Monday, February 02, 2009

On Marriage: a Bad Good-Article and Two Better Ones

I've been terribly busy with work, but I'd like to call to you attention an interesting triptych of articles on marriage in Touchstone.

First "Divorced from Reality" by Stephen Baskerville. I've rather inclined to believe what the article has to say: that unilateral ("no-fault") divorce is effectively a way for the state to stage hostile take-overs of families. The currency of this issue cannot be overstated:

Today’s disputes over marriage in fact have their origin in this one. Demands to redefine marriage to include homosexual couples are inconceivable apart from the redefinition of marriage already effected by heterosexuals through divorce. Though gays cite the very desire to marry as evidence that their lifestyle is not inherently promiscuous, activist Andrew Sullivan acknowledges that that desire has arisen only because of the promiscuity permitted in modern marriage. “The world of no-strings heterosexual hookups and 50 percent divorce rates preceded gay marriage,” he points out. “All homosexuals are saying ... is that, under the current definition, there’s no reason to exclude us. If you want to return straight marriage to the 1950s, go ahead. But until you do, the exclusion of gays is . . . a denial of basic civil equality” (emphasis added). Gays do not want traditional monogamous marriage, only the version debased by divorce. (20)

The problem is that I found the histrionic tone made it rather too easy to doubt the author's credibility. For example:

Some four decades ago, while few were paying attention, the Western world embarked on the boldest social experiment in its history. With no public discussion of the possible consequences, laws were enacted in virtually every jurisdiction that effectively ended marriage as a legal contract. Today it is not possible to form a binding agreement to create a family. The government can now, at the request of one spouse, simply dissolve a marriage over the objection of the other. (19)

It may be that the move "four decades ago" was truly as idioticly undiscussed as this passage implies. It may be that it is impossible to explain the historical debate, because the debate was non-existent. But one would expect at least some sign of self-awareness about the incredibility of describing such a situation. The way it is written, it sounds as if the author is oversimplifying and making rhetorical capital out of it.

Second is Allan Carlson's "Meaningful Intercourse: The Rise and Fall of the Sexual Constitution of the West" (not available online), which draws the parallel between modern notions of sexuality and those of ancient Gnosticism. He points out the demise of our civilization is coming through the acceptance of contraception and the legitimating of illegitimacy.

Third, I would also like to commend to you another article in the same issue "Phony Matrimony" by Christopher Oleson (not available online).1 Oleson traces the implosion of marriage in the West back to the easy acceptance of contraception. He points out that it is difficult for a couple these days to marry in the traditional understanding of that term, because (1) we don't see openness to children as essential to marriage, and (2) in the backs of our heads we all have an escape-hatch conception of marriage: as a revocable contract, so that if worse comes to worse, we can divorce and remarry someone who will make us "happy." Excluding same-sex couples from "marriage," in this understanding of the term, is not logically consistent, he says.2

All three articles are insightful, and look behind the popular uproar over same-sex "marriage" to find the much more fundamental problem: we now miss the horses, but they left the stable a long while ago, and we ourselves let them out.3


1. Corny title. A colleague of Oleson's I spoke to said Oleson was somewhat annoyed that Touchstone changed the title of his "Our Last 'Marriage' Taboo" without asking him. In the current issue, the editors' reply to a letter reveals that they had cut a substantial, substantive section of an article in the October 2008 issue "for reasons of space" (9). It sounds like Touchstone's editors need to take more care with their authors' intentions.

2. Anthony Esolen weighs in in a sidebar (p. 37), agreeing largely with Oleson, but adding that real same-sex (i.e., non-sexual) friendships are also a good to be protected in uniquely opposing homosexuality. Of course, he's not speaking specifically of "marriages", but of relationships in general.

3. This is in the best tradition of Touchstone, which some years back pointed out that the more basic problem with openly homosexual Episcopalian bishop Gene Robinson came not with his Church's acceptance of his sexual "preference," but with his Church's acceptance of his abandonment of his wife and children.

Stephen Baskerville, "Divorced from Reality," Touchstone 22:1 (Jan-Feb 2009), 19-25.

Allan Carlson, "Meaningful Intercourse: The Rise and Fall of the Sexual Constitution of the West," Touchstone 22:1 (Jan-Feb 2009), 26-31.

Christopher Oleson, "Phony Matrimony," Touchstone 22:1 (Jan-Feb 2009), 32-37.


Jim Kalb said...

My recollection is that it really did happen without much discussion. There was a lot going on at the time that was more dramatic, and the change seemed a technical thing having to do with how the courts dealt with troubled personal situations that ended up before them. All the experts and bar associations said it was a good idea.

Lawrence Gage said...

Thanks for that clarification, Jim! I wish the author of the article had thought to provide more historical context.