[SL: Last night, I went to a debate hosted by the Edinburgh University Debates Union (sic), on the proposition ‘this house supports same-sex marriage’. I was going to say that the Oxford Union it ain’t, but that would be giving them too much credit. Let’s just say that ‘outstandingly crap’ goes some way towards describing it. Much of the crapness had its origins in the bizarre rule that each speaker (both for and against) was only allowed to speak to the motion for two minutes. Thereafter, questions from the audience were filtered through the moderator. This upshot of this arrangement was to ensure that the issue was discussed on the most superficial level, people spoke like machine-guns in order to get their points across and there was quite a bit of petty and superficial point-scoring. Lots of Christians are homophobes. Lots of LGBTI people think Christians are delusional. Whoop-de-do. In other news, bears do not use portaloos in the woods.
About the only interesting point raised came from the audience: the argument that marriage has been so contaminated by monotheism (historical misogyny as much as homophobia) that people who reject monotheism (in whatever form) are well out of it, and as a corollary of that the state should get out of marriage entirely, instead coming up with a ‘civil union’ arrangement governed by the law of contract (with clear-eyed, Roman law style defaults and implied terms) that religious people can celebrate as marriage in their churches/temples/mosques/etc if they want to. France has a version of this system, as does Germany. I am amenable to this idea, but most people prefer a much more interventionist state than I do, on this point as well as others. The state (in the last 400 years) has got its claws into marriage, much as the churches once did (starting in the 4th century AD). Now the state has come to disagree with the churches on the substantive content of marriage (on divorce and the status of women as much as on the sex of the participants), the whole business is getting rather fraught. And people continue to expect the state’s imprimatur.
Because the debate was so irritatingly bad, I’ve decided to post this essay of Lorenzo’s on the same-sex marriage issue a day earlier than I’d planned. I think that when one debates, one ought to put both one’s own case and the case of one’s opponent at its highest. Lorenzo (his bloggy home is here) does that in this fascinating discussion of a theological argument originally published on Your ABC and first brought to my attention by Russell Blackford. Lorenzo’s piece is over the fold].
Theologian John Millibank has published on the ABC website an essay against normalising homosexuality. It does so by defining homosexual people out of the properly human and the properly social.
He starts with the arguments that define homosexual couples out of marriage; that marriage is ‘by definition’ heterosexual. As Millibank puts it:
For centuries – indeed, for millennia – they argue, marriage has been understood as a conjugal relation between men and women linked to the natural bearing of children. Thus there is something monstrous about the state even claiming to have the power by law to change the definition of a natural and cultural reality which has historically preceded the existence of the state itself.
This a very common claim—one made, for example, by Catholic advocate Austen Ivereigh in his recent piece against permitting same-sex marriage:
marriage is a conjugal relationship of a man and a woman apt for the begetting of children who are raised by their natural parents; that this arrangement is both unique and uniquely beneficial to society and to children; and that there is something inappropriate about the state even claiming to have the power by law to redefine it.
But the state redefining marriage is precisely what the Christians did when they captured state power. Marriage is only ‘by definition’ heterosexual because the power of various states have been wielded to make it so. Millibank’s claim that:
But [homosexuality] has never previously been linked to marriage – apart from parodic instances (as in ancient Rome) or marginal situations where for various reasons (including those of transgender) a male or female marital role is “performed” by someone not of that gender
is flatly wrong. Both Roman law and Amerindian social practice, for example, recognised same-sex marriages. The Sifra, one of the oldest rabbinical texts, complained that pagans let men marry men and women marry women. Even the Kama Sutra mentions same-sex marriage.
When anthropologists have tried to find some defining element of marriage, the only commonality they found was that it created in-laws. The “by definition” argument merely celebrates the success of past brutalities and restrictions; it is historical and anthropological ignorance passing itself off as metaphysical understanding.
