads. "It shares many of the characteristics of other fruits," as some people might start to say in those days.

Really, the tired slur of essentialism should have been left back in the 1980s.


Eric Mader said...


In fact I'm defining the concept *marriage* based on evidence. Across the human record, marriage is a status given to a certain kind of relationship between men and women. In this wider human context, the phrase "same-sex marriage" is logically akin to phrases like "grass-eating carnivore" or "four-sided triangle".

And while we're on the subject, let's suppose a fictive geometry class. If most of the students in the class, and the teacher too, start to insist that four-sided figures can also be triangles, I'd say it doesn't prove a thing. The one student who says "No, only three-sided figures can be triangles," and who then uses the history of geometry to buttress her argument--she is not a moron or a "bigot", she's just right. It doesn't matter if she fails the exam in that warped geometry class; it doesn’t even matter if she's kicked out of the school. As far as geometry goes, she's right and can prove it.

Needless to say, she'd also be correct to say that her school's new definition of *triangle* is fickle. Don't you think?


Eric Mader said...


A rectangle does not have a "right" to be a triangle. Given the definition of triangle, the claim *doesn't even make sense*.

The problem, for me, is that in this marriage debate we are not even in the territory of "discriminating against" people in the way that you say. Rather, we are in the territory of the meaning of terms--very important and fundamental terms at that. To insist that a triangle has three sides is not to discriminate *against* rectangles. It is to discriminate *between* rectangles and triangles.


Eric Mader said...


If some of this is off-putting, I'm sorry. I don't have any animus against gays or lesbians (though many of them have shown monumental animus against me) but that doesn't mean I'm simply going to give up my understanding of human being because of very recent developments in one small spectrum of humanity that in many other ways shows itself to be going off the rails. I DO really appreciate the dialogue, and the civility, and in future, when I've more time, I'm certain to go back to reread your comments. You made a few points, nnnnn, that merit more thought.

(NB: There is also much to be said, though I didn't even broach the subject, about the relatively recent invention of the concept "homosexuality". This goes along of course with the invention of the concept "heterosexuality". If you haven't read anything on this, you might search "invention of heterosexuality homosexuality". We are all of us trapped in webs of inherited concepts that steer our thinking in ways we can't comprehend until we've glimpsed the history of those concepts.)

nnnnn said...

“Here, in relation to motherhood, is the same logic you've been using on marriage. And I'm sorry but this logic isn't valid.”

Absolutely correct. I totally agree with you! But the reason it isn’t valid is not that the logic is faulty; it’s that the two things are categorically different, and the logic that applies to one doesn’t apply to the other. One is a technological intervention into a biological process; the other is a human definition of a human institution, an artifact of culture.

I think this is at the very essence of our disagreement: You believe that (at least some) human cultural institutions belong to an essentially scientific category like other examples you’ve brought up, biology (childbirth) and botany (broccoli). I conceive human cultural institutions as, well, culture, i.e. the humanities not the sciences, and so I’m inclined to evaluate them as I would the other examples *I’ve* brought up, like music, art, government, etc. I’m not really sure why you bridle so at the word “essentialist” — evidently there are politics to that term that I’m just not aware of, so if you can propose a different term, I’d be happy to learn and use it — but we do have categorically different understandings of how to construe human cultural institutions.

I’m an engineer, so, yeah, I’m fully on board with the idea that some things are scientifically valid and some aren’t. But I was also an English minor in college, and the humanities are vitally important to me, and from that side of my mind I know that culture and cultural institutions just simply, categorically, aren’t like science (and that is the glory of them!). We don’t ask if a novel is “true” or “false”. Symphonies aren’t tested to failure. Ballet can’t be optimized. It’s nonsensical to ask which of English or Swahili is more consistent with the “universal human meaning of language” — and Chinese, well, Chinese has no gendered personal pronouns, so clearly it’s not a language at all, right?! Etc. etc. etc. Bottom line, culture is not like science.

I also don’t really have the luxury of time today (I think I must write much slower than all the rest of you!), but I do want to reiterate that I’m simply talking about civil marriage here. ALL I care about is the something-less-than-3-percent of couples who, until Obergefell, were regarded by the law as strangers to each other. That was an injustice that needed to be fixed IN CIVIL LAW. I find it kind of charming and wonderful that you see me as a fanatic, but, as you predict, I really don’t see it that way. I just want civil law to live up to *its* foundational claim of applying equally to all citizens. That’s a modest goal, in my estimation.

La Lubu said...

Marriage is a human good, as I'm sure you’d agree. Here's another human good: motherhood. Do you think everyone should have the right to motherhood? I'm guessing you’ll say Yes.

The problem with this analogy is that marriage is an institution created by human beings---human beings define "marriage" and all its associated rules and practices, which have varied greatly over cultures and time. "Motherhood" is a function of biology---human beings didn't create motherhood. So, these two very different human conditions carry fundamentally different understandings of "rights". One may have the right to attempt to become a mother, but that doesn't mean one's body will cooperate. But there is no biological impedance to forming a mutually beneficial spousal relationship with another adult.

I really appreciate the way nnnnn laid out the argument in the comment from April 24 at 6:40PM. I particularly note #7, that same-sex couples are just like the rest of us. I do not understand the analogy of rectangles and triangles in reference to these supposedly different "forms" of human relationships. I have never heard an adequate explanation from an opponent of same-sex marriage for why childless-by-design heterosexual marriages (whether between two people who simply don't desire children, or in the case of one person being unable to have children and the other person being ok with that, or two people who've already had a child or two from a previous relationship and don't want any more, or two older people for whom the biological time for having children has passed) is still "marriage", but a same-sex couple can't be "married" because they can't have biological children with their spouse. There are literally millions of heterosexual marriages that *by intention and design* do not include biological children descended from both parents (to say nothing of heterosexual marriages where *by intention and design* do not include children *at all!). What, specifically, is different to you on a secular level, that makes you adamantly opposed to using the word "marriage" to describe, what to me, is an identical relationship?

