Our ruling class seems determined to drive our country into a ditch. H.R. 8404, the Respect for Marriage Act, is a case in point.
Ostensibly, the bill is meant to codify the right to same-sex marriage that was discovered by the Supreme Court in Obergefell v. Hodges. In view of present realities, it serves little purpose other than to flaunt the power of the Rainbow Reich.
Gay marriage is a luxury good in our society, largely the province of professional men and women. Meanwhile, among Americans without college degrees, marriage is collapsing. The decline is not happening because heterosexual men and women are co-habiting in stable relationships. Recent studies show that the number of individuals between the ages of twenty-four and fifty-four who are living alone is increasing, and now approaches 40 percent. Not surprisingly, fertility and family formation are declining as well.
These hard numbers point to a reality only the willfully blind refuse to see: the increasingly dysfunctional relations between men and women. Why the male–female dance has broken down over the past generation is not easy to explain. But it does not take a graduate degree in psychology to recognize that children need clear pathways toward adult life as men and women. Nor does it take a degree in sociology to see that those pathways are precisely what we have systematically denied to children, often in the interest of making our society more "inclusive."
Gay marriage is not an innocent innovation, a win-win for society that, as many claimed, would strengthen the institution of marriage by making it more available. It was always implausible to imagine that our society could celebrate homosexuality and honor it with the institution of marriage without undermining the socialization of children into healthy patterns of male–female reciprocity. Given the ambition of the Rainbow Reich to restructure social attitudes, transgender ideology and the current epidemic of gender dysphoria were entirely predictable. Gay liberation was never solely about legal rights. It undermines the normative status of heterosexuality. As the more honest activists always insisted, the goal was to "queer" society.
Gay liberation was never solely about legal rights. It undermines the normative status of heterosexuality.
Well, we've gone a long way toward achieving that goal. Spend a few hours with mainstream media, and you'd think a third or more of people were homosexual. The messaging has been effective. The rate of people identifying as LGBT has risen dramatically, especially among the impressionable young. A recent Gallup poll has more than 20 percent of Gen Z checking the LGBT box.
No doubt the severe decline of norms that privilege marriage, family, and heterosexual coupling has been beneficial for a small class of people whose desires are abnormal. But for the majority of Americans these changes have come at a great cost.
Family offers a safe harbor in the rough seas of life. For most, it's a reliable place of comfort and a source of profound satisfaction. Public health officials scratch their heads, trying to explain the extraordinary decline in life expectancy in the United States, a shocking trend for a country so rich. Their captivity to progressive ideology makes them invincibly ignorant. They cannot acknowledge the obvious truth, which is that isolated, disoriented individuals deprived of the norms that would guide them toward marriage and family have dim prospects. They are more likely to stumble through life and engage in self-destructive behavior.
Count me among those who are no longer willing to pretend. We need to reckon with a harsh reality: Their premature deaths are by design. That is, our elites have destroyed the structures that foster healthy lives. Our educational ideologies celebrate critical methods that "disorient" and "deconstruct." That's what "queering" means. Our elites applaud Drag Queen Story Hour, believing that putatively stultifying "stereotypes" are being shattered and children are learning to be more "open-minded." As the data accumulate, showing how bad life has become for ordinary Americans, those who repeat progressive platitudes are complicit in their neighbors' misery.
Things will get worse, I'm afraid. We have deliberately deregulated our culture. The old, culturally reinforced pathways to normalcy have been dismantled. We have restructured our society to cater to the "sexually marginalized." The normal has been recast as "repressive." This project has been sold as noble. Many progressive Christians have declared it to be a fulfillment of the gospel. But it has meant transferring resources, social prestige, political power, and legal privileges to those whose desires are disordered. H.R. 8404 is one example.
Their premature deaths are by design. That is, our elites have destroyed the structures that foster healthy lives.
No man is an island. We respond to incentives and social signals. Our cultural elites cheer Rachel Levine, the Biden administration's assistant secretary for health. A man with two children who was divorced in 2013 and refashioned himself as a woman, Levine is held up as an exemplary American, heroically loyal to himself and a pioneer of liberation. Are we surprised that increasing numbers of people, especially those who lack social capital or are psychologically vulnerable, are now living dysfunctional and self-destructive lives?