As Skepticlawyer has noted, much of conservative Christian frustration comes from finding arguments they thought settled in the C4th, C5th or whatever century being re-opened, and them losing. Pretending the original argument never occurred is a air-brushing of history worthy of Stalinism, if it did not speak to the sheer ignorance of many such advocates: their metaphysical confidence blinds them to the complexities of reality and the truth of the historical and anthropological record.
One of which complexities is that the Latin Church was pushed into taking over marriage law (basically, to provide the landowning and inheriting elite with a common and clear set of rules for which children counted as legitimate). Marriage did not become a sacrament until the C11th, one that did not even need a priest to be present until the Council of Trent. (Somewhat earlier in English law: that provision was a product of the Reformation and concern to ensure the right priest was involved.)
Marriage has always been an evolving institution, even in Christian theology (there was considerable debate, for example, on whether consummation was necessary for marriage). The way the metaphysical certainty that Millibank invokes contradicts the complexities of biology, society and history is deeply revealing of its profound inadequacy as any path to truth or moral understanding.
Millibank writes of the antiquity of religion, ritual and kinship connections. But, when he does, Millibank implies that it was all enduringly heterosexual. This is more nonsense airbrushing of history. One of the deep divisions between monotheist and polytheist-animist visions is precisely that monotheism typically takes a narrowly procreative view of sex and polytheist-animist traditions typically do not—the latter being much more accurately based on the complexity of sexual expression in the natural world. Philo of Alexandria was, for example, outraged at pagan celebration of gender diversity.
This monotheist procreative obsession (one that does not express biological reality but, on the contrary, ignores or dismisses vast swathes of it) shows up in Millibank’s rejection of artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. As if the miracle of birth is somehow lessened if we do not get the mechanics correct. There are genuine complexities involved in sperm donation and artificial insemination, but they are hardly insoluble and are certainly much less important than expanding the number of people able to choose to be parents and the number of loved and wanted children.
Those threatening queers
Defining the prior existence of same-sex marriage (and religious expression) out of the historical and anthropological record is merely the start, however. The next layer is to turn granting equal rights to homosexuals as an attack on heterosexuals. Millibank claims:
a supposed “extension” of marriage to gay people in fact removes the right to marry from heterosexual people.
This can seem like a perversely contorted claim, but its logic is quite straightforward: the intended change in the definition of marriage would mean that marriage as traditionally defined no longer exists. Thus heterosexual people would no longer have the right to enter into an institution understood to be only possible for heterosexuals, as doubly recognising both the unique social significance of male/female relationship and the importance of the conjugal act which leads naturally to the procreation of children who are then reared by their biological parents.
In effect, if marriage is now understood as a lifelong sexual contract between any two adult human persons with no specification of gender, then the allowance of gay marriage renders all marriages “gay marriages.”
How does one, in a civilization based on a presumption of universal morality, justify denying rights to a minority? Claim that to do so is somehow profoundly threatening to the majority (or, at least, the traditionally dominant group). This is precisely the claim made by bigots down the ages—against giving equal rights to Jews, to women, to blacks …
Here we see an enduring and key element in bigotry: the insult of equality. Since being a heterosexual person in a heterosexual marriage is so much better than anything any homosexual or homosexual couple can be, to treat them as equals is an insult that strips heterosexuals of their rightful status. Again, a standard claim of bigotry down the ages—that it is outrageous to treat Jews as if they are the equal of Christians, women as if they are the equal of men, blacks as if they are the equal of whites, and so on. The targets and justifications shift (though the latter more superficially than substantively). The underlying patterns endure.
And decent people are, of course, entitled to be defended from such an insult. From the precious whatevers such outrageous equating strips from them.
Equal protection of the law does mean that heterosexuals will have to share the institution of marriage with homosexuals-as-homosexuals (rather than as folk desperately trying to hide from their sexuality): how appalling for them. Just as whites had to use the same facilities as blacks, men had to cope with women getting the vote and running for office, Christians had to deal with Jews having the same standing in law as them.
