Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Gay Marriage: The Direction of History?

In the Balance
Photo by Nicholas Blechman

In an otherwise fascinating NYT article by Bill Keller, "A Brief for Justice Kennedy" (May 27, 2012) , speculating upon how Justice Kennedy might vote on gay marriage, I encountered some expressions concerning the justices of the Supreme Court as a whole that -- speaking as a historian -- I dislike:
They can thwart history. They could rule that states are free to recognize only heterosexual marriages. This would be a disheartening setback, though I imagine it would energize the movement for marriage rights.

They can postpone history. This is the easy way out. The court could endorse the narrowly worded appellate court ruling on Prop 8, either by actively affirming it or simply declining to hear it. By restoring marriage rights in California, this would instantly double, to 23 percent, the percentage of Americans living in states that treat gays as equals. But it would put off the day when this right is afforded to all Americans.

What do I dislike? The expressions "thwart history" and "postpone history" for their implication that history has a direction. If history did have a direction -- say, an inevitable progression toward some earthly utopia -- we could simply sit back and wait for that couture-in-the-future to arrive, but it has no direction other than the one we press for. Otherwise, the struggle for human rights in this world wouldn't be so hard.

To be fair, I suppose that some individuals who use a phrase like "the wrong side of history" intend it as shorthand for "contrary to the aims toward which we have been striving" -- which, of course, raises the question of who "we" is, but leave that aside for now.

Personally, I expect gay marriage to be legalized nationwide in the US relatively soon. The younger generation sees it as a civil rights issue -- even a human rights issue -- and this tends to be the case among evangelicals as well. The older generation of evangelicals treated gay rights as something to oppose in the culture wars, but the younger generation has grown up knowing openly gay individuals and lacks animus toward them. Churches, even the conservative ones, are often more open about sexual issues these days. I've heard entire sermons on addiction to pornography in which preachers acknowledge that the percentage of those addicted is identical among non-Christians and evangelical Christians. My point is that sexuality is discussed explicitly among evangelicals these days with an openness and degree of understanding that would have shocked evangelicals of the 1980s.

Evangelicals know that gays attend church, even conservative churches -- this recognition stems from the greater openness about sex -- and I rarely hear even older evangelicals express animus toward gays. Not that they approve of the lifestyle, but they often understand that gays probably aren't choosing to be homosexual, not anymore than a heterosexual made a choice to be straight. They accept the orientation but oppose the act. That's the older generation of evangelicals, I emphasize. The younger generation tend to agree that the private acts of gays are nobody's business, that gay sexuality is an issue between a gay individual and God, precisely as with other sexual issues among consenting adults.

Such are my impressions, anyway. There are probably statistics on this, but I've not looked for any since I wanted this post to be based on my own subjective impressions, but if any knowledgeable people can link to stats on this issue, feel free, for I'm curious if my impressions correspond to larger trends among evangelicals or if they imply that the evangelical churches I've attended have instead been outliers.

But I suspect that evangelicals in the West are simply reflecting the larger cultural shift . . .

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At 3:34 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

The tendency of folks to talk about being "on the wrong side of history" reminds me of the closing lines of a poem by C. S. Lewis:

You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).

At 4:11 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks for the lines from Lewis, of which I was totally ignorant.

I presume the "Vichy water" is a reference to "Vichy France." There was a time when Fascism seemed the direction of history, hence Vichy . . .

Jeffery Hodges

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At 4:46 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Exactly. The whole poem is here and is very much worth reading. (Turns out Lewis was a pretty good poet.)

At 5:08 AM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...

Jeffery, your remarks about evangelicals are very interesting. My 'bet' was that they would react just the opposite way. I mean: there's just a few of them here in Italy, but we may somehow draw a parallel with the most traditional Catholics (to which evangelicals are quite close as to ethics, though not theology). Well, in a society where moral boundaries totter, conservative Christians tend to become more conservative, if less numerous --- or, at least, that was my impression.

At 6:30 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks, Mr. Smith. A thought-provoking, uneasy poem.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 6:33 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Dario, evangelical churches are organized more by congregations than by institutions, so they change faster with the cultural shifts -- for better or for worse -- but I still don't know that my local impressions indicate a larger change.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 8:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Do evangelical Christians ever discuss the Biblical or theological underpinnings of opposition to same-sex marriage? The Catholic Church views marriage as procreational by nature and therefore opposes artificial birth control and same-sex marriages on those grounds, yet curiously does not oppose marriage for post-menopausal women.


At 1:49 PM, Blogger ilTassista Marino said...


right remark.


funny, though an interesting side of the issue. Well, the aim is not only procreation, but life-building too. On the basis you suggest, all naturally sterile people should become monks/nuns...

At 3:17 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

@Sonagi - I'm not a Catholic, but I think that the distinction the Catholics make is probably Thomistic in origin and has to do with marriage having the appropriate form even if it doesn't have all the correct results. In other words, so long as the marriage is open to life, even if it can be foreseen that procreation won't be the result, it has the form of a valid marriage.

Evangelicals don't typically have all the same Aristotelian vocabulary at their disposal, but to the extent that they contemplate the reasons for the Biblical prohibitions, it has to do with the complementarity of the sexes. Usually verses like, "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother," and, "What God has joined together let no man put asunder" get brought out.

At 3:36 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Sonagi, I would guess that evangelicals would proof-text to support their opposition to same-sex marriage, drawing on verses from various biblical contexts.

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:38 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, Dario, I wouldn't want my remarks to be on the left!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 3:42 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Mr. Smith -- or perhaps "Ken" -- I wonder if same-sex marriage would violate the form of marriage. Is gender an 'accidental' quality of the human form, or are male and female two different forms?

Or does my query make no sense?

Jeffery Hodges

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At 11:08 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

@Jeffery - I'm neither a Thomist nor a Catholic, so you should appropriately discount any answer you get from me :-). But my understanding is that yes, from the Catholic perspective, same-sex marriage does not constitute a valid form of marriage, because the form of marriage requires a man and a woman. That doesn't imply that men and women aren't both human; rather, they both share the human form. But they are also each members of other species (in the Thomistic, not the biological sense), and it is as representatives of the male and female kinds of humans that they can come together to constitute a valid marriage.

At 5:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Thanks. I rather thought that there'd be some hitch to gays getting hitched.

Jeffery Hodges

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