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March 15, 2004

An Outpost of la Guerra de la Cultura

Apart from congratulations (strictly) for the achievement, there isn't much to say about Rev. Donald Sensing's Opinion Journal piece. It's largely a restructuring (with additions) of some posts on his blog, to some of which I responded extensively in the comment sections. Still, his conclusion is irksome for a few reasons (emphasis in original):

I believe that this state of affairs is contrary to the will of God. But traditionalists, especially Christian traditionalists (in whose ranks I include myself) need to get a clue about what has really been going on and face the fact that same-sex marriage, if it comes about, will not cause the degeneration of the institution of marriage; it is the result of it.

The first issue is that — while I stress my respect for Rev. Sensing — his conclusion is banal. What serious social conservatives and Christian traditionalists don't start from this conclusion? It's so obvious that restating it as if it's new gives advocates of same-sex marriage an excuse to cite it as clear evidence that their opponents are wrong, even though not a single one of their opponents would disagree with the premise.

The second problem is that Rev. Sensing needs "to get a clue about" what this step in marriage's collapse actually entails, and frankly, I continue to be disheartened and amazed that he puts this statement forward as an argument for surrender:

Sex, childbearing and marriage now have no necessary connection to one another, because the biological connection between sex and childbearing is controllable.

Sensing's central point is that sex has been disconnected from childbearing and, therefore, disconnected from marriage, and in that, he's correct. He's correct, too, in his suggestion that there's no necessary link... if necessity is defined as some abstract, the-world-starts-now academic theory. But the truth of the matter is that childbearing is still connected with marriage, and that this connection is necessary to bolster.

A third problem — a big one — comes with Sensing's opening:

Opponents of legalized same-sex marriage say they're trying to protect a beleaguered institution, but they're a little late. The walls of traditional marriage were breached 40 years ago; what we are witnessing now is the storming of the last bastion.

To allow him his metaphor, it's dangerously optimistic to think that the enemy will be satisfied with its newfound territory. Marriage itself isn't the last bastion of traditional morality, and the high, well-fortified ground that the institution of marriage provides will be auspicious territory from which to stage attacks across the civil border into rights of association and speech and even of religion itself. As I wrote in a post entitled "Constructing the Christian Ghetto," in which I responded to Rev. Sensing's earlier suggestion that civil and religious marriage ought to be separated:

Homosexuals are not simply seeking legal rights that, for the most part, they can already secure through other means. They will chase down withheld approbation wherever it remains. In this, they are perhaps representative of secularists more generally. Moral and religious absolutes are strong and true banners when carried forward into cultural conflict, but they make for irresistible flags to capture when safeguarded like treasure within sectarian walls.

Those who believe that they have no use for traditional morality must see the likely outcome, if only deep down in unstated comprehension. How else could one explain the fact that Andrew Sullivan calls "bleeding obvious" the same piece that Glenn Reynolds calls "fascinating"? The only thing that's fascinating — in a morbid way, from my perspective — is that the capitulation is being suggested almost before the battle has begun in earnest, and by a conservative minister.

Posted by Justin Katz at March 15, 2004 10:47 PM
Marriage & Family

"What serious social conservatives and Christian traditionalists don't start from this conclusion?" I think there are many, many serious Protestants who think that widespread use of artificial contraception has nothing whatever to do with the breakdown of marriage and family life. This doesn't arise from observation, but from philosophy. They think that "responsible" parenting (that is, effectively, planned barrenhood) is a genuinely Christian thing to do. And, perhaps most importantly, they think the ban on artificial contraception is (dare I write the evil word?) Catholic; specifically, a false tradition of men that has nothing to do with God's will. I suspect from what else you write here that you underestimate this current of thought in Protestant circles.

Posted by: ELC at March 16, 2004 9:22 AM


I will admit that I'm still new enough to the Christian world, with so much theological and historical ground to cover, that I haven't gotten to sectarian differences, and I'm sure I underestimate them often. However, on this specific matter, having read pretty broadly over the past few years, I don't think I'd come across a single person opposing gay marriage who wouldn't at least admit that SSM would do more damage to marriage.

I could have missed arguments, particularly if they were put forward among Protestants. However, this piece was on a secular Web site, and it put forward a secular argument.

Beyond that, part of my disappointment derives from the fact that Rev. Sensing is a conservative Protestant, with whom I often agree on theological matters (at least so far). In other words, I don't think I'd object so much if his "point" were more that the country didn't realize what it had done than that traditionalists ought to throw up their hands. (That position, of course, could have to do with the complicated interplay of religious belief/biases and trends in the public sphere.)

Posted by: Justin Katz at March 16, 2004 2:42 PM

The point of the article is that we should be focusing on fixing what's actually broken, not fulminating against a change that merely results from what's broken. The idea is to re-connect marriage and childrearing through divorce laws and a change in our attitudes about sex. Do that, and gay marriage becomes irrelevant.

Posted by: Andrew at March 19, 2004 9:04 AM


I agree with you, in large part. The disagreement begins after having admitted this: what do we do with the most immediate issue on the table, same-sex marriage? I think ceding this additional step makes further steps more likely and reform less likely.

But I've written before that I'd trade same-sex marriage for stiff divorce laws.

Posted by: Justin Katz at March 19, 2004 10:12 AM