Yes, an utterly unearned status of claim of superiority is taken away when equal protection of the law is applied. That does, indeed, follow: it is a consequence of equal protection of the law. Indeed, that is one of its major virtues, the stripping away of social subordinations and exclusions; the spreading of respect by the law, of dignity under the law.
It is revealing that Millibank attacks liberal feminists for their assaults on the concept of the “family wage”. First, rather deeper economic and social processes were at work in the decline of the family wage than liberal feminist activism. Second, precisely because of supply and demand, the family wage was a concept that could only be kept going by social exclusion, exclusion that overwhelmingly disadvantaged women. The increase in the status of women has been absolutely entwined with the decline in their economic dependence. There is an unthinking sense of entitled social privilege that seeps out from Millbank’s reasoning.
Continuing the theme of equal-rights-as-threat, and his concern for men and women keeping to “appropriate” social roles, Millibank claims that:
There are two other reasons for the current unprecedented advocacy of gay marriage. The first is the decline of any public recognition of sexual difference and so the significance of sexually asymmetric unions, which I’ve already alluded to.
At this point, it is useful to take a step back and point out some basic facts of the matter.
(1) Sexuality is not chosen. We know this not merely from introspection (tell us all about the moment when you chose to be heterosexual?) but because, in all the vast array of human songs, poems, stories, narrative, films etc about love, lust and romance there is none about choosing to fancy men or women (or both), because no one has that moment. There is some fluidity in how sexuality is expressed, but that is not the same.
(2) Humans are sexually diverse. It is an enduring (indeed constituent) reality of human nature that not anyone is heterosexual, let alone purely so.
(3) Public policy cannot change human nature, including human sexuality.
There are and will be homosexuals. They have, do and will seek to form pair bonds. Public policy cannot stop this reality, although it can make their lives much more miserable than they need to be.
Given neither Millibank, nor anyone else, can change the reality of (1) to (3), his claim rests on putting enormous weight on ‘public recognition’. Somehow, the reality of human sexual diversity is not nearly as important as not publicly acknowledging it. If homosexuals cannot be defined out of existence (even though he does his best at defining same-sex marriage and religious expression out of history), they can be defined out of the publicly acceptable.
Well, yes, they can. At the cost of much insidious cruelty, straightforward brutality and human misery, but it can be done. But what does publicly recognizing social reality do? Apart from making the society more honest and not engaging in particular forms of social subordination and exclusion? Somehow, according to Millibank, it threatens people’s very identity.
Well yes, it does threaten heterosexuals’ identity as socially privileged examples of “proper” humans. But that is a moral gain, not a moral loss. It is both a gain in social honesty, it admitting how folk actually are, and a gain in not subverting morality, in not practicing unilateral moral exclusion and all the cruelty that flows from that. (It is unilateral exclusion in that moral and legal protections are stripped from people without them having transgressed against the moral protections of others).
But the children!
Then we move on to the “remember the children!” claim. The more innocent the victims, the greater the threat:
The second, and arguably most important factor, is the technologisation of childbirth, allied to the increased acceptance of the adoption of children by gay couples.
Yes, more folk who want children can do so and less unwanted children enter the world or are otherwise abandoned. But finding some way to control procreation has always been part of the human condition: it has to be, given the enormous investment involved in raising human infants. If procreation could not be controlled, then starvation loomed.
As prosperity has advanced, the techniques to so control procreation have improved: notably, infanticide has been largely abandoned. Good thing too. But, as anyone involved in contemporary education can attest, this “technologisation” has not meant that children are valued any less—on the contrary they are, if anything, often coddled and protected too much, creating “bubble wrap” kids.
The “technologisation” anxiety is just another example of Catholic use of spurious metaphysics to override human realities. As we see in Millibank’s profound angst over contemporary expressions of gender. Millibank takes the biology of sexual difference as somehow mandating right and wrong manifestations of gender. First, the biology is much more complex than some simple division into male and female applies. Second, how that biology is construed in terms of gender role has always been somewhat fluid, changing over time and differing between cultures. Which is part of why marriage has been both such a varied and, in a civilisation as dynamic as Western civilisation, constantly evolving institution.
