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Resting the Case Against Andrew Sullivan and Gay Marriage

What is most infuriating about Andrew Sullivan's handling of the gay marriage debate is that he never — ever — seems to absorb the positions of those who argue specific aspects with him. He comes to a conclusion — for example, that a significant portion of those advocating for gay marriage are not seeking to undermine the institution — and that's the end of the story, no matter how much argument or evidence is offered to contradict it. He doesn't even use such language as "it seems to me" in reference to his previously contested points, asserting them as fact.

Because this quality was so thoroughly in evidence in his response to a recent William Bennett column, I wasn't even going to bother commenting. But toward the end, Sullivan puts forward an open-ended question that shines a huge spotlight on how much he doesn't get — doesn't care to get — where he's going off the tracks. So much is this so that I feel comfortable declaring the case against him made. He has completed the argument against himself. First, I'd like to make some specific points, and before I do even that, I want to give you context in the form of the pleasant fiction that represents the heart of Sullivan's view:

The premise here is that someone is trying to end this arrangement [of the traditional family]. But gay people do not want to enter into civil marriage in order to destroy it; and that claim is a grotesque assault on our good faith. Gays don't want to join the straights-only golf club in order to destroy the game of golf. They want to join in order to play golf.

Because he sees the argument in these terms, the only conclusion to which he can come is that resistance to gay marriage is based on hateful bigotry born of privilege: "It is not enough for heterosexuals to enjoy the fruits of their own natural feast; they must be buttressed by staring out the window at the poor, excluded, hungry miscreants in the street." He would have done well to search even his own writing to discern whether more charitable explanations might exist.

To begin with, he might learn a bit more about the Catholicism that he's recently made such a show of questioning. In response to Bennett's suggestion that "human beings are set apart from the rest of the material world, even from other animate beings," in that they have purpose, Sullivan writes:

In the work of Aristotle and Aquinas, human beings were understood as a part of nature and all of nature had a purpose--from an acorn to a zebra. Human ends were therefore compatible with all of nature's ends. And man's destiny could be understood, in part, by seeing him in that context. Why would Bennett seek to separate mankind out as uniquely teleological in nature? Perhaps because the more we understand nature, the less persuasive are the sexual arguments of the medievals and ancients, whose empirical knowledge was far less extensive than our own?

There is much here that could be argued, but it's hard to know where to begin, especially considering that Sullivan ostensibly believes the bulk of Christian teaching. In the interest of brevity, let me just say that even "compatible" purposes does not imply that the erratic sexual behavior of dumb beasts justifies the same among sentient humans. An entire essay could be written reviewing that one paragraph in light of the Book of Genesis. Another entire essay could be written exploring the implications of that paragraph's combination with this one:

If one understands human beings as part of nature, then our stewardship of the natural world is not a matter of complete indifference. It does indeed matter what we do with a tree. Wanton destruction as opposed to productive and custodial use are two different moral objectives.

Sullivan has attacked a strawman here, because Bennett wrote that "the essence of a tree presents no moral limitations for the uses we may develop for it," not that "wanton destruction" is morally neutral. Expanding on this, and following some of the hints of New Age naturalism apparent in Sullivan's rebuttal, one sees how modern society might talk itself into cloning, abortion, farming ovaries from aborted girls, and so on: if we are just part of nature, and if the measure of morality in nature is "productive and custodial use," then the wall begins to break down that bars "productive and custodial use" of us.

The "conflicted Catholic" Sullivan then goes on to appeal to the ideals growing from evolutionary biology. Conflicted, indeed! Next up is this jaw dropping example of willful obtuseness:

But if marriage is so natural, why does it need social support? Why isn't it easy? In this, Bennett merely echoes a key social conservative trope: that marriage is both a tenuous institution that can be destroyed by the mildest of reforms or tinkerings; and yet at the same time, marriage is an integral part of the natural order that nothing can gainsay. Again: which is it?

Well, Andy, death is natural; why isn't it easy? Less sarcastically, what Sullivan glosses over here is that Bennett refers to "immutable characteristics [that] define proper sexual behavior." The fact of natural definition doesn't imply natural ease. And thus does the dangerous flaw in Sullivan's worldview begin to emerge: his apparent belief that what "comes naturally," that to which we are inclined, must be good by definition. Skipping a bit, we find this idea being developed:

Exclusive heterosexuality has no firm basis in nature itself as it is actually observed. Sexuality across species is dramatically diverse--from asexual reproduction to multiple genders to same-sex behavior to widespread animal promiscuity and adultery. Human beings have also exhibited a wide range of marital and sexual arrangements; the shift away from purely procreative ends for sexuality occurred a couple of generations ago.

