Letters to the Catholic Right

On Grace and Houston


I write about gay marriage here a lot, but when I do, I’m really writing about marriage itself: I’m defending the goodness of marriage as I know it, as I’ve learned it from my marriage, from my parents’ marriage, from the marriages in my family and among my friends. I defend gay marriage, among other reasons, because gay marriage fits into what I know to be the best definition of marriage, which I think of as a transformative, life-sustaining institution.

The point is, I love marriage. Consequently, I love weddings. It’s normal for me to spend the week after a wedding in a blissed-out daze, dreamily meditating on the wonders of love, love, love. Two weekends ago, my wife, daughter and I drove down to Houston for the wedding of two of our friends. It was the kind of wedding that would drive a lot of religious conservatives nuts—the ceremony took place in a park in the Heights neighborhood; it was officiated by one of the couple’s friends, and I don’t remember a single reference to God.

At the same time, the wedding might have reassured those folks who worry that modern couples see marriage as a private affair, that weddings nowadays represent a couple selfishly turning inward. Instead, it was a wedding that felt like it was all about us. I don’t mean us specifically, even though our daughter did a bang-up job as the flower girl. I mean it was a wedding all about the couple’s friends and family; it was all about community. That was apparent in the way the couple got so many of us involved in the ceremony and in the celebration, in the way they visited with every guest during the reception, and in the way this couple in their late twenties made sure to provide music that would get their 12-year-old nephews and 60-year-old parents on the dance floor at the same time. The bride and groom understood—better than H and I did when we got married twelve years ago—the public nature of a wedding and, behind that, the public nature of marriage.

And there was this: watching the bride and groom say their (secular) vows, I was struck by a thought: They don’t have to do this. Conservative critics of contemporary life are right about one thing: there’s little stigma left in not getting married. A couple can live together forever and no one in the Heights or Montrose, or back here in Austin, will raise an eyebrow. In my social set, marriage is mostly optional. And I’m glad about that.

But I also delight in the fact that couples, my friends, keep doing it. They keep getting married. They keep standing up and announcing their love for one another, and promising it forever, and they keep inviting us into their lives, asking for our help, making us their official witnesses. They keep telling us that we matter to them, as a couple, and, in turn, they keep promising to matter to us, their community. They don’t have to. They just do it.


Which is another way of saying this: Houston is a great place to learn about grace.  

So it’s a great place for Mockingbird to be holding its annual fall conference, entitled “The Risk of Grace.” It will be at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church on October 17th and 18th, and it will feature—get this!—Slaid Cleaves, one of my favorite Austin-based singer-songwriters.

Grace is free, but the conference will cost you $60. Looks worth it to me. You can register here.


If you need another reason to go to Houston, here’s something written by Casey Fleming, one of my favorite Houston writers. Casey learned something I didn’t know about a soul music classic:

American Soul is one of those rich forms of music that allows its listeners to groove and grieve at the same time. “Midnight Train to Georgia” exemplifies the beautiful contradiction inherent in soul music—that a listener will feel joy in her body compelled by a horn, piano, or hook, only to simultaneously feel ache in her heart compelled by the singer’s voice and sad story. The great masters of soul understand that bodily celebration is one way to express, contain, and survive spiritual hurt.

This reason trumps all the others.  I recently discovered that Jim Weatherly’s original lyrics to the song were “Midnight Plane to Houston,” supposedly inspired by a conversation he had with Texas-native Farah Fawcett about her relationship to Lee Majors. Be still my Lone Star heart.  And how typical of Houston, to be almost-cool.  In Gladys Knight’s epic version of the song, the love interest buys a “one way ticket back to the life he once knew.”  I left Houston when I was 18 and never planned to return, but after more than a decade away, here I am again.  When a chorus voices those things a character cannot say aloud, her deepest secrets and fears, it paints a landscape for the audience of her internal life.  How many times have I boarded a late plane to Houston, leaving a lover behind on some lonely tarmac in some faraway place with too many words left unsung?  How many times have the touchstones of a native city—in my case, the miscellaneous string of strip malls, the metallic downtown skyline luminous at dusk, the slow slur of kind hellos and how-are-yous, the heavy blanket of hot air, the generous waft of chorizo from a local taco shack, the colossal highways that dead end into an endless sky—acted as chorus, as the pitch-perfect Pips for our private dramas?

BTW, although the blog is defunct now, If you haven’t read Casey’s writing at nonseculargirl.com, you’re missing out.

Bonus tracks:

On my way out, two gorgeous pieces of writing on marriage, and one more song about Houston and midnight.

First, Elizabeth Bruenig (née Stoker) on her wedding.

Second, a link embedded in Bruenig’s post but worthy of its own link: Wesley Hill on “scruffy hospitality," or what it means for a marriage to serve a community.