Eric Mader said...

@ La Lubu; @ nnnnn

We did not "invent" marriage, La Lubu. Marriage is inherent in how our species organizes itself communally. It's a universal. It is part of our nature. In the same way, we did not invent language. Any more than birds invented birdsong.

Given the cultural universality of marriage, one might argue that marriage is a biological fact of humanity, observed at a different level, the level of community. Humans are social beings, and marriage is part of how we form our social groups.

Which is why I don't think my analogy between same-sex marriage today and the "motherhood" of males at some future date is such a stretch.

What’s more, I find it interesting that nnnnn argues for a difference between same-sex marriage and male motherhood by referring to a similar supposed difference between biology and culture. I find this interesting because the LGBT movement certainly doesn't respect any such distinction. The trans movement has no interest in the biological make-up of individuals when it comes to the sacred concept of gender identity. For the trans movement, self-perception is everything, the body nothing.

Does nnnnn perhaps also find the T crowd in LGBT logically out of line? If so, congrats to her.


Eric Mader said...


But back to American law.

The thing is, nnnnn, I do not really begrudge you your civil marriage. Given the unworkability of "separate but equal" in our republic, I can see the logic, the constitutional logic, of legal recognition of such relationships. But that same constitutional order needs to provide space for religious institutions to opt out (religiously affiliated adoption agencies, schools and universities, etc.) and so far that's not happening. The same constitutional order, given its traditions of respect for religious liberty, needs to provide legal protection for people like Barronelle Stutzman and former Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran. Because that’s what is required of America, if America is to be true to itself. But that’s not happening, is it? Not at all. Instead we’re getting a nationwide witch hunt.

So, sorry to say, but I’m now pretty much in the "To hell with these people" camp--as in "To hell with this Rainbow cult and its authoritarian arrogance". Yes, I likely would have been in the "Live and let live" camp, but in how many careers today, in our America, would I find myself swiftly out of a job if I so much as declared my beliefs about marriage? Even if, like Cochran, I declared them on my own personal time rather than at work. The outcome is certain: "Mr. Mader's statements do not reflect our strong beliefs in diversity blah blah blah." Which, in fact, is not diversity by any means. It's partisans of a new ideology dictating public discourse and systematically ruining those who think or speak differently. In fact your team has for years now been showing a cultural arrogance on a par with fundamentalist Dominionism. So you, nnnnn, though you keep reiterating your desire for equal civil status, as a "modest" goal, you at least need to admit that this is now how your team is playing. They want everyone to ape their lingo and "affirm" whatever they insist is the truth. Personally, though I respect many gay and lesbian individuals (and you seem as congenial and open-minded as they come) still as far as what your movement has become, I must fight it.


Eric Mader said...


At an earlier stage of the marriage debate, four or five years ago, there was a time when I came to the conclusion, openly and in a public forum, that I'd do my best to be neutral, a sort of mediator between the "marriage equality" movement and conservative Christians who couldn't agree that these were real marriages. After long debate with a dozen or so fellows on the left, I decided tentatively to make peace with these civil marriages in the name of pluralism. This decision did me no good. Quite the contrary.

The fact is, pluralism must go both ways. What I soon learned was that your team (not to mention the millions of flaky liberals who are 100% in support of anything with a rainbow flag on it) wasn't interested in mutual recognition for "bigots". They were interested in censorship, legal repercussions, complete exclusion from the public sphere. So I decided, c. 2014, that it was wiser, and in any case more faithful to my thinking, to say: No, we Christians must not make peace with this movement. They are not interested in peace.

Rod Dreher often alludes to what he calls the Law of Merited Impossibility: “It will never happen, and when it does, those bigots will deserve it.” Dreher has been proved absolutely correct on this. Give LGBT activists an inch, and they will take a dozen miles. They claim, like you do here, merely to want space in society, basic "equality", but their actions belie this claim. What they really seek is to control all discourse on sex and gender and to demonize and punish anyone who falls afoul of any single measly one of their self-contradictory dogmas (cf. again our trans activists).

Which would be fine, but the law is on their side. And it is a serious blow to the whole liberal order--a betrayal of that order.

I think your comments on art or music as a better analogy for thinking about marriage are very well put indeed, but I don't really agree with them. I stand by my triangle analogy, and think my "future male motherhood" analogy is solid too.

La Lubu, I'm not even going to get into your "Heterosexual marriages are often childless, so what makes same-sex marriages different?" There is too much to be said in answer, and it has been said better and elsewhere by others.

But I'm curious, nnnnn, given your openness to discourse, if you aren't yourself put off by what the LGBT movement has become. Do you really support the chill they have put on discourse? Andrew Sullivan, often called the father of gay marriage, has himself repeatedly bemoaned the movement's rank illiberalism.

La Lubu said...

I agree that human beings did not create mating. But we did create marriage, an institution that does not exist even among our closest primate relatives. We didn't invent the process of making sounds with our mouths, but we did (and still do) collectively create language. Even our closest primate relatives do not have language as we know it; their communication with one another is nowhere near as complex or effective as our language.

I'm still open to hearing what the supposed reasoning is for allowing non-accidental childless marriages. If marriage serves a purpose *other* than the birthing and raising of children (and it does!), it makes no sense to forbid the institution to same-sex couples, for whom marriage will serve the same purpose.

As for transgendered persons, I understand this as being a type of intersexed condition. It makes sense that just as persons can be born with some variation of chromosomes or genitalia that are not easily typed as male or female (as they are some veraion of in-between), there can be others who may not be physically identified as such (by visual inspection of genitalia, or by chromosomes), but still be such by virtue of hard-wiring in the brain (so, not able to identify as such until they can adequately speak for themselves). I don't understand why this is controversial---the existance of such persons has been noted throughout history. They're different from most of the rest of us in that regard, but they aren't exactly extremely rare. We have room in the spectrum of humanity to accommodate transgendered persons the same way we accommodate other not-so-common traits of humanity. No big deal. There are any number of human traits that are "weird"; why is this one considered threatening in a way that most unusual accidents of birth are not?