Trying to sell metaphysical certainty involves constant contradicting of biological, social and historical reality. Millibank is aware that biological reality is complex; that the natural order is not the sole possession of heterosexuality. But that’s alright, for the pathetic exceptions don’t really count:
The ground for supporting this stance must be the probability that homosexuality indeed falls within the range of “natural” human behaviour. While, as I’ve already argued, the example of primate behaviour cannot be decisive for human norms, it nonetheless presents another curious apologetic dilemma for Christians, insofar as the presence of animal homosexuality would seem usefully to tell against any dogmatic insistence that all animal traits must be directly and obviously explicable in terms of evolutionary adaptation. Perhaps, from a naturalistic point of view, animal homosexuality is an accidental spin-off from procreationary drives, and perhaps, equally, from a theological point of view, it can be taken as a feature merely of a fallen cosmos.
It is always useful, to have one’s conclusions set the ambit of one’s premises. Perhaps we could just treat them as people, as full moral beings?
No, for homosexual people are to be defined out of those who are entitled to equal protection of the law. Millibank informs us that:
Can we say that homosexual relationships are of equal importance in the constitution of society? They may indeed be of some or even great importance – especially if we include the homoerotic and homosocial in a more general sense – but surely not of equal importance. This is partly for the simple reason that gay people tend to be in a small minority. But it also has to do with the different logic of homosexuality.
Marriage is such a vulnerable institution, that it cannot cope with diversity. Which is nonsense: anyone who is even vaguely observant knows that marriages vary greatly in their dynamics, let alone in other characteristics.
But one sees again that desperate concern for status; for not accepting the insult of equality. The notion that one can construct some sort of lexical superiority for all heterosexual relationships over all homosexual relationships can only rest on using spurious metaphysics to override much more complex human realities.
But Millibank cannot let go of his simplistic metaphysical certainties:
Heterosexuals are in solidarity with members of their own sex, who may also become their rivals, and conversely they are attracted to the opposite sex. But homosexuals are at once in solidarity, rivalry and relations of attraction to their own sex which … tends to increase exponentially the contagion of mimetic desire and its resulting agon, not to mention the augmentation of narcissism.
Which makes it surprising that homosexuals are strongly disproportionately employed in caring professions, or tend to have more, stronger and more varied friendships than straight men. There are, of course, misogynist gay men, just as there are misogynist straight men (it must be odd, seeking erotic satisfaction from people you despise-by-category). But precisely because homosexuals do not seek erotic connection with the other sex, it can also make cross-gender friendships much more uncomplicated. So Millibank’s claim that:
On the other hand, homosexuals are neither in a relation of solidarity with nor attraction to the opposite sex, but may well sometimes be in a relationship of rivalry. This means that there is a certain constitutive alienation from the opposite sex built into homosexual logic.
shows both a weird obsession with sex and a complete lack of experienced understanding of the social dynamics of actual homosexuals.
As for homosexuality-as-narcissism, that is utter nonsense based on a spurious (and ignorant) extrapolation from the Greek myth that gave the disorder its name. Narcissism is not a condition based on worship of a physical image, it is a much more insidious personality disorder where one’s convenience becomes one’s reality principle. Unsurprisingly, it has little or no connection with sexuality.
The whole notion of “complementarity” of male and female involves invention of a spurious metaphysical virtue to override human realities. A husband who beats his wife and children instances a marriage with “complementarity” but one that is inferior in every way that morally counts to a lesbian couple who provide a secure and loving home to their children.
Reality, it is a complicated place. Much more complicated than Millibank’s spurious metaphysical certainties and the games of social and moral exclusion he wishes to play with them.
