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May 7, 2006

Rebellion Without Liberty

One thought from gay-rights activist Chai Feldblum in that Maggie Gallagher piece lodged itself in my mind yesterday afternoon and evening:

Sexual liberty should win in most cases. There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win because that's the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner.

The reference to "sexual liberty" feels displaced from modern reality. If the Internet has proven anything, it is that, with the (perhaps temporary) exception of pedophilia, sexual liberty is nearly total. As a matter of law, there are virtually no boundaries on sexual practice, as long as they are consensual and (for the time being) not performed in full view of a non-consenting audience.

For her statement to have any coherency, Feldblum must mean "liberty" from the consequences that come from others' judgment. What she's placing in conflict, therefore, are:

  • Religious people's liberty to go about their religious practices, such as charitably devoting time and resources to placing children with adoptive parents whom the religion holds to be a help, not a danger, to the children's souls
  • Other people's liberty to have their sexual relationships treated as if all sexual relationships are identical in every respect

Relationships are reduced to the type of sex that their members have, all are leveled, and that equivalence becomes enforced by law — even to the point of prohibiting the free exercise of religion. The activists' argument then becomes, in the words of Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese, that discriminatory practice X "has nothing to do whatsoever with faith." There's a type of madness in this logic:

  • Gendered adoptions have nothing to do with a religion that has a long gendered family tradition and an instruction to know God and His intentions through that which He has made, because
  • parenthood has nothing to do with gender, because
  • gender has only to do with the type of sex that couples can have, and

Perhaps even today we stumble on the next bullet:

  • sex has nothing to do with children.

For her part, Feldblum attempts to skirt the issue with a neutral view of essentials:

"It seemed to me the height of disingenuousness, absurdity, and indeed disrespect to tell someone it is okay to 'be' gay, but not necessarily okay to engage in gay sex. What do they think being gay means?" she writes in her Becket paper. "I have the same reaction to courts and legislatures that blithely assume a religious person can easily disengage her religious belief and self-identity from her religious practice and religious behavior. What do they think being religious means?"

But to truly believe in that neutrality would require the conclusion that the sexual orientation category is at best legislatively protected, while religion is constitutionally protected. Even agreeing with Feldman's view — which I do not — would require a focus on constitutional amendment, not on courts and regular legislation. There is an unmistakable haze around Feldblum's analysis of which liberty "should win": Should win as a matter of current law, or should win according to some emoted political principle that the people of, by, and for whom the government exists have not willingly taken as their own?

This thoughtless procession is in keeping with the underlying absurdity of appealing to "sexual liberty" as grounds to change the meaning of marriage. Marriage — especially in the degree to which expectation and validation are involved — is intimately tied to the curbing of sexual appetites. It is therefore not surprising that we find, in the conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, the mechanism whereby unleashing the sexual drive has served to enslave us.

The ever insightful Paul Cella writes:

... in fact prejudice — that is, prejudgment — is a neutral thing, which can indeed issue in oppression, but can also issue in liberation. To cultivate in men a prejudice against some abiding error, or against some recurrent evil, is to free them from oppression, not set the yoke of it upon them.

Just so, the sexual liberationists are bound by the dictates of their driving motivation, which isn't the sex itself, but the rationalization and justification of it and absolution of those who engage in it. Theology, politics, civil philosophy, economics — all — must accommodate the sexual behavior. If that means undermining the Constitution for the formless benefit of affirming "the dignity of gay people," so be it. If it means tripping up and forcing out those people and practices that carry a dwindling torch of authority from our ancestors, so much the better.

The greater evil lies not in the visceral sin, but in the desire to excuse it, for though it may carry simplicity's tone, one cannot help but hear indications that the rationalization, the justification, and the insistence on absolution have much less to do with the "for what" than with the "from whom." In the context of privacy, Cella points to proof of the lifelong adolescence of the modern culture, in the person of those who "really think Larry Flynt is a free speech hero." They are correct only inasmuch as "free speech" translates as "sticking it in the eye of some parent-figure authority. "

Not even an actual authority, but a facile caricature of a representative of a messenger from an authority whom much of Western Society rejected so long ago that it doesn't remember the sincere, warm assurance that the rules are not restraints, but steps toward transcendence. Those who would recast liberty as freedom from the guiding hand of others' judgment would do well to ponder, as they jerk themselves away, whether it is possible to have dignity while tumbling.