And, finally (why not?), Leadbelly doing “Midnight Special”:

Three Perspectives on Women Bishops in the Church of England

Three (non-Anglican) Perspectives on the Church of England’s decision to ordain women as bishops:

1) VJD Smith (aka Glosswitch), writing in The New Statesman, points out that women bishops are the inevitable consequence of seeing women as, you know, human. This paragraph drives the point home:

I want to see women having authority over men, not as part of some shoulder-padded aspirational feminist project. I want men to see women in the way women see men, and for women to see themselves as men see themselves: as real, solid, diverse, complete, as close to and as capable of representing whatever higher power any of us might believe in. We are not hollow vessels, waiting to soak up the teachings that only men can transmit, whether it be through theology or politics or porn. Freedom of conscience is one thing – no one should ever police what goes on inside an individual’s own head – but the fundamental humanity of women should never be up for public debate.

2) Smith calls herself a non-believer. Before anyone goes pointing to that fact to suggest that the CoE’s move was a move against Christian tradition, here’s Fred Clark at Slacktivist to remind us all that radical equality is perhaps the defining Christian tradition. Responding to Southern Baptist theologian Al Mohler’s denunciation of the Church of England, Clark cites Acts 2:17:

But the radical inclusiveness of Pentecost didn’t just encompass national and ethnic diversity, with people “from every nation under heaven.” Nearly 2,000 years before the Church of England finally voted to catch up, the church at Pentecost also declared a radical gender inclusiveness:

'I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.'

Your sons and your daughters. And if that binary isn’t comprehensive enough, try this: All flesh. Male flesh. Female flesh. LGBTIQ flesh. All.

“Do not quench the Spirit,” Paul said. Or, rather, Paul commanded.

By the way, I appreciated Clark’s clarity in insisting that his argument had nothing to do with Mohler being on the “wrong side of history,” and that, instead, it was simply about Mohler being on the wrong side, period. Or, as Clark put it, “the wrong side of Pentecost.” In that sense (well, in all senses) Clark’s post reminded me of this 2012 piece by NT Wright on the same topic.

3. At Bilgrimage, Bill Lindsey contrasts the Church of England with the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, noting the peculiarity of the fact that “the top leaders of the Roman Catholic church have allied themselves decisively with the top men running the LDS church, and not with those leading the Anglican communion, a communion theologically and historically far closer to Catholicism than Mormonism is.”

He suggests that the convergence of the Mormon and Catholic hierarchies (going back to Mohler’s post, we can throw in the evangelicals too) can be seen as a sort of branding strategy on the part of Rome:

They’re convinced that, if they brand the Roman Catholic church as the church that stands against illicit claims of women on grounds of “orthodoxy,” they can not only hold onto the loyalties of a solid core of reactionary believers in the Northern hemisphere (many of these the richest among their adherents in that hemisphere), but that they will attract burgeoning numbers of new Catholics in the Southern hemisphere, where the church is growing by leaps and bounds and where women continue to occupy a subservient place in most cultures. The Roman Catholic church as the “orthodox” brand in contrast to the brand of Anglicanism and its ilk … .

 In the short run (a relative term when talking about Catholicism), this makes him pessimistic about the status of women in the Catholic Church. However, echoing Fred Clark’s thoughts that I posted above, Bill writes:

The danger of painting a reactionary brand as “orthodox” becomes ever more evident as increasing numbers of people of faith — Catholics included — insist that the movement to accord rights to women and gay folks which some church leaders want to stigmatize as a collapse to godless secular culture is actually rooted in the deepest traditions of their faith communities. For Christians, for instance, this movement is rooted in the example and teaching of Jesus and in the gospels that enshrine the theological memory of Jesus’s example and teaching in the first generations of his followers.

In the long run, he says, that reactionary version of Christianity can’t sustain itself. The real Christian tradition of, in Bill’s great phrase, “open commensality” is just too powerful to be overcome.

Texas: Good News & Bad

Franklin Barbecue is one of the best barbecue joints in Texas (and therefore, Texans say, the world). Which is why President Obama stopped by last week when he was in town. (NOTE: he skipped the famously long line, which, for the first time, made me think that maybe Fox News has it right about his imperial lawlessness.)

Working the counter was Daniel Rugg Webb. The Austin Chronicle reports what happened:

“It was just a lucky day to be the register girl,” says Webb.

The entire restaurant, he says, was prepped in advance of Obama’s appearance, and Webb, who laments not being properly attired in his preferred sequin ensemble, knew he had to make some kind of stand.

As the president approached, Webb threw his hand down and slapped the counter dramatically. “Equal rights for gay people!”

"Are you gay?" the president asked.

"Only when I have sex."

"That’s when he laughed and said, ‘Bump me,’" Webb says.

"That’s my favorite part because it was cool to get a joke in. In all the photos [all over the Internet], I look like a dead fish, but it was cool. I do stand-up, so it was nice to have some interaction based on, hopefully, something funny."