In other words, sexual aberration and variety in animals justifies the same in humans. Furthermore, the natural evolution of human sexuality — somehow progressing toward unthinking creatures rather than away from them — merely experienced its latest shift all of "a couple of generations ago." Whatever the next "shift" might be, it will surely be natural, probably moving us closer to nature (i.e., the behavior of beasts).

After a few distractions and strawmen, Sullivan restates his pleasant fiction:

Homosexuals are not, repeat not, demanding that any of the current rules of civil marriage be changed to allow them access. All they are asking is that they have a chance to live up to the same standards--of responsibility, fidelity, and full citizenship.

Of course, homosexuals most definitely are, repeat are, demanding a change of the rules "to allow them access": that the rules cease to include the requirement of different sexes in the couple. Else, what's the fight about? Oh, I forgot: bigotry and "hungry miscreants." Other than that, Sullivan comes around to making his enemies' point when he isn't looking — that is, when he's responding to Bennett's subsequent suggestion that homosexuals seek to replace an "organizing principle" growing from the natural complement of the sexes with organization based on sexual behavior:

If anything, homosexuals are more insistent about the distinction between male and female. If it weren't a profound difference, then a sexual orientation to the same gender wouldn't be that big a deal. But it is. Equally, I thought it was natural-law Catholics who insisted on the moral primacy of acts, i.e. behavior, rather than identity, i.e. homosexual or heterosexual orientation.

In the first part of that excerpt, Sullivan emphasizes that the difference that relates to the rule that he wishes to change is indeed, "profound." The second part of the excerpt speaks more to the deep misunderstanding in his thinking. Firstly, Bennett specifies that, by "sexual identity," he means our gender itself, not "orientation." Secondly, the "moral primacy of acts" means that it is the act that makes a think moral or immoral, which obviously does not mean that all acts are morally equal. Since Sullivan so completely misses the point of, well, ethics, let me take the liberty of rephrasing on Bennett's behalf: marriage and the familial structure of society is organized along lines of gender, with selective inclusion acting as part of the strategy. Reorganizing along lines of sexual behavior or preference so as to cross into and include that which had been explicitly excluded would be to include immoral behavior.

But this is all tangential, because Sullivan is about to throw out millennia of Western ethical thinking. Discarding most especially Christianity. Let me give you the internal blockquote from Bennett so you'll have an idea of the full context within which Sullivan performs this rejection:

Without respect for sexual identity, sexual partners become nothing more than interchangeable parts, rather than complementary on the basis of nature. And if behavior and appetite are the only determinants of sexual conduct, what is the argument against polygamy, incest or any other imaginable sexual relationship?

Why is the choice between heterosexuality and "interchangeable parts"? Why isn't the basis of sexual connection love and companionship and mutual respect between two people, in which our bodies, in the mystery of sexuality, take part? And why shouldn't the criterion be one in which all people can equally participate, rather than simply those fortunate enough to be born with the "correct" sexual wiring?

And why, for that matter, can sexual expression only ever be legitimate within a single human relationship? What is so bad, after all, with mutual objectification? If both parties are willing and equal and adult, why is sexual pleasure--that isn't related to some ulterior social good--so wrong? Maybe it isn't as profound as other sexual expressions; maybe it should be given no social standing. But always wrong? Why?

In his first paragraph, Sullivan ignores a significant component of Bennett's question by merely sticking with "two people." He certainly leaves open the possibility of marriage for those who have "polygamy, incest or any other imaginable sexual relationship" as their "sexual writing." But it is the second paragraph in which Sullivan slips from his pleasant fiction. He asks what is wrong with "sexual pleasure" for its own sake. He uses language specifically rejected (for good reason) by Catholic doctrine when he refers to "mutual objectification." Well, if sexual pleasure outside of the "single human relationship" of marriage is not wrong and is merely gratification mutually offered by two human objects, how important is the ideal of fidelity that Sullivan claims to desire?

The more I've paid attention to this debate, the more I've found it to be an inescapable conclusion that increasingly libertine sexual ethics in marriage are not merely the next steps according to the logic of homosexuals' appeal for marriage rights, but actually will enter into marriage even among relatively conservative homosexuals. Homosexuality that seeks to achieve not just the tolerance that comes with seeing people as who they are apart from their sexuality, but also the explicit social approval and promotion of its sexuality, is subversive by its nature.

And the more the point is denied, the more it becomes clear. At this point, Sullivan serves best not so much as a participant in the debate, but as a case study.

Posted by Justin Katz @ 09:25 PM EST