La Lubu said...

Re: religious exceptions for civil rights protections. You do realize this would effectively remove civil rights law for women, yes? That any carve-out that would allow persons to refuse service in a public accommodation to other persons based on religious conscience, would necessarily mean persons could also refuse services (or employment, or promotions, or education, etc.) to others on the basis of their gender.

No. No. HELL no. I will go to the mat on that, as it impacts my baseline survival. (survival, as in Maslow's hierarchy of needs: my ability to pay for food, shelter, etc.) If all a man has to say is "it's against my religion to hire women, because of xyz in The Bible", then we have a big problem.

The solution isn't to dissolve civil rights laws for the masses, but to permit those with extreme restrictions according to their religion to practice such in the *private* sphere, not the public sphere. Can't in good conscience provide catering or flowers to a same-sex wedding? Then do not service *any* weddings from your shop. Instead, have a second business entity that services *just* weddings, either through a members-only co-op that restricts membership to those of a certain church or collective of churches, *or* only service weddings for a limited set of locations (said locations limited to that of one's specific religion). For example: the "Diocese of Whoville Co-op", where the members are restricted to being congregants of the churches in said diocese. Or: servicing only weddings at churches in the Diocese of Whoville.

Sure, someone could mount a court challenge for that....but they would lose. They would lose because it could be readily proven in court that such limitation had nothing to do with discrimination by sexual orientation, but rather discrimination by religion (allowed under law for religious activities!), as the discrimination would fall equally upon heterosexual couples not of the provider's religion.

Private sphere. Public sphere. Draw the bounds in a fair manner, and everyone goes home happy. Drawing the boundaries in that manner also avoids the argument about what constitutes "participation". (To me, only the clergy, any assistants to the clergy, the wedding party, and invited guests are "participating" in any given wedding. The cake-bakers, florists, photographers, caterers, taxi drivers, janitors, etc. are not *participating in the wedding* (just as restaurant personnel aren't participating in the date night of couples eating dinner at their restaurant).

Eric Mader said...

@La Lubu

You're wrong on language, simply flat wrong. You can go research the linguists on this if you like. What you say applies to *languages* in their difference from each other, but not to language.

As for your slippery slope argument that protecting religious liberty will eventually mean women don't have civil rights, it's frankly absurd. Again, go research a bit on our RFRA laws, which already exist, and how those laws came about and how they work. Protection of religious liberty in relation to different religious groups' understanding of marriage is well within the purview of such laws and could easily be effected.

As for trans individuals, I do not consider them a threat. What I consider a threat is the politicization of what is effectively a psychosexual disorder. You might come back with: "Transsexuality is not a disorder, but merely a human variation." If you're inclined to do that, before you do so, please first find for me another human condition that requires treatment in the form of hormone therapy and often surgery but is not also a disorder. If there isn't such another condition, why might that be?

Do you know that in Britain identification of transsexual youths has increased 900% in the past four years. Suddenly thousands upon thousands of kids are deciding they're trans. Why? Go look into it. It is clear that what we are dealing with here is in large measure a craze, a fad. It has become *popular* to be gender challenged. How many of these kids are going to be herded into hormone therapy, perhaps eventually surgery, and then fifteen years from now realize they have made a terrible mistake? It's going to happen. And the toll taken, the lives ruined, it's going to be on the LGBT movement and their cheerleaders. Child abuse is what it is.

La Lubu said...

I didn't have time last night to add this thought, but I want to be crystal-clear since you have both mentioned and alluded things along these lines:

I do not care about "hearts and minds". What you feel internally, or what you practice in your private life, is entirely your own. I am solely concerned about equality under civil law, and equal treatment in public accommodations.

I'm an electrician. One of the one percent of women that are journeymen. I came up in a time and place where women in the trade were utterly reviled and opposed. Those days are over. Not everywhere, but for here, for me. I've been a union officer for damn near two decades (the first woman elected in my local). I was the first to be pregnant in my local too. Hoo boy do I have some war stories about being one of the first women in the trade. But really? I don't give a damn if anyone wants to be bigoted in their mind or on their off time. "Your loss" is my attitude. As long as they have no *power* to impact my working or public life, I'm good with it.As long as I get to go to work anyway, despite their feelings, and get the same treatment and opportunity as the men on the job, and don't have to put up with any tirades against my presence...they can feel however they want. I'm concerned with "doings", not "feelings".

Typically, the "first generation" in an equality battle has a lot of patience. We know what to expect (nothing good!), we know how far we have to go, we're usually *highly* motivated due to extreme personal circumstances (seriously----nothing was going to get me to leave the apprenticeship. Absolutely nothing. Under NO circumstances was I going back to a dead-end minimum wage permanent poverty job!), and....because we're taking the first blocks out of the wall (so to speak), we see a lot of real, tangible progress that is very heartening and gives us sustenance for the struggle.

The next generations have less patience, because what *they* are experiencing is the expectation that certain battles should already be over courtesy the first generation...but they're not. They're experiencing stasis, intransigence, and stumbling blocks. But...courtesy the first generation, they also have increased standing that despite remaining unequal treatment, they *at least* have the ability to speak up about it without repercussion. So they do.

Social media means that all of us are coming into contact with more "private thoughts" than ever before. Social media blurs the boundaries of public and private, because there is an illusion of privacy when posting. People say things on social media, and in manners they would largely NOT do in public, face-to-face. Not just because of a fear of repercussion, but because of the expectation of and illusion of privacy.

We learn really early in life not to say everything we think. We learn whom we can trust with our private thoughts. Whom we can trust to provide constructive feedback as we suss out our own thoughts, beliefs and experiences---and whom we *can't* trust.

A lot of the vitriol you have experienced (and I have experienced) is really part of the learning curve for this new technology of communication---people are in the process of learning that social media is actually public, and not private...and are adjusting accordingly. Once the general assumptio n that social media is de-facto "letters to the editor" in terms of privacy expectation, a lot of this will go away.