Webb & the Chronicle also allay my line-skipping gripe: “Logistically,” Webb said, “that’s a really lazy complaint. I don’t think you can safely have a world leader hanging around in a line.” Fair enough. Maybe I won’t push for impeachment.

Anyway, the story offers a nice counterpoint to the one a few weeks ago about the restaurant (erroneously reported as a BBQ joint) in East Texas that kicked a gay couple out for “touching legs” or not acting manly enough or something.

It’s also a necessary bit of positivity in a summer in which I’ve read about the rise of do-it-yourself abortions, about gay couples denied adoption rights and, more generally, about right-wing extremists’ takeover of state politics.   

Three Things for Sunday Afternoon

1. This is from last year, but on the death of the last of the Ramones (Tommy), it’s worth linking Martin Little’s reflections on the lessons Christians can learn from the NY-based band. Little writes:

But there is a particular thematic thread in their songs which points to a deeper yearning. Taken as a body of work, The Ramones’ songs introduce us to a cast of characters. These characters are people who are ostracized from mainstream society as a result of youth, cultural obscurity, mental illness, and/or physical deformity. These characters are drawn in, accepted and celebrated into the cult of the band in a way that mirrors Jesus’ acceptance of the marginalised into the Kingdom of God in his own cultural setting. Jesus enacted his embrace through his preaching and actions; the Ramones’ enacted their embrace through the songs themselves, both on record and in concert.

John Flansburgh, writing at Slate, points out that even the term “punk” signalled an embrace of the margins. “I never understood why in old movies grown men would jump up and punch someone in the face after being called a punk,” he writes. “Wasn’t it like being called a little jerk? Evidently the truth behind the word, at least from the grizzled NYC know-it-alls I hang with, is that it was street slang for a younger gay lover or rent boy, so to call someone a punk was beyond calling someone a fag. It was calling someone a whore and a fag.”

I’ve always thought there was something Christian in punk’s lack of pretension, too, in, say, the Ramones’ insistence on building all of their music out of only simple elements. There’s also this, also from Flansburgh:

A Ramones song cannot be unheard. The Ramones changed the pH balance of rock music’s pond water. Their existence challenged everyone else’s. They’re not part of a school. They built the building.

2. At The New Yorker, Dan Chiasson writes about Rachel Zucker’s writing about motherhood. He quotes her poem “mindful”:

jammed my airspace w/ a podcast &

to-do list list filled up inside I run & running

then a snowstorm so no school I cried & said

Mayor Bloomberg should be scalded with hot

cocoa when someone said Yay for snow! I’m

cutting it too close Erin if a blizzard makes me

cry I used to long for snow for that quiet filling

everything up What are you talking about? asks Erin

Seriously what are you talking about? crammed

in the toddler bed I say If you want me to stay

You need to lie stil the toddler tries why? must he?

"There is a devotional poem hiding somewhere inside these calamities," Chiasson comments, "an attempt at ‘mindfulness’ undone by the mind’s fullness." I’m spending a lot of time in a toddler bed lately (okay, actually stretched out on the floor next to one), and so I’m very glad Chiasson has pointed me to Zucker’s writing.

3. Finally, Sarah O’Holla’s review at Slate made me want to pick up Amanda Petrusich’s Do Not Sell at Any Price. Petrusich writes about collectors of 78 rpm records; O’Holla focuses in particular on Petrusich’s revelation of the gender dynamics of music obsession, which she connects to her own project, My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection. Petrusich writes:

I was methodically teaching myself exactly how to miss the point. When I wondered whether I just listened differently—whether my experience of music was somehow more emotional, more divorced from its technical circumstances, more about the whole than its pieces—I chastised myself for being arrogant or stupid. (I blanched, in fact, at catching myself using a word as treacly as “emotional.”) And yet: I could love a record more than anything in the world and still not make myself recall its serial number.

O’Holla nods: “Traditional music criticism doesn’t really resonate for me, so if I was going to write about records, it was going to come from a place that interested me: The way the music made me feel.”

Michael Boyle on Holy Sex

At A Sound of Sheer Silence, Michael Boyle just finished his engaging series on Dr. Grep Popcak’s Holy Sex!: A Catholic’s Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving. The whole series is great, but Michael’s final thoughts are especially worthwhile. Building on Barbara Brown Taylor’s distinction between “solar” and “lunar” Christianity—both provide light, but solar Christianity is about clarity (and therefore flattens out complexities), where lunar Christianity is more comfortable with ambiguity—Boyle writes:

My experience of sexuality, and the experience of everyone I have spoken to about this, is profoundly lunar.  I do not mean to suggest that sexuality cannot be solar in the way Popcak would suggest—I suppose it is possible—but I don’t think it is particularly common.  I find sexuality to consist in almost nothing but nuance and ambiguity.  Clear and unbending rules almost always prove difficult to apply and subject to exceptions at every turn.  As opposed to the lock-step, ontological categories of sexual beliefs and attitudes, sexuality waxes and wanes like the moon.  Sometimes sex between partners is a deep, spiritual communion.  On other occasions, with the same partners, it is almost entirely carnal and physical.  Both of those scenarios can be pretty awesome.

