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How To Argue About Homosexuality

Rod Dreher has now written two responses to this post of mine, on what I called his (and, more broadly, the social conservative right's) "fixation" with homosexuality -- and in particular with the possibility that being gay may come to be widely accepted in American life. After reading the first response, which was generous and measured in tone, I decided against writing a rejoinder. There were things that I disliked in Rod's first post -- like his decision to reduce my argument to a reflection of "the strong biases of [my] cultural class and environment." On the other hand, Rod showed that he'd written lots of posts on many topics besides homosexuality over the past several months, so maybe I shouldn't have used clinical-sounding terminology like "fixation" to describe his concerns with gay issues. I was willing to call it a wash and move on, especially since Rod's defense of his own views would require an elaborate response -- one I was unsure I wanted to undertake.

However, a five-line endorsement of my original post by Andrew Sullivan, which added nothing to what I'd written, inspired Rod to write a second post, this time in a far more defensive and agitated tone. And I think it calls for some kind of a reply.

On the issue of how many times Rod has written about homosexuality (in comparison to the number of posts he's written on other topics and the number of posts Andrew Sullivan has written on gay issues), I concede the point again: Fine, Rod, you got me -- you've written about lots of other things on your blog. Judged quantitatively, you're more fixated on the economy, the media, and even food than you are with homosexuality. Point taken.

But of course I wasn't really talking about quantitative measures. I was talking about a tone of deep and intense concern that marks Rod's writing about homosexuality and the prospect of its acceptance in our culture. Having noticed this over the course of months and years reading his blog, I decided to pose some questions, in as friendly and respectful way as I could, about the basis of his views. And here's what he now has to say about my motives:

By casting the ordinary defense of normative Christian doctrine about homosexual relations as though it were a sort of mental illness, the pro-SSM [same-sex marriage --DL] side engages the issue not in a fair-minded discussion and debate about legitimate issues related to gay marriage and the normalization of homosexuality in our society, but as an ideological war to be won by any means necessary. Any critique of the pro-SSM side is to be treated as a sign of pathology. As a short-term rhetorical strategy, it's probably smart, given that most of the news media already agree with it. But walling yourself off in an ideological bubble, where you make no effort to try to understand why your opponents believe what they believe, and to try to grasp if they have a point, is neither fair, nor honorable, nor, in the long term, wise.

I'm sorry, Rod, but it was I who tried to engage you in a "fair-minded discussion and debate about legitimate issues related to gay marriage and the normalization of homosexuality in our society." And you've now responded by charging me with waging an "ideological war by any means necessary." So who really resides inside an "ideological bubble," and which one of us has chosen to wall himself off from discussion and debate?

Now, in the interest of furthering this discussion and debate, I'll return to two points that Rod made in his original response.

First, he appealed to scripture and tradition:

Sex, especially homosexuality, is a big deal because how one comes down on those related questions has a lot to do with how you view the authority of Scripture and Tradition. There's a reason why the churches today are breaking apart over homosexuality, and it has to do with the plain fact that there can be no compromise on this issue, as it goes to the heart of how believers understand ourselves, our relationship to God, and to the nature of truth. This stuff matters. It matters a lot. If you are a gay person, you know how much it matters to you. Why should anybody be surprised that it matters to traditional Christians, and for reasons that go far beyond any supposed anti-gay animus? Trads believe we do not have the right to ignore the clear and continuing teaching of Scripture and the Church because it strikes our contemporaries in this post-Christian society as correct. If you think about it, what's really surprising is not that people like us object, but that intelligent folks among us believe that the case for the licitness of homosexuality, which is something accepted pretty much only in the West, and even then it's controversial (in the US) outside of cultural elite circles, is so natural and obvious that 2,000 years of Christian moral tradition should be obviated without a fuss.

I predicted in my original post that Rod would make this move, and I also explained why I think it's inadequate. 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. This is as close as Rod comes to providing an explanation of this decision:

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.