La Lubu said...

Did my comment from last night get lost?

Eric Mader said...

@La Lubu

Your comment didn't get lost. I just happen to be very busy.

I've only skimmed your newly arrived comment, so I'll respond to last night's first. Since I've got a lot going on now, I'll be brief.

Re: humans "inventing" language, go ahead and stand by your assertion if you like. But language is not a method or technology. It's a faculty. The process by which it arose is still largely mysterious, but in any case that process is ill-served by verbs like *invent* or *create* and all the conceptual baggage that goes with each of these. Language arose. No group of humans up and decided: "Hey, let's start making up sounds to correspond to different things."

Writing is quite different. We *did* invent writing, but even that was by fits and starts, almost by accident even.

For thirty years, I've been studying language and languages and meditating on how language frames and determines the human condition. When I say that it's wrong to say "Humans invented language," it is not me talking, but the scholars (linguists and historical anthropologists) who focus on just these problems.


Eric Mader said...


Re: RFRA laws, I'm sorry but I really think your concerns verge on paranoid and I would hope you take a second look at how the RFRA laws we have came about and at how hedged in the process is by ensuring that such laws effect a reasonable balance between competing rights. Aside from which, you as a pagan, depending on your religious practice or what traditions you develop as central, might find yourself needing some such legal protection against being compelled to take part in something you don't agree to. The thing about pluralism is: there has to be recognition of the rights of competing interests.

Imagine the lesbian owner of a print shop. Someone comes in from a local chapter of some fringe fundamentalist church with the request that her shop print out 300 copies of a brochure on the threat homosexuality poses to America--that "Homosexual acts will bring down God's vengeance on our nation!" With the brochure is an invitation to a talk on the topic. That lesbian owner refuses to print it.

Myself, I support her right to refuse to print it. She wouldn't be claiming some religious belief as basis of her refusal, but I support her right not to abet an ideology she would reasonably consider reprehensible.

According to your reading of the cake wars, a baker or florist or wedding card designer isn't "taking part" in the wedding ceremony. I would say: Yeah, so what? The fundamentalist who went into that print shop could also claim that that shop owner wasn't in any case going to be taking part in the church activities and talk on homosexuality to take place next month and that, by refusing to print his order, she is discriminating against his religion.


Eric Mader said...


The main thing is: Americans should not be compelled to do work that offends their conscience. I think this is especially important when it comes to protecting the distinct teachings and practices of different religious groups. It's part of what we are. If a florist or baker said: "I won't serve gays or lesbians period," I'd say they deserve the weight of the law to fall on them. But if they say, "I won't do work toward the celebration of weddings I consider deeply wrong"--if in short it is specially a matter of weddings--then in America their right not to be compelled to offend against their religious conscience trumps the right of the customer. The customer, besides, can go elsewhere. Feelings hurt? Too bad.

Nobody ever said changing the definition of marriage was going to be easy. Liberals should get off their high horse on this and recognize that other Americans' rights matter too.

Re: "inflammatory" I have to say that, sorry, I think I've been quite civil through this dialogue. I would never go after individuals for BEING gay or lesbian. But I will go after the LGBT movement in terms of what it's become. And I'm not going to mince words. To make an analogy, there is much, very much, that I love about Russia and Russian culture. But if I'd been alive in the 1930s, I do hope I would have gone after the Bolsheviks for their policies and tactics, even though many Russians at the time, and many foreigners besides, considered the Bolsheviks the proof of Russian relevance and greatness.

Besides, my disgust with what the LGBT movement has turned into doesn't just come from my come from my beliefs as an orthodox Christian. It comes, perhaps even mostly, as a kind of disappointment, because, for most of my adult life, starting in the mid-1980s, I was in support of the gay and lesbian movement and in support of what I thought was their recognition of the importance of pluralist liberal thinking. Probably there are plenty of LGBT individuals who still understand and would support that kind of pluralism, but as for the movement in general, most of its voices, nothing doing. They are out to censor, to ruin careers. And they've been doing pretty well at it so far.

Given what I've seen in the recent few years, I am done with any support of any kind for the LGBT movement.

Have to sign off. If I get time to address your new comments in the next few days, I'll do so. But I may not get that time.

nnnnn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
nnnnn said...

Housekeeping: It looks like there actually is a missing comment from La Lubu. I searched the page for "inflammatory", and there's only one instance, in quotes in Eric's comment from 4/28 at 4:09P. The antecedent seems to be missing (assuming the quotes are there because it's a direct quote...).

Glitch in the timeline. :-)

nnnnn said...

Meanwhile, a couple of other comments.

“one might argue that marriage is a biological fact of humanity”

Well, one might argue that, but one would be wrong. Eric, you’re making a significant category error here. Marriage is not biology; marriage is culture. The pair-bonding instinct is the biological fact; “marriage” is the cultural institution by which pair-bonding is (usually, and with more variety than you seem willing to countenance) implemented in human societies. Let me quote that whole paragraph:

“Given the cultural universality of marriage, one might argue that marriage is a biological fact of humanity, observed at a different level, the level of community. Humans are social beings, and marriage is part of how we form our social groups. “

That last bit is the VERY DEFINITION of culture. “Humans are social beings”: evolutionary biology. “Marriage is part of how we form our social groups”: culture. I mean, this is definitional. The collection of customs and traditions, passed from generation to generation, that we use to form social groups, IS culture, NOT biology. I tend to hate argumentum ad dictionarium, but here’s Merriam-Webster:


a : the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations
b : the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also : the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time popular culture Southern culture
c : the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization a corporate culture focused on the bottom line
d : the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular field, activity, or societal characteristic studying the effect of computers on print culture

You seem to be using an idiosyncratic definition of biology by which anything that derives from a biological instinct, anything that is built upon a biological instinct, is, itself, “a biological fact”. That just isn’t how we define the science of biology. That isn’t how science works.