Most people view sexuality as lunar, not because of some pre-existing opposition to Catholic thinking on sex (as Popcak imagines), but because a lunar approach best reflects the reality of sex they experience.  People have experienced that sexuality can wax and wane and that this is OK.  People don’t use artificial birth control because they are in “romantic anti-marriages”—they use it because it works, and they don’t experience any of the catastrophic life consequences Popcak and the Church warn of.

"I find sexuality to consist in almost nothing but nuance and ambiguity" gets right at what I believe about sex. Absolutism about sex seems to fly in the face of the nature of the act itself, which is the apotheosis of relationality.

You can find an index to all of Michael’s posts in his conclusion. I also recommend his posts on contraception and “natural family planning.”

On the Economic Case Against Gay Marriage (pt. 2)

A few more points—scattered, I know—on Douglas Allen’s “An Economic Assessment of Same-Sex Marriage Laws.” Read part 1 here.

2. In an early footnote, Allen explains, “Throughout this Article ‘marriage’ means western marriage. Exceptions to the marriage definition can be found for any definition of marriage within some small tribe in a remote location or ancient time. As argued below, these types of marriages can be ignored because they do not survive or are unsuccessful in generating large populations” (950 n. 4).

That’s convenient. It allows Allen to ignore, for example, the various Native American cultures in which gay marriage was documented by early Spanish explorers across the southern US. And he gets to do it by implying that gay marriage was the cause of the cultures’ demise (and not, say, smallpox and gunpowder).

2. Throughout the article, Allen asserts that marriage was designed for procreation, that it “has always contained the expectation of fertility.” Of course that’s not true for all marriages—no one expects fertility when two octogenarians marry each other. In his MercatorNet interview, Allen says that a fundamental difference between gay and straight marriages is the absence of children in gay marriages, which “means that gays and lesbians are getting something different out of their relationships that is different (eg, companionship).” But that’s not a fundamental difference! That’s something gays and lesbians have in common with lots of straight couples.

In his article, Allen barely addresses this point, writing on page 958, “These cases [infertile/elderly couples] do not affect the ex ante presumption that marriage will be procreative, which, for reasons discussed below, requires legitimate sex to take place within the marriage. That ex post a couple remains childless does not challenge the presumption and intention of the institution.” But elderly couples don’t “ex post” turn out to be childless; just like gay and lesbian couples, they go into a marriage expecting “something different” (eg, companionship). So those couples most certainly do (or should) affect Allen’s “ex ante” assumptions about the nature of marriage.   

In a footnote on page 950, Allen also writes that elderly couples are admitted into the institution because “the social costs are low.” Despite Allen’s best efforts, though, I still don’t see how the social “cost” of gay marriage is any higher.

3. Allen details the issues that gay marriages (and divorces) raise for the societal understanding of the institution. Gay couples are less likely to raise children, for example, or if they do those children will have biological ties outside of the marriage. But all of those challenges are already raised by some straight couples: couples who go childless by choice, who adopt, use IVF, etc. Allen responds to this objection in a footnote: “Children within same-sex marriages are different. Many, if not most, children in such marriages, arrive from a previous heterosexual marriage. Thus, there is no screening as with traditional adoption. How rights are to be divided between the married parents and the biological third party, and whether children in gay households are to be treated the same as lesbian households, is yet to be determined” (962 n. 34) But that’s the same situation as children in (straight) step-families. Again, nothing new.

Basically, Allen is trying to blame gay couples for challenges that society will face (or already has faced) no matter what, due to the diversity of straight couples.

But to go back to the Costanza/sweater analogy I used yesterday, rather than placing blame, it’s better to see marriage as a V-neck. Gays can’t stretch it out, because accommodation is already part of its design.

3. Speaking of diversity, Allen writes: “Legal recognition of same-sex marriage means that three different types of relationships will be regulated under the same legal umbrella.” Those three types are heterosexual relationships, gay male relationships, and lesbian relationships, which he sees as three fundamentally different things. He supports this view with social science data that suggests that gay men have lots of sex, lesbians are more likely to separate, etc.

If you’ve read this blog for a while, you know this type of averages-based Platonism drives me batty. In this view, nothing is individual; everything is an iteration, a version, a copy, of some platonic form. Thus if some study shows that lesbian relationships are, on average, less stable than straight ones, then lesbian relationships are inherently unstable, never mind the two women next door to you who have been together for forty years.