Sexual minorities are people, made in the image and likeness of God. But we must not remain silent about the great costs that the imperatives of "inclusion" have imposed, often on the most vulnerable.
In the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, St. Paul gives an account of our descent into bondage to sin. Verses 18–32 draw upon the Wisdom of Solomon, which gives an extended account of the spiritual, moral, and social disaster of idolatry. In his compressed version, Paul explains how humanity turned away from the invisible nature and eternal power of God, which is clearly manifest in creation. Our minds darkened; we became fools. Claiming to be wise, we raised up graven images, exchanging worship of the living God for devotion to dead idols.
The Bible often uses the term "vanity" to denote the spiritual import of idolatry. We assume that "vanity" refers to a conceited self-regard. But in its literal sense, vanity means emptiness or nothingness. Idol worship is thus vain in a metaphysical sense, a spiritual project oriented toward emptiness, a dead end that sucks the life out of us.
In his perfect justice, God honors our choice to exchange worship of the source of life for worship of dead idols. As Paul explains, "Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity [patheatimias—dishonorable passions]." We get what we want, an emptiness that we fill with disordered desires. Paul goes on to specify, playing on the theme of exchange: "Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and their men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error."
[Paul identifies] same-sex eroticism as emblematic. For just as idols are lifeless, homosexual acts are intrinsically sterile.
Paul, who goes on to list a host of vices, is not saying that homosexual acts are the sole form of impurity. He is identifying same-sex eroticism as emblematic. For just as idols are lifeless, homosexual acts are intrinsically sterile. The life-giving potential of our instinctual drive to act upon our sexual desires is perverted, made vain, which is to say empty and fruitless. In this way, homosexual acts typify the dead end of sinful transgression.
It is important to read this passage correctly. Because of the power of instinct, in most instances sexual sins are far less grave than those committed with premeditation and malice. Homosexual acts are, however, metaphysically singular, serving as a "condensed symbol" of our fallen condition. They enact the lifeless vanity of idol worship that promises, promises, promises, but is powerless to deliver us from death's dark shadow.
In a similar way, we need to read our present social circumstances correctly. Gay marriage is not killing those who overdose. It is not behind the gun violence that has taken so many lives, nor has it funded abortion clinics, financed the pornography industry, shipwrecked public education in our cities, or advocated for easy divorce. Moreover, the contraceptive revolution predates gay liberation, and therefore perhaps should be seen as historically more decisive. But St. Paul's testimony helps us see that gay liberation epitomizes these unhappy developments. Unlike contraception, which operates in the private realm, gay liberation demands that we celebrate that which cannot produce new life. Pride parades are like processions to temples filled with idols. As public rituals they put an exclamation point on the various assumptions and ideologies of our time that deny transcendence, some of which are very different from those that animated the sexual revolution, but all of which lead us to social and spiritual dead ends.
Again, we are called to respond to persons, not just to ideologies and movements. Many gay couples seek children. They aspire to that which runs counter to their sexual acts. The giving of vows in marriage also reaches toward that which transcends the emptiness of mere worldly life. Such spiritual longings are to be encouraged. But let us not ignore St. Paul's words. We cannot celebrate what is objectively disordered—ordered away from the natural acts that give life—without contributing to a social consensus darkened to the promptings of a living God.
God Comes to NatCon
I was sitting in the conference center of the JW Marriott Miami Turnberry Resort, the location of the 2022 National Conservatism Conference, listening to Sen. Josh Hawley. "The Bible has made us who we are," he insisted, "and it is critical to our future." Scripture teaches us that a man's relation to God is not mediated through his nationality or social status. "Jesus says salvation is available to all who will come to him," Hawley intoned with an emphasis befitting a camp meeting preacher, "and that those who follow him will be called 'sons of God.'"