I mean, we’re not alone in the animal kingdom in being a pair-bonding species. But to talk about gibbon or wolf “marriages” would be nonsensical, precisely because “marriage” is an element of human culture, not of biology. Biologists talk about “mating behaviors” or “mating instincts”; it’s anthropologists who talk about “marriage”.

And this is a really crucial point, because the fact is that some (small) proportion of humans experience the pair-bonding instinct toward members of their own sex. THAT, evidently, is a biological fact (also, by the way, observed elsewhere throughout the animal kingdom, as we’ve learned in the past few decades, after it occurred to people to start looking for it — which goes to my other point, that it’s abundantly possible that there have been other variations of marriage in anthropological history that we simply didn’t bother to look for before). That the cultural institutions of marriage haven’t, for any number of possible reasons, bothered to account for this biological fact until quite recently, isn’t an argument that they can’t, in some biological sense, or even that they shouldn’t.

nnnnn said...

Re: “To hell with those people”

I’m going to wander back to the mid-90s. Without really thinking it through very deeply at the time, I was like, Yeah, “marriage” is plainly a heterosexual thing, so it just makes sense to call formalized gay relationships something different, AS LONG AS the two institutions result in similarly situated people being treated equally before the law. Pick a name other than marriage — “civil unions”, fine — and so clap hands and a bargain, as King Henry would say.

But it didn’t work out that way. Through the 2000s, a bunch of states passed amendments banning not only same-sex “marriage”, but also *any sort* of same-sex civil union — and conservatives cheered this, almost without exception. A few states punched right through to ban not only same-sex marriages and civil unions, but also ANY OTHER contract similar to marriage! Cf. Virginia: “This Commonwealth and its political subdivisions shall not create or recognize a legal status for relationships of unmarried individuals that intends to approximate the design, qualities, significance, or effects of marriage. Nor shall this Commonwealth or its political subdivisions create or recognize another union, partnership, or other legal status to which is assigned the rights, benefits, obligations, qualities, or effects of marriage.”

This isn’t Rod’s so-called Merited Impossibility, this is LITERAL impossibility. When your side had the power, they amply demonstrated that they were not in the “Live and let live” camp, they were in the “To hell with these people” camp. After tens, hundreds, thousands of years of this, I guess I find it hard to get too worked up about the gays now saying, You know what? To hell with us? No, to hell with YOU people. Maybe I wish it were different, but it certainly seems understandable. (Meanwhile, we liberals keep donating to the ACLU, and they’ll be on your side whenever you have meritorious actions to bring.)

[Side note, but one of the things that’s really galling about all this is that *you guys* are supposed to be the religious ones, the ones who received the Golden Rule from Jesus himself. I normally appreciate irony, but I find no joy in the irony that, essentially, you’re asking seculars to be better Christians than you yourselves were when your side had the power. You’re now quite literally saying, Do unto us as you would have had us do unto you back then. (Please try to forget what we ACTUALLY did unto you back then.) Now, after the long slog through the courts, now that you’ve won, now that we’re the ones starting to panic about our livelihoods, at long last NOW is the time for everybody, religious AND secular, to start following the Golden Rule. Sorry if this is offensive, but it’s something that’s particularly depressing for me on the secular side of this.]

nnnnn said...

Re: Baronelle Stutzman and Kelvin Cochran. The thing with many of these cases is that the devil’s in the details. They so often don’t actually consist of what the headlines scream about.

For example, Cochran. You’re not actually correct when you say he got in trouble simply for declaring his beliefs on his own time. In fact, he wrote a book on his beliefs and then gave that book to at least 9 of his subordinates in his workplace, 3 of whom did not ask for it. On its face, that’s proselytizing subordinates in the workplace, which (I hope we all agree) is a big no-no, regardless of the content of the proselytizing. Then, he discussed the matter publically during his 30-day suspension, expressly against the mayor’s orders to remain quiet. If that’s not a firing offense, especially for someone in an extremely responsible and public-facing position, what is?

Re: Stutzman: this isn’t even a close case as far as I’m concerned. I mean, it’s black-letter law in this case: If you’re a business that’s open to the public, you may not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, per Washington statute. That’s a responsibility you agree to when you open a business; it’s based on a bedrock principle from English common law, to completely leave aside the US or Washington state constitutions and statutes. She should have had no expectation in the first place that she could refuse to provide service to a gay wedding. If you’re in the business of selling wedding flowers, you sell them to everybody.

(And honestly: if she really thinks selling somebody a flower arrangement constitutes “celebrating” their relationship, why the hell was she “celebrating” their relationship by selling them Valentines flower arrangements for 9 years???)

A somewhat closer case is the Brendan Eich case. But even there, the thing kind of falls apart when you look at the details. If you’re managing an open-source project, and you piss off the actual people who are VOLUNTARILY contributing effort to the project, maybe you’re not actually the right person for the job. Again, high-responsibility, public-facing roles have somewhat different standards in terms of what’s a firing offense (and he wasn’t actually fired, in point of fact, he stepped down voluntarily).

Anyway, bottom line here is that I think these stories tend to get vastly overblown, and distorted way beyond what their facts actually support. Yes, you do have to watch what you say when you’re in a senior public-facing role; but you have to watch what you say about EVERYTHING, not just gays. Yes, you do have to observe non-discrimination statutes when you run a business serving the public; that’s just the law, and it applies equally to everybody.

I really don’t see evidence of the “witch hunt” you reference. I do see strident people being strident on both sides. I do wish it were different, but I don’t see it as one side being particularly worse than the other.

I mean, I live in the bluest of the blue areas. I work for an organization you would recognize as one of the most liberal entities anywhere. We simply don’t live lives filled with outrage and witch hunts. I live and work at what ought to be GROUND ZERO for that, and it just simply doesn’t happen. Sure, there are strident idiots on the university campus, but the rest of us just go about our day, smiling and nodding at gay families, trying to respectfully remember who uses what pronouns, etc., etc., etc.

If you live on a steady diet of Dreheresque outrage porn, you’ll see “witch hunts” everywhere. If you walk around my neighborhood, my town, my region, my workplace, you simply won’t.