Now, I know Allen is an economist and, as such, he likes to see things in big, societal terms. But humans are individuals, and I think it’s more accurate to say that the legal umbrella of marriage already regulates an infinite variety of relationships.

That doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility of defining marriage in questions of law; it just means that we have to think harder about what all married couples have in common. And, when you look at the breadth of actual marriages in the real world, it becomes clear that the answer isn’t procreation, or the presumption of procreation. [And, as I’ve written before, if you’re Catholic, you can’t even say that marriage necessarily requires sexual intercourse.]

4. Allen’s “economic” thinking also leads him into an occasionally ugly utilitarianism. He says that decisions about legalizing same-sex marriage ought to be made through an analysis of the costs and benefits of both including and excluding gays from the institution of marriage. And the costs of excluding gay couples? Minimal. He explains: “In recent paper examining same sex couples in Canada, I find that gays and lesbians make up on ¾ of 1 percent of the population, and that across the entire country there are only about 33,000 children living with a gay or lesbian in the household.”

Oh. That’s it.

And what about those 33,000 children? They’re S-O-L in Allen’s reasoning, outweighed by the theoretical “inclusion costs” which, by the way, are not materializing anywhere gay marriage has been legalized.

5. I guess that last objection crystallizes my two main problems with Allen. First, I’m not sure an economic cost/benefit analysis is the way to determine who should be included in the institution of marriage—unless we’re including in “benefits” things like justice and equality. But if you’re going to do it, then you need to get those costs and benefits right, and I don’t think Allen has:

A) To me, telling 33000 children their parents don’t merit the stabilizing benefits of institutional marriage is a horrific exclusion cost. To Allen, it’s minimal.

B) Meanwhile, the inclusion costs Allen attributes to gay marriage aren’t showing up in the real world, and are based on a questionable reading of a prior example of changing marriage laws.

C) Finally, I don’t see Allen anywhere considering the benefits of including gays in marriage. I think this results from his misunderstanding of the full spectrum of the goods of marriage. On average, married people are healthier than their single counterparts; they miss less work, drink less alcohol, take fewer drugs, commit fewer crimes. And, of course, marriage provides stable couples to adopt and raise children who wouldn’t otherwise have parents. In other words, marriage is good for society for lots of reasons that go beyond procreation. 

On page 960, Allen writes, “In a properly functioning heterosexual marriage, there are two parents; they are married, and they are biologically linked to the children.”

You read that right: Allen is saying that childless marriages (and adoptive marriages!) are not properly functioning marriages. This idea runs throughout his writing, as when, for example, he suggests that society merely tolerates elderly marriages because they have low social costs—not because they actually benefit society.  

In reality, society doesn’t merely tolerate elderly or childless marriages. We celebrate them. And we celebrate them because we have a fuller understanding of the goods of marriage than Allen displays in his writings. And that fuller understanding is, in part, driving the growing cultural acceptance of gay marriage. Allen, like his colleague Robert George, thinks that Americans need to ask themselves What is marriage? and What is the purpose of marriage? before they can decide on the issue of gay marriage. His writings, though, show that he is the one who actually needs to think harder about those questions.

On the Economic Argument Against Gay Marriage (pt. 1)

Le Fou du Roi responds to my post on Randall Smith, Dostoevsky, and the Modern Family: “Some Thoughts on the Notion of Family and the Goods of Marriage

I hope to answer Le Fou du Roi’s points soon (I’ve got a lot going on this week), but to lay some groundwork, I want to start by analyzing a paper he cites in his post, Douglas Allen’s “An Economic Assessment of Same-Sex Marriage Laws,” published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy in 2006. For more background on Allen’s thinking, I also recommend this interview with MercatorNet, which amplifies some of the ideas from his paper.

I hadn’t read this argument before, so I’m thankful to Le Fou du Roi for pointing it out. I did know Douglas Allen’s name. He’s an economist listed as one of the NOM-affiliated Ruth Institute’s “Circle of Experts”. Recently, he testified for the state in Michigan’s same-sex marriage trial. After hearing his testimony, Republican-appointed judge Bernard Friedman said his view of  the social science on gay marriage clearly represents “a fringe viewpoint that is rejected by the vast majority of [his] colleagues across a wide variety of social science fields.” So there’s that.

No need to appeal to authority, though; Le Fou du Roi linked Allen’s article, so we can go through it together.

Allen argues that legalizing same-sex marriage* is a “bad idea for both heterosexual and homosexual couples” because marriage has evolved “to efficiently regulate incompatible incentives between husbands and wives that mostly arise over differences in biology.” By “incentives,” Allen means biological/evolutionary tendencies that could harm children: he gives the examples of fathers abandoning their wives and children and wives committing infidelity with men more prestigious than their husbands. Marriage is supposed to prevent those sorts of things and thereby protect children and women (the second-most vulnerable party in a sexual relationship).

