Modernity, Faith, And Marriage

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Reading this piece by Rod Dreher is saddening to me. What separates Rod from many others on the right is his passionate sincerity. Even when he goes overboard, it's all real. He's not a cynic; and he grapples in ways many others on the social right do not with the fact of modernity, which makes the dream of cultural conservatives just that ... a dream. And not of the future, but of the past. Rod longs, as many do, for a return to the days when civil marriage brought with it a whole bundle of collectively-shared, unchallenged, teleological, and largely Judeo-Christian, attributes. Civil marriage once reflected a great deal of cultural and religious assumptions: that women's role was in the household, deferring to men; that marriage was about procreation, which could not be contracepted; that marriage was always and everywhere for life; that marriage was a central way of celebrating the primacy of male heterosexuality, in which women were deferent, non-heterosexuals rendered invisible and unmentionable, and thus the vexing questions of sexual identity and orientation banished to the catch-all category of sin and otherness, rather than universal human nature.

To tell Rod something he already knows: Modernity has ended that dream. Permanently. Rod has read his Alasdair Macintyre. And - despairing (rightly) at the Catholic hierarchy's inability even to have a reasoned conversation about what is going on and at its own sexual and psychological dysfunction and sin - Rod has joined the Orthodox church, perhaps the deepest as well as oldest of all Christian communities. I respect all that - profoundly. My own wrestling with the conflicts between Thomist teleology and modernity came in my 20s, when Oakeshott and Montaigne threaded the needle and when the fact of my own sexual orientation forced me to a reckoning others can perhaps escape. (The result: "Virtually Normal.") My faith has been more private since and more informed by mystery, reticence and doubt. And watching fundamentalist Christianity and Benedict-style Catholicism react to the last couple of decades has only confirmed for me what I suspected in my early adulthood: that their solutions to the modern problem are not solutions at all. They are wild lunges at something they hate almost as much as they misunderstand.

If conservatism is to recover as a force in the modern world, the theocons and Christianists have to understand that their concept of a unified polis with a telos guiding all of us to a theologically-understood social good is a non-starter. Modernity has smashed it into a million little pieces. Women will never return in their consciousness to the child-bearing subservience of the not-so-distant past. Gay people will never again internalize a sense of their own "objective disorder" to acquiesce to a civil regime where they are willingly second-class citizens. Straight men and women are never again going to avoid divorce to the degree our parents did. Nor are they going to have kids because contraception is illicit. The only way to force all these genies back into the bottle would require the kind of oppressive police state Rod would not want to live under.

But how do those who are ready to live in this modern world coexist with those who still believe that it is not only misguided but evil? And, of course, vice-versa? There is only one way.

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