Hawley went on to outline the biblical roots of America's affirmation of the freedom of the individual. He argued that our biblical inheritance underlies our system of self-government. "The Bible reveals the dignity of the common man" instead of reflecting the world's priorities, which elevate "the elite, the wealthy, and the socially powerful." It's this biblical inheritance that the woke left rejects. And it's this inheritance that we must recover if America is to remain true to her revolutionary promise.
A strong streak of populist Protestantism ran through Hawley's speech. That's not my tradition. But I marveled rather than objected. It's more than a century since William Jennings Bryan's orations drew wide audiences. Yet here was a United States senator, on a very public occasion, offering an extended biblical meditation on public affairs. He recited lines from the Apostle Paul; he quoted Tertullian. Hawley drew his speech to a close by recounting the bold actions of a Christian soldier who, in a.d. 390, lopped off the head of an idol in the Serapeum, a shrine in ancient Alexandria dedicated to the god Serapis. One man facing down false gods—that, Hawley concluded, requires courage rooted in an indomitable faith. All of us need something of that courage in order to defeat woke ideologies, the false gods, of our time.
One man facing down false gods—that requires courage rooted in an indomitable faith. All of us need something of that courage in order to defeat woke ideologies, the false gods, of our time.
In his speech at the same conference, Yoram Hazony, the conference organizer and chief theorist of the National Conservative movement, lamented the fact that contemporary American Christians fail to insist upon an explicitly Christian basis for American public life. He chastised us for not speaking up in a Christian way. He deplored the replacement of Christianity by liberalism as our public religion. FDR had no reservations about speaking of the United States as defending "God-fearing democracy" in the global struggle against Hitler's Germany. Politicians today may speak vaguely of our "Judeo-Christian values," Hazony observed, but they never mention the Bible. (He made this emphatic observation before Hawley spoke!) This has to stop, he insisted. Our nation is in peril. Only "biblical Christianity" can defeat the religion of the woke. The number-one imperative for American conservatism should be "the restoration of Christianity as the public culture of the United States."
The final speech of the 2022 National Conservatism Conference was delivered by Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler is a feisty Baptist. (Is there any other kind?) He did not disappoint. He warned against "the dangerous illusion of the secular state." The religious spirit of man abhors a vacuum. What purports to be secular in fact invites us to worship idols, which are often cruel and bloodthirsty. "Secular space is hostile to human dignity," Mohler warned. If conservatism is to have a future, it must be anchored in explicitly theological convictions. The renewal of our country, he concluded, requires a renewed sense of the sacred.
Don't get me wrong. The 2022 National Conservatism Conference featured plenty of speeches that made no mention of God. As one expects at a gathering of conservative intellectuals, there were vigorous debates about John Locke, invocations of Russell Kirk, and quotations from Tocqueville. But I left the conference marveling at the frequency with which theological language had been used and religious themes mentioned. In 2019, I published Return of the Strong Gods, which argued that the long-lived postwar consensus was ending, and that our public discourse was turning toward more robust claims, stronger loves, and sharper-edged truths. An author likes to find his thesis confirmed. That may tempt him to see what he wants to see. But sometimes what he wants to see is actually there.
A Rightward Turn
Can conservatism be fashionable, even "cutting edge"? For baby boomers, the answer is an obvious "no." But in a City Journal essay, "A New Counterculture?," N. S. Lyons argues otherwise. The last two decades have seen the absorption of the countercultural left into establishment institutions: corporations, universities, museums. The richest neighborhoods feature BLM lawn signs and are bedecked with rainbow flags. Today's elites mouth the latest woke pieties. Reading How to Be an Antiracist is about the most conventional thing a person can do. Therefore, an intelligent, intellectually curious, and rebellious young person will find no oxygen on the left. He'll have to go rightward to entertain taboo topics and outré opinions. And with increasing frequency, Lyons observes, that's exactly the direction in which the creative, independent minds in Gen Z are moving.
Lyons is certainly correct about the collapse of any sort of counterculture on the left. Whether we describe it as the radicalization of the liberal establishment or the domestication of the radical left, the conclusion is the same: Putting preferred pronouns in an email signature is an affectation of the most conformist, do-gooder Ivy League students.