There's a lot -- including a lot of questionable assumptions -- packed into these three sentences. To begin with, did the sexual revolution (i.e., the cluster of changes in sexual mores that began in the mid-1960s) really have a "goal"? Where did this goal come from? Who were its authors? Were its aims determined at a meeting at some point in the early 1960s -- in, perhaps, 1963, "between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles' first LP"? And how were its resolutions imposed on so many millions of people, not only in the U.S. but around the civilized world? I'm afraid I don't understand how this could have worked. (I'm not simply being facetious here: I really don't understand how otherwise thoughtful people can endorse accounts of historical change as simplistic and conspiratorial as this one, which is accepted by pretty much everyone on the social conservative right.)

But even if we assume there was a sexual revolution led by a vanguard of hedonists, was its goal really "to make individual desire the sole legitimate arbiter in defining sexual truth"? Funny, I kind of thought sexual mores began to change during this period because lots of people realized that the traditional norms governing sexual relations were shot through with ignorance and fear that often produced pointless shame and guilt. But then again, maybe my belief that sexual desires are not inherently shameful and should not inspire guilt shows that I also believe that "individual desire" should be the "sole legitimate arbiter in defining sexual truth." If so, I guess I'm guilty as charged. And of course I'm not alone in this, as Rod recognizes. I do wish, though, that he would stop blaming it on the impersonal logic governing "modernity," or reducing it to the decadent habits that prevail in certain social classes, and instead acknowledge that those of us on this side of the culture war hold to the position we do because we believe that it matches up with the truth of things, just as Rod claims to do, in the name of a very different truth.  

And finally, there's Rod's assumption that a contractual view of human sexuality is automatically nihilistic. I'm not even sure I understand this claim. If Rod means that the prevailing view of marriage is contractual, then I see the point, but I'd deny that such a view "nihilistic." I'd say, on the contrary, that the contractual view of marriage is the only one that treats the parties involved with equal dignity -- with the capacity to make their own decisions in life, or at least as more qualified to make them than the political and ecclesiastical authorities to which Rod would prefer us to defer. (And Rod, I have to say that given all you uncovered in your first-rate reporting on the Catholic Church's sex-abuse scandal, I find it simply astonishing that you continue to counsel deference to church authorities.) 

On the other hand, if Rod means to make the stronger claim that all sexuality today is viewed in contractual terms, then I'm just confused. I haven't been on the dating scene for quite a while, but I don't recall ever being asked by a woman to sign a contract. (Though that might be because I didn't go to Antioch College.) But perhaps what Rod means is this: it is widely assumed today that sexual intercourse should be consensual -- and that if the parties involved do consent, then the sexual act is a matter of moral indifference. (It should go without saying that moral issues can and do arise when other people are involved -- for instance, in cases of adultery and other forms of betrayal.)

Maybe Rod thinks this is nihilism. I'd prefer to call it adults acting like adults. In the end, I suppose our disagreement boils down to what Rod says in the last sentence of the paragraph I quoted above: The legitimization of homosexuality, for Rod, "would be a profound distortion of what it means to be fully human," whereas for me nothing nearly so profound is at stake. All I know is that a few of my fellow citizens love, and feel sexual attraction to, members of the same sex. And as Jefferson might have put it, that neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. Rod and those with similar convictions obviously take a very different position. I just don't see how over the long term they can possibly make their case in our public life if their position boils down to nothing more than a profession of faith: "I believe being fully human requires that my fellow citizens consider it evil to do this and that to each other in bed." Don't get me wrong: Such professions might inspire a handful of conversions. But they are unlikely to persuade anyone, because there is no argument involved. If you believe that scripture and tradition are right to condemn homosexuality, then you'll believe that it's right to condemn homosexuality. And vice versa.

Summary of debate between Damon Linker and Rod Dreher: 

Linker asks: Why is Rod so troubled by the possibility of homosexuality being accepted?

Dreher answers: Because I believe it's wrong for homosexuality to be accepted.