OK, that's it for now....

nnnnn said...

Oh, forgot to mention: By the way, I'm a guy. :-)

La Lubu said...

Perhaps "invent" or "create" are the wrong words to describe the origin of language, but those were the words I had at the time to indicate the intentionality of humans developing language---an intentionality and level of...creativity? experimentation? play? that is not a part of our activities that are more instinctual, activities that were ingrained in us as part of the evolutionary process far, far earlier than our primate ancestry, or even mammalian ancestry. Different human groups across the globe developed languages concurrently and independently of one another, despite having the same physical structures for making sounds and the same brain structures for interpreting those sounds. That speaks to a level of participation that exceeds mere instinct.

Anyway. It is certainly not paranoid for a woman to not want current practices of exclusion due to religion that are legal in the private sphere to intrude into the secular, public sphere. There is rather iron-clad language in the Bible that could be used as evidence of a prohibition on women's employment, or on women's advancement or opportunities in the workplace. Sometimes, there is no real way to have a compromise---someone is going to pay a cost. I'd estimate upwards of 90% of my job duties as a journeyman wireman consist of working one-on-one with a "tool buddy". If an RFRA law were passed that gave men the ability to refuse to work with me due to religion, and prohibited my employers from taking action against male co-workers who refused to work with me due to religion....well, what then? It's their belief, so why should I have to pay the cost of unemployment? Why should my employer have to pay the cost of someone who refuses reasonable working conditions?

The compromise we have concerning those issues now is workable. Religious entities, in religious spheres *do* get to discriminate against persons according to gender, legally. Secular entities, in secular spheres do not. What you are asking for in RFRA laws is for individuals in secular, public accommodations to be able to invoke religious exceptionalism re: civil rights laws in those secular, public accommodations, even if it imposes a cost on other individuals who do not subscribe to those religious beliefs and/or practices. And whether you like it or not, that *is* asking people in non-religious settings, doing non-religious activities, to uphold specific religious beliefs and practices. And because this is a religiously plural society, it would necessarily give preference to majority religions *at the expense of* minority religions. Is this really the route you want to go?

And that's even before addressing the idea that corporations should be allowed a religious "conscience", despite being an abstract legal entity.

Let's keep it the way it is: religious entities, and persons engaging in explicitly religious activities, get to discriminate when it comes to their religious practices. Non-religious entities, and persons engaging in non-religious activities, must abide by civil rights laws. That's something that (in these United States) people of any or no religion ought to be able to shake hands and agree on.

Which probably brings us to "what is a religious activity, and who gets to define it?"

La Lubu said...

What is a religious activity is no small part of the conflict re: wedding services. Whether or not a wedding is or is not a religious activity ought properly to be determined by the wedding participants themselves---not all religions have marriage as a sacrament, and not all persons are religious. (it's really stretching credulity to claim that a civil wedding of two atheists before a legal officiant that invokes no deity, prayers, or religious ritual is somehow participating in a religious activity!)

I offered an area of reasonable compromise in a previous comment: if a provider has a sincerely held religious belief regarding the provision of wedding services, the solution is to only provide those services for weddings of his or her own faith. Exclude all other faiths. Exclude non-religious weddings. Done! Because let's face it: if a Christian florist is willing to provide flowers for a heterosexual Pagan wedding invoking gods and goddesses, but not willing to provide flowers for a same-sex UCC wedding, his or her objection is not grounded in religion.

Eric Mader said...

@ nnnnn and La Lubu

First, I must say it's been a pleasure debating with both of you. You've raised many many good arguments and you're both damn good writers. I'd encourage you, La Lubu, to go and write a book on your experiences back in the day being part of that 1% of women in the field. Really. It sounds like it could be worked into an interesting narrative.

I'm not sure why I got the impression you were a woman, nnnnn. I know that at first I had no idea one way or another. I think I must have misread one of your sentences in a comment mid-thread.

I'm in the middle of a big project, and will be traveling soon, but want to raise a few points.


First, nnnnn, there certainly IS a witch hunt going on. I do hear you loud and clear on the Golden Rule and "live and let live" and how neither of these approaches much influenced conservatives' approach to gay and lesbian rights during the last century. I myself never got on with that brand of conservatism, wasn't a conservative even, and was always disgusted by their special vitriol re: sex in general. I hint at this in one paragraph of the review above. Proud & Obese Moneygrubbing Militarists for Jesus in a Constant State of Outrage Over the Sexual Sins of our Neighbors (POMMJICSOOSSN?) may serve as a description of much of the GOP-brand Christianity that hit the airwaves during the years of my young adulthood. (Of course I'm hoping you'll note how many of the Seven Deadly Sins are referenced in that moniker.) That brand of Christianity is not mine. But I would say that a kind of "mere Christianity" is. And the point is, that on the issue of marriage, even stating the traditional teachings of mere Christianity, at this point, is considered bigotry.


Eric Mader said...


La Lubu writes: "I don't give a damn if anyone wants to be bigoted in their mind or on their off time. 'Your loss' is my attitude. As long as they have no *power* to impact my working or public life, I'm good with it. As long as I get to go to work anyway, despite their feelings, and get the same treatment and opportunity as the men on the job, and don't have to put up with any tirades against my presence...they can feel however they want. I'm concerned with 'doings', not 'feelings'."

I'm pretty much in agreement with this thinking as more or less necessary in a pluralist society. And what I might say is this: There is at present a deep bigotry against Christians who would dare state, in public, their thinking on marriage or sex. Again I'll ask: In how many careers, whether I was as prominent as Brendan Eich or not, would I now be in serious trouble if I merely let it be known what my beliefs on marriage were? Again: Even if I let it be known in some forum outside of work.

I remember that Andrew Sullivan came out in defense of Brendan Eich, arguing that there was no evidence anywhere Eich's career or personal life of animus against LGBT people. For me, holding a different belief on the definition of marriage cannot constitute animus. If you think otherwise, well, then you are in favor of a war footing vis a vis a wide swathe of Americans.