Without those biological incentives, he argues, marriage doesn’t make sense. Now, you’re probably thinking, “Even if we grant all that, it’s still not an argument against gay marriage. Why not just legalize it anyway? How do gay marriages harm straight ones?”

Allen’s answer has to do with his concept of efficiency, the idea that since marriage is designed to “fit” specifically heterosexual, procreative unions, it won’t fit other ones as well. And, as fundamentally non-procreative couples enter the institution of marriage, they’ll change it to better suit their own needs, challenging the institutional limits that don’t seem to work for them and thus changing the institution for everybody. Basically, Allen says marriage is like a sweater, and gays want to borrow it, but we shouldn’t let them because they’ll stretch the neck hole all out.

[Allen wouldn’t trust gays with a V-neck.]

Allen points out, for example, that gay couples that raise children are more likely to have a third parent (a biological mother, for instance, in the case of a gay male couple) involved in their relationship and thus petition courts to recognize a “parent” outside of the marriage itself. He cites as an example Canada’s recent move to recognize “legal” parents on a par with biological ones.

If you don’t find that convincing (and I don’t—more in part 2), Allen points out that society failed to foresee the dire consequences of another revolution in marriage laws, this one 40 years ago: the move to no-fault divorce.

Advocates of no-fault divorce laws, Allen claims, pushed the same theory of marriage—marriage is based on love—that gay marriage advocates use today. And the results, he says, were catastrophic. No-fault divorce led to increasing divorce rates, which led to all kinds of secondary effects, like changing the average age at marriage, increasing the proportion of women in the workforce (and women in poverty), and more complicated child support calculations.** The intent of his article, he writes, “is to point out that first, the same love-based view of marriage was used in the earlier debate; second no, harmful or surprising outcomes were expected; and third, the eventual reality was exactly the opposite” (954).

I wasn’t around for the debate about no-fault divorce laws, so I’ll have to take Allen’s word that nobody predicted making divorce easier would increase the number of divorces. However, I do have to push back on his characterization of the effects of those laws.

Justin Wolfers, writing just after Allen, specifically addressed the question of the effects of no-fault divorce in his article “Did Unilateral Divorce Laws Raise Divorce Rates?” (American Economic Review, 2006). His findings:

“I find that the divorce rate rose sharply after the adoption of unilateral divorce laws, but that this rise was reversed within about a decade. There is no evidence that this rise in divorce is persistent. Indeed, some of my results suggest—somewhat puzzingly—that fifteen years after the reform the divorce rate is lower as a result of unilateral divorce, although it is hard to draw any strong conclusions about long-run effects.” (1802)

Basically, Wolfers argues that at the advent of the no-fault era divorce numbers spiked as a result of a policy shock. The no-fault divorce advocates Allen pooh-poohs were right: there was a pent-up demand for divorce (bad marriages do exist), and after that demand was relieved things went back to normal. “Normal” in the middle decades of the 20th Century was rising divorce rates, but that was true in states with and without no-fault divorce, and it was true before no-fault divorce came along. And then divorce rates either leveled off or declined, depending on whose data interpretations you believe. Wolfers, by the way, is full of good news regarding divorce and marriage: in another study, he and Betsey Stevenson find that no-fault divorce laws decreased domestic violence and female suicide rates. Which seems like a big deal. You may also remember that just last week I mentioned that Shaunti Feldhahn’s sanguine new book about the health of the marriage matches something he and Stevenson said in 2008:

The number of divorces per thousand marriages has now fallen by 27 percent since the peak in 1979. The latest data suggest that the divorce rate for 2007 will be even lower still. And our own analysis of the stability of marriages suggests that those married in the 1990′s appear to be less likely to divorce than those married in the 1980′s, who in turn are less likely to divorce than those married in the 1970′s. As such, the divorce rate seems likely to continue to decline for some time yet.***

So when Allen calls the results of no-fault divorce catastrophic, and uses that as his chief evidence in his argument against gay marriage, it’s important to remember that he’s standing on contested ground.

Still, I will say that the idea behind his argument, that we should be careful when messing with an essential institution, is one of the more convincing that the anti-gay marriage side puts out. I don’t know, maybe it just appeals to some conservative streak deep within me. The problem for Allen is that the argument gets weaker every year.

Allen presented this paper in 2005, the year after Massachusetts first allowed gay marriage. It was published in 2006, when Massachusetts was still the only state in the nation with legalized gay marriage.

