Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)
Last night the second installment of the Institute for American Values’ “New Conversation on Marriage” featured R. R. “Rusty” Reno, editor of First Things and David Blankenhorn, president of IAV discussing “Should Religious People Join the New Conversation?” The “New Conversation” intends to move beyond the contentious matter of gay marriage and unite people from all backgrounds who share a common goal of strengthening marriage and families in America. Reno said he is “pessimistic” about the prospect of the “new conversation” succeeding because strengthening marriage necessarily means limiting sexual freedom, and “gay marriage puts an exclamation point on the sexual revolution.” He emphasized: “We have to respect the historical meaning of marriage: unitive, procreative, and permanent … This metaphysical dimension to marriage is actually important.”
Reno pointed out the fundamental incompatibility of homosexual practice with the institution of marriage: “There is a sociological logic to gay marriage … as an affirmation of sexual liberty … Marriage is, as an institution, designed to limit radically people’s sexual choices.” Because of this tension, he has a difficult time believing those advocating for both gay rights and a stronger marriage culture are genuinely interested in promoting traditional mores. He explained: “The sensibility that makes a person sympathetic to gay marriage … makes it difficult to moralize about sexual behavior.” Blankenhorn offered alternatively, a moral code which would simply say, “Don’t have children until you’re married for keeps … [which is] perfectly consistent with gay marriage.”
Reno elaborated, “Gay marriage will be a luxury good for the rich paid for by the poor.” “The moral transformation of the meaning of marriage will not be cost free.” He mentioned Charles Murray’s recent book, Coming Apart, which explores how marriage and family stability has declined in the economic bottom half of the American population, but is fairly healthy among the upper 20%. The sexual revolution tore away restraints, providing stigma-free liberties for the college educated upper classes to enjoy in their youth. But later in life, this same group “reaffirms bourgeois lifestyle,” participating and benefiting from marriage, though leaving the institution weakened for the rest of Americans.
Blankenhorn clarified, “You’re saying this [freedom] is only possible for people already bringing social capital and privilege to the table?” Reno answered, we have to be honest about “who’s paying the price for the space for the normative, moral space … [because gay marriage] is the exclamation mark on a long story” of expanding individual autonomy and sexual freedom.
Since the sexual revolution, out of wedlock births have become the norm for those with only a high school education or less, but are much rarer for college graduates. Most with a college degree do marry, but marriage rates are low for the lesser educated. Significantly, most people, no matter what socioeconomic demographic, report a desire to be married. But ultimately, “Gay marriage is part of an upper middle class package,” Reno said.
As a traditional Catholic, Reno views the “unitive and procreative functions of marriage” as essential, requiring “not just two people, but a man and a woman … This has a very deep, powerful significance in culture.” He acknowledged “the heterosexual world through divorce, contraception … has already degraded [the unitive and procreative functions],” but gay marriage completely “denies them.” Further, “In the LGBT world, it’s very hard to say … anything other than coercion is wrong … I don’t see how we can make progress [for stronger marriage and families] without reintroducing prohibition words.”
Gay marriage “will redefine marriage and what it means… and this will contribute to a public culture that will have a harder time” figuring out male/female relations, Reno said. Further, he sometimes sees this push for the “right to marry” as a “turning point,” ultimately leading to “the right to have children. And this right to have children, will be not just about homosexuals,” but about anyone naturally unable to have children, now enabled to have them by new technologies and rights. “The fabric of the family is going to be fundamentally redefined technologically … it’s not a matter of blaming gays and lesbians, it’s a matter of our historical moment.”
The heterosexual, procreative nature of marriage has been virtually universally agreed upon throughout human history, Reno said, and deviation from that “has only emerged in the last generation and is unique to our part of the world.” Although “gay marriage is going to be sociologically insignificant statistically,” it is no small move toward fairness or inclusion, but a shift that will “fundamentally affect the symbolism of marriage.”
Addressing the role of the Church, Reno (a former Episcopalian) said “The culture of marriage has been debilitated by the failure of the churches to sustain the true teachings.” Despite the seeming decline of Christianity in America, he pointed out “the committed core has not declined,” and Christians should seek ways to promote the common good and “be leaven in our culture.”
After their intense discussion, it seems the answer to “Should Religious People Join the New Conversation?” might be “no.” If by “religious,” Blankenhorn means people like Reno who believe the nature of marriage is unchangeable, and attempts to alter it will have profound consequences for our culture. It’s not that “religious people” like the “culture wars,” or being labeled bigots, but this “new conversation” seems to ask traditional Christians to downplay convictions about the God-ordained nature of men, women, and marriage for the sake of a truce.