As for Cochran's case, you say the devil is in the details, and he gave his book to subordinates, three of whom didn't ask for it. If that was or wasn't proselytizing, in my view, would depend on the dynamics of each of those exchanges as the book was given. For example, had Cochran given the book with words like: "You really need to read this and . . . hopefully, Ned, it will put you on the right path." Implying that Ned was clearly on the wrong path. If he did this, and then, two weeks later, asked Ned, "So, have you read it yet?" with the implication that a No answer would disappoint him, the superior, then yes indeed, that's proselytizing. If, however, he was proud of his book, had a stack of them on his desk, and offered it to people who perhaps noticed the stack with a query like: "Hey, what's that book?" then I don't think it's proselytizing. It is simply "Not hiding his beliefs". In any case, would Cochran have been out of a job if he'd been a Buddhist and written a book on Buddhist teachings? I would put money on it that he wouldn't.


Eric Mader said...


Cardinal Richelieu's famous line applies here: "If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him." The LGBT movement is now in a constant search mode for statements that show Forbidden Thought, especially if those statements come from Christians. I don't watch TV, but who was the couple with the home repair (?) show that was written up in Buzzfeed because, GASP, they attend a church that subscribes to traditional Christian ideas of marriage? That shows just the kind of mentality at work now. Find them out, stir up complaints or letters to their employer, ruin their careers.

I won't debate you on the letter of the law in relation to the Stutzman case because, in terms of the letter of the law, nnnnn, you're right. I think however that the letter of the law needs to include RFRA laws, specifically re: conflicting definitions of marriage, laws tailored to protect people like Stutzman. And no, it doesn't matter, La Lubu, whether the couple planning to marry will do so in a civil or religious ceremony. What matters, in these cases, is the religious person's beliefs on marriage. RFRA laws usually apply to religious individuals in their place of employment or education, so, again, the idea that religious beliefs only carry any weight when the individual is inside church or mosque or temple is, simply, not in the spirit of American law.

In short, I disagree with the law in this case, because the law is incomplete. American law on marriage has changed, the definition of marriage has been changed (quite a major cultural shift) but there are no opt out clauses for groups and individuals that don't agree with the change for religious reasons. Such protections for religious liberty, specifically re: marriage, are in order, and wouldn't pose a threat on other fronts.


Eric Mader said...



Re: my assertion that marriage is part of human biology, I see why would call it idiosyncratic. I need to explain myself.

That elephants in their normal state and habitat live in herds is a fact of their biology. A zoologist giving a comprehensive description of the species would not omit this fact. Likewise that humans are social animals is also a biological fact. When discussing the details of human social behavior, we often talk of culture. But the fact that humans naturally FALL INTO social behavior is not a cultural fact alone: it is also biological. It is part of the species.

That humans live in groups is thus a biological fact of the species. The way specific groups of humans effect this living together (the customs, language specifics, taboos, etc.) these are generally part of culture. In short, "culture" is the operative word when we are talking about *differences* between groups. Culture as a concept is meaningful if we want to contrast culture A and culture B. When, however, we have a phenomenon that is universal, we start to move from the territory of culture to that of biology.

If something is observed to a be a universal of the species, one might assume it should be included in (again to refer to elephants) a thorough zoological description of that species. Although marriage customs differ widely, marriage is a human universal. All cultures studied have some form of married status. This is to say that the fact of marriage oversteps the realm of culture and becomes descriptive of the species. That marriage is always an element in human communities is not a cultural fact. It is part of the make-up of the species as we've been able to observe it.

If you look back at your dictionary definition of culture, you will see that "shared by a particular group" or "in a particular field" or "in a particular time" were operative. And so: Marriage as such is not something shared by a particular group as opposed to some other group. If we had observed cultures without marriage customs or any status *married*, then we could define marriage as cultural: some cultures have marriage, others don't. But we have no such cultures.

There are some parallels here to my points above on language, which is also a human universal and is rightly considered part of our biology. *Languages* in their differences from each other are cultural phenomena, but language is a human fact: it transcends culture.

Interestingly, zoologists sometimes refer to "culture" in different populations of a given animal species, and, again, the defining characteristic is that one population has taught or passed down behaviors distinct from those seen in another population of the same species. But I've read very little on this, and don't know the status in zoology of "culture" as a concept.

Eric Mader said...

I would add, nnnnn, that your assertion that marriage is an expression in culture of an underlying "pair-bonding" instinct reveals the degree to which you are imposing modern Western ideas of marriage on the whole history of humanity. The idea that marriage is in essence a romantic contract between individuals that fall in love wouldn't make much sense in most cultures. Which is not to say that love or passion were lacking in cultures other than the West, only that our particular ideas of romance and "falling in love" and "individuals" are all, well, particular.

I meant to mention something about this modern Western lens, and the distortions it brings, earlier, when you hinted at one point that gay or lesbian couples in the past may have arranged their marriages under the radar, so to speak. This may have been true in the recent Western past, but again wouldn't even make sense in many cultures. Why not? Because gay or lesbian individuals in love wouldn't have even *wanted* to be married, certainly not according to the meaning of marriage in their culture. They would have wanted to spend time together, yes, but "married"?

I raise these issues in part to underline just how our own cultural norms tend to obscure the discussion whenever we try to answer the anthropological question: If there is a general human definition of marriage, what would it be?

Eric Mader said...

Would Achilles have seen any meaning in a marriage to Patroclus? Was the fact of their love somehow lessened by their not being married? Would David have married Jonathan if it weren't for Yahweh's bigotry?

Just to take a few examples. ;)

La Lubu said...

I'd encourage you, La Lubu, to go and write a book on your experiences back in the day being part of that 1% of women in the field. Really. It sounds like it could be worked into an interesting narrative.