Millibank has some generosity: he is prepared to go as far as blessing same-sex unions (though he would prefer that any sexual component be passed over in silence). This is condescending moral apartheid, where homosexuals are (grudgingly) given a place provided they accept their inherent inferiority. It is a “concession” that so clearly expresses the underlying status anxiety, so nicely expressed by his final claim that it is all part of a struggle for the future of human sexuality. Those queers, they are really threatening—if, that is, they are granted full public acceptability, and are thus allowed to get away with the insult of equality, instead of accepting their inferiority. (Wasn’t the world so much better when blacks, Jews and women knew their place? Or is it just the queers that need to be kept down?)
For Millibank’s concern is that homosexuality might spread:
while there is much evidence to suggest that homosexuality is sometimes an unshiftable orientation and that it is not well-predicted by given social or family circumstances (suggesting a genetic origin), it is also clear that in some cultures a majority can be initiated into homosexual practice and possibly desire. Therefore, it is reasonable to suppose that there is a certain degree of cultural and psychological latitude in this respect, even if there is no reason at all to suppose, after Freud, that we are all born with natural bisexual propensities of equal weight. And given this likelihood of a degree of cultural conditioning, it is also reasonable to argue that the cultural bias must lean towards heterosexuality, both because of its more readily negotiable social logic and its more basic function in binding together human society.
Yes, and the classic way to do that in the contemporary world is via monotheist misogyny; by monotheist anxiety over sex and gender turning societies into vast social prisons, leading to the spread of prison sex. Part of the complexity of sexuality is precisely it is about so much more than procreation; its deeper purposes, if blocked by creation of a social prison, will flow to other outlets. The answer to that is to not create such vast social prisons in the first place.
I have much more confidence in the appeal of heterosexuality in a free and open society than Millibank. But, then, I lack any horror that somewhere, someone might be engaged in homosexual acts and enjoying them.
Notice also the way the term ‘cultural bias’ smoothes over the creation of utterly unnecessary angst. A recent post on two comic characters kissing because they are in love expresses this nicely:
When I see a gay couple kiss in comics, it should read the same as Clark kissing Lois. But it doesn’t, because the society we live in has made love a politically-charged issue. When I see a gay couple kiss in a superhero comic book, I wonder if it’s going to get protested. I wonder if the comic is going to get tons of hate mail. I become hyper-critical of the kiss and put way too much thought into whether or not they are characters or caricatures. I wonder if there were meetings with executives in stiff suits, discussing how big the panel should be and how advertisers would react. I wonder if anyone on the creative team felt awkward about drawing, inking, coloring or lettering a page showing a couple of dudes expressing their love for each other. My sexuality has been politicized to the point where I can’t read a kiss between two fictional characters without thinking every insane thing I just listed. And yes, I think all the things I think are insane, because Marvel and the creators have given me no reason to doubt their sincerity. But I’ve seen bigotry on television, in comic book letters pages and in my own life. Even though the comic book industry has been incredibly supportive of the LGBT community and has made great strides towards diversifying their characters, I still let the words of the people currently vying for the Republican nomination spoil what should be a celebratory, progressive moment.
Or, indeed, a deeply human moment.
But that is what is so profoundly evil about moral exclusion, even in relatively limited forms: the harm done to the excluded (from the subtle to the murderous) is denied any moral significance. Writing millions of people out of the properly human is insidiously cruel, but it as a cruelty that those lost in this game of moral exclusion are blind to; are wilfully blind to.
Millibank’s “concessions” are, after all the tail end of a long history of brutality. The very strong tendency has been—organised monotheism is as cruel and brutal to queer folk as can be got away with. If queers can be judicially murdered, they are. If they can be imprisoned, they are. If they can be denied legitimate public space, they are. Whatever box they can be shoved into, they are. Whatever level of subversion of morality, of unilaterally stripping people of basic moral protections in service of monotheism’s sex-and-gender obsessions, can be got away with, will be. As long as folk are not accepted as proper manifestations of the human, the argument will be how much moral and legal exclusion they suffer, not whether they do at all. It is the belief that people can be defined out of the properly human that is the true evil, the true subversion of morality.