Now it’s 2014. Wolfers says the negative effects of no-fault divorce laws had reversed themselves within ten years. Guess what? We’ve got 10 years of marriage equality under our belts in Massachusetts; 6 in Connecticut; 5 in Iowa and Vermont. So where do we stand? Ronald Bailey writes at the Wall Street Journal:

“Massachusetts was the first state to legalize same-sex marriage in 2004. In 2003, the divorce rate in Massachusetts was 2.5 per 1,000 residents, and it fell to 1.9 by 2009. The Massachusetts marriage rate jumped 15% in 2004, as many same-sex couples chose to get married, but since has remained stable. Interestingly, the states that permit same-sex marriage tend to have lower divorce rates than those that ban same-sex marriage.”****

If it’s reasonable to say Let’s wait and see, it’s also reasonable to ask how long we have to wait before we can say we’ve seen. Absent any scary data, there has to come a point when even Allen and Le Fou du Roi will have to acknowledge that gay marriage is nothing to worry about.


*I generally use the terms “marriage equality,” “same-sex marriage,” and “gay marriage” interchangeably. Le Fou du Roi objected to my use of “marriage equality,” though, so I’ll use the other two terms throughout these posts.

**Note that it’s debatable whether all of Allen’s secondary effects of no-fault divorce are necessarily bad. Allen makes a good argument, for example, that the increasing age of marriage is a bad thing, but it seems to me it’s also possible to argue the opposite—that waiting to marry leads to “higher quality offspring,” to borrow one of Allen’s particularly economist-y phrases.

*** A brand-new study (April 2014) challenges some of this optimism. Sheela Kennedy and Stephen Ruggles, who claim to have a better method for estimating the national divorce rate (which is apparently very hard to calculate), find that, whereas vital statistics show a decline in the refined divorce rate of 23.2% between 1980 and 2008, with estimates using different methods that decline drops to 2.2%. What’s more, they estimate that if we control for the aging population the rate actually increases, and significantly, since (counter-intuitively) old people are divorcing at a higher rate than young ones. Their study doesn’t seem (to my inexpert eyes) specifically relevant to this Allen’s argument, since they focus on post-1990 data, and the linearly rising divorce rates characterize the entire 20th Century. And Kennedy and Ruggles never tie the recent part of that rise to no-fault divorce laws. Still, although readers know I hate to give grist to the moral decline alarmists, there it is. It’s important to note, though, that Feldhahn and Stevenson question their findings. Also, like Wolfers, Kennedy and Ruggles find that young people have better records (so far) at marriage than their parents, and predict a possible decline in divorce rates in future decades.

****Other countries, including those where gay marriage (or something like it) has been around even longer, are similarly free of dreadful consequences. Here’s Bailey again, writing about Sweden: “Sweden legalized same-sex civil unions in 1995 and gay marriage in 2009. A 2011 demographic study from researchers at the University of Stockholm reports that since 1999, after decades of falling, both the marriage rate and the fertility rate have trended upward and the divorce rate is down.”

Writing I Loved

A few links to writing that I’ve read and enjoyed in recent days. No commentary, just love:

1. Calah Alexander, “It’s not the standards, it’s that we believe them”:

"I’m the one who wishes my husband could be with me, but that I could have someone else’s body, and someone else’s face, and let’sbehonest, someone else’s personality, too. I’m the one who is so sure that he must be repulsed by me, and so sure that he must be thinking of someone else, that in the end I’m the one wishing myself right out of his arms."

2. Building on Alexander’s post, Betty Duffy asks, “What Are Women For?”:

When I decide to be thin, I become a very boring person, a stressed out person, someone who only thinks about food and mentally scourges herself for mistakes made when eating.

You don’t usually get to have it both ways–you don’t get to be a skinny woman, and at the same times, a woman who’s happy to sit at a bar and drink pints with her husband. You don’t get to be someone who is fully invested in being thin, and at the same time finds herself interesting enough in her own right to forget occasionally her body and its tendency to grow fat when it’s having fun.


The body is not just for one thing. It’s to teach, to exercise, and yes, to have fun with your kids. The body is for experiencing a wide range of experiences. It’s for climbing dunes and playing frisbee, and lying in the sun with the sand sticking to your shins. The body is for working, bearing children, nursing and feeling pain. It’s for eating, drinking, laughing with your husband, and eventually, finding your way to bed. It’s also for suffering, growing wrinkled, and eventually, for dying.

The body is for communion. It’s the vessel in which our souls are sanctified. It is not just for the pleasure of others.

3. At Mockingbird, David Zahl highlights Mary Gaitskill’s essay “Revelation” (ht Andrew Sullivan). Gaitskill writes:

When I look at Revelation now, it still seems frightening and impenetrable, and it still suggests a fearful, inexorable order that is unknowable by us, in which our earthly concerns matter very little. However, it no longer reads to me like a chronicle of arbitrarily inflicted cruelty. It reads like a terrible abstract of how we violate ourselves and others and thus bring down endless suffering on earth. When I read “And they blasphemed God of heaven because of their pain and their sores, and did not repent of their deeds,” I think of myself and dozens of other people I’ve known or know who blaspheme life itself by failing to have the courage to be honest and kind. And how we then rage around and lash out because we hurt. When I read “fornication,” I no longer read it as a description of sex outside marriage: I read it as sex done in a state of psychic disintegration, with no awareness of one’s self or one’s partner, let along any sense of honor or even real playfulness. I still don’t know what to make of the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, among other things, but I’m now inclined to read it as a writer’s primitive attempt to give form to his moral urgency, to create a structure that could contain and give ballast to the most desperate human confusion.