Posted by Justin Katz at May 7, 2006 12:27 PM

Nowhere, in my reading of the constitution, is "sexual liberty" guaranteed for anyone, whether gay or straight. Religious Liberty is, not coincidentally, at the top of the list.

Assuming that there is such a guarantee, then what of the "dignity" of pedophiles, bestialists, necrophiliacs, etc? Certainly this concept is not very well thought out -- at best -- and dangerous to society at worst.

For more socially dangerous new concepts, see the idea of "sex-esteem" that was recently exposed at

Posted by: Marty at May 7, 2006 5:34 PM

There is a great quote from Father Neuhaus in the latest First Things on this point (in the context of the cancellation of the TV show The Book of Daniel). It's not online, I'll look it up when I get home.

Great to see you back blogging, Justin!

Posted by: Mike S. at May 8, 2006 4:12 PM

They are correct only inasmuch as "free speech" translates as "sticking it in the eye of some parent-figure authority."

Here's the Neuhaus quote:

"So now I'll never get a chance to see it. NBC pulled its weekly drama, The Book of Daniel. A friend describes it this way: 'Played by Aidan Quinn, the title character was an Episcopal priest with a tumultuous family and church life. Daniel was addicted to painkillers and had an alcoholic wife, an adulterous bishop and father, a homosexual son, a drug-dealing daughter, a promiscuous teenage son, a brother-in-law embezzling from the church, and a lesbian sister-in-law engaging in group sex. Periodically in the program, Jesus appears to the priest to dispense non-judgemental comments.
The bishop warns the priest that his liberal ways may provoke the supposedly strict archbishop of Canterbury.....The daring priest is not intimidated. Understandably.
But one has to wonder what the folks at NBC had in mind in the first place. As a depiction of liberal religion, the lesson would seem to be that, after the rebellious children have taken over the house and then burned it to the ground, they still need to pretend that there is a parent who is going to call them to account. Otherwise, what is the point of rebelling? 'I'm going to tell the archbishop of Canterbury on you.' Standing tall with chin high, they boldly respond, 'Go ahead, see if we care. We dare you!' Followed by an eerie silence as the realization dawns that there is no parent, there are no rules, nobody is watching, nobody cares, the show has been cancelled."

Posted by: Mike S. at May 8, 2006 9:03 PM

There are only two references to religion in the U.S. Constitution. One is a prohibition of a religious test for holders of public office and the second is the first amendment. Neither reference defines what is and is not religion and what practices can or cannot be protected.

One can argue that the Catholic Charities debacle in Massachusetts was an unfortunate incident of forcing a group's religious practices and thoughts out of full public life. That is, the notion that freedom of religion extends outside of a church.

But the exact same argument can be said about gay marriage. If my church sanctifies gay marriage, and yet gay members of my congregation cannot be fully married in public then why is their freedom of religion being forced into the church. The intricacies of civil marriage and marriage law obviously make this analogy a little dubious, but a more apt one may be simple sodomy laws, since this is a post about sexual liberty. If religions exist that allow gay marriage, can a state reasonably outlaw private sodomy without infringing upon the first amendment?

Posted by: Michael at May 15, 2006 5:20 PM

That's not "the exact same argument," Michael, and not just because of "the intricacies of civil marriage." In the case of adoption, the religious group is performing a service — adoption — with a set definition. Massachusetts has stepped in and declared that it will not accept the group's intention to perform that service in a way that accords with its religion. In the case of marriage, the hypothetical church is performing a ceremony that is not, according to tradition or law, "marriage."

I don't mean this example to be taken as an indication of relative degree, of course, but a parallel of the SSM claims in terms of adoption would be for a church to say that, according to its religion "adoption" means "to sell into slavery."

Posted by: Justin Katz at May 15, 2006 6:51 PM

Posted by: adryano at May 31, 2006 6:29 AM