And it is a subversion of more than morality. The easy road to priestly power is to offer and deny God; to be gatekeepers of righteousness, selling effortless virtue. (It costs heterosexuals little or nothing to eschew same-sex activity, to eschew something they have no desire to do.) Selling an effortless virtue that is nothing but a vicious status game based on moral exclusion and an insidious cruelty. It is a form of “asterisk Christianity”—love thy neighbour(*) (*except [insert excluded groups here]).
Which is how organised Christianity has become so associated with cruelty, hatred and bigotry and why priests and clerics are often such poor Christians. For Christ was not much concerned with critiquing secular authority, but was very exorcised with misuse of religious authority. Christ summarised His teaching in two principles that entail, as we see from His preaching and practice in the Gospels, that you are not allowed to use God to strip people of moral protections. (That is, God is His own gatekeeper.) But using God to strip people of moral protections—to offer and then (selectively) withhold God—is precisely the easiest road to priestly power and authority. Which is why so much Christian theology (and Christian preaching) is about subverting the second principle of Christianity, is about adding in the asterisk.
And so the effortless virtue, the vicious status games, that go with that asterisk, with that subversion. The traditional way of getting around the literal words of the Gospel, of justifying ignoring Christ’s critique of religious authority, is the standard Blame The Jews: claim that Christ was only preaching against Jewish religious authority. Hypocritical nonsense—unless you wish to claim that Christ’s preaching was also only for Jews.
Once you engage in that subversion, in adding in that asterisk, then all the consequences Christ was so concerned to denounce in His preaching follow. But, without such subversion of the second principle of Christianity, priests and clerics have to work for a living. Selling effortless virtue, offering and selectively withholding God, is so much easier.
It is likely to the moral advantage of Quakers that they lack priests and clerics and so lack an embedded institutional interest in subverting the second principle of Christianity. The great paradox of Christian history is that priest and clerics are formally responsible for propagating it but have such a strong institutional incentive to subvert its second principle.
The Catholic Church has shown itself to be a dab hand at such subversion; at adding in the asterisk. But, then, so is many an American televangelist.
The Catholic Church’s standard response to stress has been to pick a vulnerable group and put the boot in. So liberal modernity is evil because it gives Jews equal rights to Christians; liberal modernity is evil because it gives women control over fertility; liberal modernity is evil because it gives queers equal rights. The Catholic Church is a perennial enemy of equal protection of the law and human autonomy wherever either undermines its status as the gatekeeper of righteousness, as being able to offer and withhold God; its selling of effortless virtue against some targeted (preferably vulnerable) group.
The Church uses two techniques to hide its inciting of the numerous, or otherwise privileged, against the vulnerable; to hide its vicious moral bullying. The first is to construct the target group as a threat; a strategy that, as we have seen, Millibank engages in avidly. The second is cover cruelty in an unctuous concern for salvation. In doing so, the Church wields all the self-righteousness, all the endemic monotheist sense of entitlement, needed to keep both strategies in play at the same time; shifting from one to another as appropriate.
And salvation is like all trumping goals set in the unknowable future; it can be construed according to whatever theory you want and then used to trump inconvenient human realities in the actually existing present.
But trumping inconvenient human realities is the game that effortless virtue is selling. Millibank is, with his spurious metaphysical certainties, just an apologist for a vicious and cruel status game that is, thankfully, losing its social power. Indeed, Christians are now becoming subject to moral exclusions that they have been so keen to inflict on others. But that is the problem with moral exclusion—it’s contagious and you cannot guarantee you will not be the next excluded group. The moral exclusions that Jewish thinkers such as Philo were so keen to inflict on queers and pagans were taken up by the Christians and then applied (apart from the odd massacre, less intensively) to Jews. The various moral exclusions on queers, pagans and Jews imposed by the Christians were then taken up by the Muslims and imposed on Christians. All in the name of punishing revolts against God’s purposes (in not following the Prophet, in not following His Son, in not following Him, in not according with principles embedded in His Creation). The only reliable way to win games of moral exclusion is not to play them and so to accept the expanded social possibilities, and moral and emotional health, that refusing to play opens up.