And in my experience, he is correct about the choices young people face. It's either conformity to "the permanent revolution of today's cultural mainstream," which condemns most to living in "a Tinder hellscape, general atomized rootlessness, working life that resembles neo-feudal serfdom, and the enervating meaninglessness of consumerism and mass media"—or it's rebellion, which means plunking down for permanent things and doing something radical like going to a Latin Mass.
The woke takeover of the establishment is so complete that "if you are an intelligent and thoughtful young American, you cannot be a progressive public intellectual today."
Lyons cites Michael Lind: The woke takeover of the establishment is so complete that "if you are an intelligent and thoughtful young American, you cannot be a progressive public intellectual today, any more than you can be a cavalry officer or silent movie star." Every thought on the left is scripted, monitored, and policed. As Lyons observes, "In contrast with this oppressive decadence . . . the dialectic of the countercultural Right crackles with irreverence and intellectual possibility."
As a college student in the early 1980s, I experienced the liberal consensus as suffocating and, at root, anti-intellectual. It encouraged the right opinions and discouraged difficult questions that might upset the reigning progressive dogmas. Like so many others in the postwar era, I gravitated toward radical thinkers on the left, reading Herbert Marcuse and other Frankfurt School figures. But even at that early date, these authors had already been absorbed into the establishment canon.
In those salad days, I also discovered theology, which poses a far deeper and more fundamental threat to liberal complacency. Yes, critical theory can "problematize" inherited assumptions. But when I read Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling as a college sophomore, I was confronted by a life-or-death choice that did not just invite penetrating analysis; it demanded a decision. And I remember the thrill of reading Karl Barth, who spoke of Christianity not as "meaningful" but rather as true, and not true in a small, quiet way, but as God's revelation: the truth that both transcends and underlies all truth.
In our age, defined by what Robert Bellah called "expressive individualism," the most countercultural act one can perform is to bind oneself in obedience to something higher. There are natural forms: service to country, sacrifices for friends and family, the marital vow. But the most radical are supernatural: to ask God to help me obey him more fully.
I've failed in countless ways. We all do. The weight of self-love is heavy. But in our therapeutic culture, which praises self-love as "healthy" and derides obedience as "conformity," I've felt the freedom that comes from my feeble efforts to bind myself. It's a freedom greater than that which comes from intellectual insight, which is all that critical theory offers, because it reorders my loves. One can live, if but for a moment, if only in part, against the grain of worldly powers.
In our age, defined by what Robert Bellah called "expressive individualism," the most countercultural act one can perform is to bind oneself in obedience to something higher.
My colleague Julia Yost recently wrote an account of the growing Catholic scene among young people in a hip neighborhood of Lower Manhattan for the New York Times ("New York's Hottest Club is the Catholic Church"). She notes that it's not clear whether this phenomenon of Catholic cool is rooted in sincere faith—if only because, in our social-media-saturated culture, the play of imitation and sincerity can be difficult to parse. She observes sympathetically that much of the fashionable interest in Catholicism seems to arise from a genuine desire for a more demanding and inspiriting moral system than either liberalism or wokeism can provide. I find her assessment persuasive: These young people, and many others, sense the freedom that transcendence provides. They want to live as something other than slaves to present fashions and dominant opinions. When "Question Authority" and "Celebrate Transgression" become the authoritative imperatives of our cultural establishment, it is easier to see that the opposite imperatives point the way toward independence of mind.
We're not about to see Harvard renounce progressive dogmas. But the wind is blowing in new directions. To the dismay of the custodians of today's liberal establishment, which has bet its own future on the presumption that the tiresome proponents of liberation represent "the future," a creative minority is turning to the right.
R.R. Reno. "Harms Done by Gay Marriage." First Things (November 2022).
R.R. Reno is features editor of First Things and an associate professor of theology at Creighton University. Among his books are In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity, Sanctified Vision: An Introduction to Early Christian Interpretation of the Bible, and Redemptive Change: Atonement and the Christian Cure of the Soul (Theology for the 21st Century).Copyright © 2022 First Things
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