Hahaha! Thank you, but...ehh...the expectation for such a thing would be a linear story, and one of "brave woman overcomes hostile environment, you go girl!" But I don't think my story fits well with a neat linearity, and the latter is but a part of my story. What lives in my heart on the day-to-day is the uniqueness of the world of the trades, the solidarity we have that is uncommon in most other work environments, the very real bonds of deep friendship (think: familial level). I'm afraid that most people outside the trades would not be able to relate, and would misinterpret quite a bit (especially the humor. Oh Lordt, especially the humor!). It doesn't translate. My most common feeling? I'd take bullets for (most of!) my brothers. That's the truth.

Here's the thing: the hostility you see in internet news feeds and such is really, truly not the norm. You could say "it ain't playing in Peoria". Most people are "live and let live", and are so because of current civil rights laws regarding public accommodations and the separation of church and state. There was a time not so very long ago when Catholics were de-facto forbidden membership to my local (despite it never being a part of written policy). Getting public employment in my city was pretty much a no-go for Catholics too. That's hard for a lot of people to remember in a time when the majority of folks in both my Local and in most areas of city employment were baptized Catholic, but there it is. The same civil rights laws that opened things up for African Americans trickled down to other outcast groups as well---all of us who have our origins in a formerly outcast group in the U.S. owe a debt to those who fought for civil rights before we were born.

What we have now works. And it's really disheartening to me to see people who ought to know better want a weakening in civil rights law. I can't say it enough: I do support the current laws that allow religious entities, engaging in specifically religious practices, the wherewithal to discriminate according to their religion in that venue. Which isn't to say I would agree with them, just that as the non-public sphere, they should not be subject to public accommodation laws. If anyone disagrees with a particular religion or religious teaching, they do not have to participate in it---they can avoid it.

I will NOT acquiesce to intrusions of religious exclusion in the public sphere. We should all have an expectation of equal treatment by public entities, either government or public accommodations, because none of us have the ability to avoid dealings in the public sphere the way we do the private. The public sphere is meeting basic needs at the lower level of Maslow's hierarchy---simply put, we NEED that access in a more immediate way than we need elements at higher levels of that triangle.

I think you're letting your personal feelings about same-sex marriage color how you think RFRA laws will be limited. RFRA laws, if allowed to be used to cover non-religious activities in government offices and/or public accommodations could be used to discriminate widely against any number of people who ought to have the expectation of equal treatment under the law. It gives individuals a power over others---others who mostly do not subscribe to that particular religious belief or interpretation---in venues and during activities where there should be no expectation that certain religious practices should have preference over and above all others. (cont.)

La Lubu said...

For example: issuing a marriage license as a civil servant is a matter of civil, not religious law. If one can't, in all good conscience, service all citizens in the issuing of said licenses for religious reasons---that person is unfit for the job, full stop. Unfit for the job in the same way I would be unfit to be a Christian minister (I don't think it's too much for a Christian church to require that its ministers actually believe that Jesus is God!). The same RFRA law you want instituted to allow a small number of extremists to refuse service to same-sex couples could also be invoked to deny religious minorities their marriage licenses. Or women professional or driver's licenses, or even voter registration. It could allow the librarian to decide what you are allowed to read.

Maybe you're thinking: "but not indefinitely". So what? Allowing religious discrimination in clearly non-religious venues performing non-religious duties will necessarily privilege certain religions in the government, and in the public sphere. And the way to fight back? A "religious arms race" of tit-for-tat. Nothing good will come of that. The system we have now works. What we have now is not perfect, for all people and at all times, but it delivers the greatest amount of justice for the greatest number of people.

Re: Brendan Eich. Look, most of us have friends, acquaintances, and family members with whom we disagree (sometimes very deeply) on political matters. Most of the time, we shrug this off and just agree to disagree---we just don't talk about it, since neither is likely to convince the other and it just raises hackles that don't need raising. But....we can't talk about Brendan Eich as a supposed martyr of religious freedom without talking about the role of money in our political system, without talking about Citizens United and money officially being recognized as "speech", and the POWER of money to effectively dwarf the speech of citizens without it. The reaction against him had just as much to do with the power---and potential power---of his wallet as it did with where he placed his donation. As more and more citizens struggle economically (and yes, the prohibition on same-sex marriage had a huge financial impact on same-sex couples), expect more and more public outcry when and where money is being used to amplify the political speech of certain individuals over others.

Don't believe me? Take a good look at the criticism by rank-and-file Democrats and/or others leaning to the left, of high-level Democrats receiving vast sums of money for speeches to the Wall Street set. No, conservatives aren't the only persons receiving criticism.

We're talking about basic trust here. Do we trust our fellow citizens, and especially citizens in whom we have placed a certain amount of authority, to treat us as fellow citizens? Or naah? Will permitting religious discrimination in non-religious settings encourage or discourage trust? I believe it will discourage trust, and I'm saying that as a person who will experience second-class citizenship based on my gender and/or my religion---because believe me, it's been tried, and fortunately I have current civil rights law on my side.

Anonymous said...

No one ever responded to the single greatest point in this thread. Eric's point about Transgenderism:

"As for trans individuals, I do not consider them a threat. What I consider a threat is the politicization of what is effectively a psychosexual disorder. You might come back with: "Transsexuality is not a disorder, but merely a human variation." If you're inclined to do that, before you do so, please first find for me another human condition that requires treatment in the form of hormone therapy and often surgery but is not also a disorder. If there isn't such another condition, why might that be?"

Also, there is a third view about RFRA. It shouldn't be implemented because more people than not complain about it. However, that doesn't mean the people who don't simply let the market work, but instead of going to the shop down the street take their new Holy War out on the religious baker, are being asinine and petty (and should be called out on it). In the same way that a conservative, who found a liberal baker that refused to make a cool looking conservative cake for CPAC, would be seen as silly for waging a petty, childish, and absurd Holy War. Instead of simply writing a bad review and going across the street to another baker.

Anonymous said...

**However, people who don't simply let the market work, but instead of going to the shop down the street take their new Holy War out on the religious baker, are being asinine and petty (and should be called out on it).**

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