[Re-posted From Friday night.]


Damon Linker responds to Dreher's latest. I've found the debate helpful, because Rod is nothing if not honest. His resistance to civil equality for homosexuals is built on two core arguments. The first is the inerrancy of the Bible for most Christians, rendering, say, marriage equality an intolerable fusion of Godliness and evil. The logical problem here is the selectiveness of the use of the Bible. As Damon notes:

Among many other things, Christian scripture and tradition affirm the legitimacy of slavery, claim that the Jews are cursed for killing Jesus, and assert that one must give away all of one's belongings and even learn to hate one's own family before following Christ. These are just a few of the matters on which contemporary Christians, including orthodox Christians like Rod, feel quite comfortable breaking with, or explaining away, scripture and tradition.

And it's a good thing, too, because it shows that they're willing to think for themselves about important moral issues and to use their minds to separate out what is enduringly true in scripture and tradition from the unexamined prejudices that shape and distort everything touched by human hands, very much including received religious norms, practices, and beliefs. The issue, then, is to determine why so many contemporary Christians have decided that the teaching on homosexuality -- but not the teachings on slavery, Jews, and the most stringent requirements of becoming a disciple of Christ -- deserves to be preserved.

With Catholics, the obvious counterpoint is civil divorce. Catholics do not recognize such divorces within the church nor the second and third marriages that follow them (leaving aside the rank hypocrisy of the annulment scam). But they are prepared to live in a civil society that allows for it as a civil secular matter, just as they live easily with infertile married couples, or post-menopausal couples getting married. Until Rod explains why homosexuals as such represent a unique threat, even while they make up a tiny section of society, his singling out of gays in order to uphold his views of natural law in the civil law will look and smell like animus, not reason.

Rod's second argument is as follows:

If homosexuality is legitimized -- as distinct from being tolerated, which I generally support -- then it represents the culmination of the sexual revolution, the goal of which was to make individual desire the sole legitimate arbiter in defining sexual truth. It is to lock in, and, on a legal front, to codify, a purely contractual, nihilistic view of human sexuality. I believe this would be a profound distortion of what it means to be fully human. And I fully expect to lose this argument in the main, because even most conservatives today don't fully grasp how the logic of what we've already conceded as a result of being modern leads to this end.

There is a conflation of a lot of things here, but they're fascinating and important and so worth teasing out more fully. Is allowing gay citizens to enter into civil marriages the culmination of the sexual revolution? I would say not. The culmination of the sexual revolution was at 4 am in the Mineshaft in the late 1970s. It is not the civil marriage of two elderly lesbians in a town hall in California in 2008.

I'm offering two extremes here, of course, for the sake of argument. But there is no question that gay life and culture and politics have evolved away from one toward another over the last two or three decades, a shift that Rod does not recognize. It does not mean that one has totally eclipsed the other. Nor does it mean that in a free society, individuals cannot and should not explore sexuality as they see fit. It simply means there has been a deep change in gay life and culture these past few decades and Rod seems utterly out of touch with this critical VN transformation. (He is also unfair in accusing me of operating from within a cocoon on this. I dare say I have debated more religious people on this than almost anyone else, produced an anthology of writing about marriage equality that included many opponents and have made my case in more Catholic and conservative and mainstream venues than I can count. I have also argued from within the natural law tradition for an acceptance of gay love and sexuality, and I certainly do not regard myself as a "nihilist" or "relativist" in this respect.)

And in many ways, those on the counter-cultural left who always celebrated "queer sexuality" have found the marriage question - and the whole notion of civil integration - very problematic. Foucault would have regarded it as another form of oppression. Read Michael Warner's critique of my own Virtually Normal in The Trouble With Normal for a pretty clear account. Totally unrestricted sex as a form of human being, with anyone anywhere anyhow, might once have been a central goal of the gay rights movement, but the world is a lot more complicated today - and the change was no accident. What the marriage and military movement was about in the 1990s was shifting the focus of the movement from homosexual sex to homosexual life and dignity and responsibility. This didn't mean a denigration of sexual liberation or denying the power and mystery that sex has, or its relationship to human freedom - things that many gay men, to their credit, have long understood. But it did mean a clear shift away from the revolutionary thinking Rod fears so much. For many of us, the catastrophe of AIDS was a palpable, grueling reminder that without social structure, without integration, without responsibility, without the love and engagement and presence of their families, gay men were in grave danger. And so we worked past our grief and walked through the cultural minefield of the religious right and the pomo left to remake a movement. Rod may have forgotten, but I have not, how I and others were targeted as conservatives by the gay community for many years. Well: were we conservatives or radicals? Or were we simply trying to expand the civil space in which human beings can live with freedom and dignity?

Constructing legal and civil relationships within which to express our love and sexuality is not, in my view, "nihilist". Nor is the civil equality of gay people somehow a means "to make individual desire the sole legitimate arbiter in defining sexual truth." It is to take human love, body and soul, to be the central, meaningful human experience - a fundamentally Christian project. And it is to accept, as Christians have in so many other areas, that the modern world needs to be organized along principles that all citizens can accept, which means something more than a recourse to one group's religious texts, or, indeed, the arguments about them within those religious groupings.

Moreover, far from nihilistically renouncing nature, the marriage movement aims at reclaiming the mantle of nature for homosexuals alongside our heterosexual peers and siblings and parents. We know now that same-gender attraction, bonding and sex is ubiquitous in nature, and almost certainly has some evolutionary explanation. We know too, experientially, that the love cherished by many gay couples is real and beautiful and deeply human. It is not merely "contractual" or "nihilist". It is organic, natural and completing. It is humanizing and it is civilizing. History is full of such relationships, and they stand proudly alongside their heterosexual peers. The reduction of these shared lives and loves to abstract sexual acts is itself a form of bigotry. It is an attempt to reduce the full and complex human being to one aspect of his or her humanness. It is, in my view, anti-Christian to speak of gays the way this Pope does. The Christian calling is not to guard ferociously the ramparts of the 1950s out of fear but to listen to the experiences of gay people - what the Second Vatican Council calls the sensus fidelium - and try to integrate their humanity into the structures from which they have been so cruelly excluded, with such horrible human consequences, for so long.

It is Rod's self-evident panic at the thought of such an integration that has made some of us sit up and take note. There is some lurking fear that if this form of being human is recognized as equal in the civil sphere, let alone the sacred one, then the entire edifice of heterosexuality and marriage and family will somehow be destroyed or undermined. I do not believe that in any way. And I don't think it's possible to believe that without, at some level, engaging in homophobia - literally an irrational and exaggerated fear that the gay somehow always obliterates the straight, or that 2 percent somehow always controls the fate of 98 percent. This is where paranoia and panic take over. It is where homophobia most feels like anti-Semitism.

Be not afraid, as Pope John Paul II kept telling us. Of what should we not be afraid? We should not be afraid of the truth about ourselves.

(Photo: a gay couple by David McNew/Getty.)

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