[Gaitskill’s whole essay can be found in The Anchor Essay Annual: The Best of 1997.]

4. Finally, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry writes “Against Platitudes”:

At any given point in time, the texts of the Magisterium will provide a very big arsenal for someone who wants to go through life saying and believing nothing but platitudes. But this is not the life Christ calls on us to lead.

I think this is important because I think the Church has a big problem. I think the Sexual Revolution and its various consequences have created a confusion in the minds of many people who believe themselves to be “traditional” Christians, which is to associate the sexual morality of the pre-Sexual Revolution era with the sexual morality of the Gospel; consequently to see anything that has happened between, say, 1968, as consisting only of decline and apostasy, and to look at the pre-1968 world through rose-colored glasses; consequently to believe that the mission of the Church is to return the world to this Golden Age.

It shouldn’t need saying that this point of view is, from the standpoint of Catholic Tradition, erroneous and even idolatrous. First of all because, for the reasons I have explained, there is no Golden Age. Second of all because the sexual morality of any given society or era is going to come drastically short of the Gospel. If you doubt me, read the Magisterium of John Paul II, who clearly embraced the good of what came post-1968.

This is an absolutely key thing, because fidelity to “prelapsarian” sexual morality is not fidelity to the Gospel. It is fidelity to an idol. It is the lack of this distinction which hobbles so much of the Church’s commentary on current events, and which leads the Church to lack credibility in the public square. And for people who hold these views, sexual morality is, indeed, summed up by a bunch of platitudes.


Common sense, like platitudes, can be good, it can be bad. But it is never the Gospel.

Three (non-Hobby Lobby) Things

Because maybe you’re sick of reading about Hobby Lobby.

1. Walker Percy on Catholic Novelists

From “The Holiness of the Ordinary” (1989):

While no serious novelist knows for sure where his writing comes from, I have the strongest feeling that, whatever else the benefits of the Catholic faith, it is of a particularly felicitous use to the novelist. Indeed, if one had to design a religion for novelists, I can think of no better. What distinguishes Judeo-Christianity in general from other world religions is its emphasis on the value of the individual person, its view of man as a creature in trouble, seeking to get out of it, and accordingly on the move. Add to this anthropology the special marks of the Catholic Church: the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, which, whatever else they do, confer the highest significance on the ordinary things of this world, bread, wine, water, touch, breath, words, talking, listening—and what do you have? You have a man in a predicament and on the move in a real world of real things, a world which is a sacrament and a mystery; a pilgrim whose life is a searching and a finding.

2. Rod Dreher on Catholic Triumphalism

The above paragraph might qualify as a bit of Catholic triumphalism, but I like it, and I like Percy, so I’ll give it a pass. But I did appreciate Rod Dreher’s recent take on religious triumphalism. Dreher pivots off of a post from Anglican Evangelical Alan Jacobs, who writes:

As I commented earlier today on Twitter, in the last twenty years I’ve seen theologically-serious Protestants become more and more respectful of and interested in Catholicism — but I have simultaneously seen many serious Catholics withdraw completely into a purely Catholic world, with little interest in other Christian traditions except to critique them — as, for instance, in Brad Gregory’s much-celebrated but (in my view) absurdly tendentious The Unintended Reformation, which blames almost everything bad in modern society on this vast and amorphous (but somehow unified) thing called “the Reformation.”

"The intellectual arrogance identified by Alan that exists within certain Catholic circles," says Dreher, "is something I once was guilty of, without realizing it. To me, as an adult convert to Catholicism, the intellectual and aesthetic riches of the Catholic faith were so blindingly obvious that I couldn’t see that the Protestant traditions were worth taking seriously, except in a political and personal sense."

That triumphalism, Dreher writes, is an ugly form of pride that “blinds us to the faults within ourselves and our tradition” and “blinds us to what is good within other traditions, misguided though they might ultimately be.” It also causes others to distance themselves from the Church. Dreher, who has now converted to the Eastern Orthodox Church, tells how he was almost put off from Orthodoxy by an obnoxious, triumphalist man he met at a Greek Orthodox festival.

Cruising the Catholic-Right-o-sphere these last few years, I’ve been astonished, too, at the level of triumphalism I’ve encountered on certain sites and from certain authors. Dreher’s absolutely right—there’s this idea out there that anyone who calls himself Christian that’s not Catholic isn’t to be taken seriously. Honestly, that’s part of the impetus behind this blog. But I also wouldn’t waste time on this blog—I’d just walk away from any conversation with Catholicism, like Dreher almost did with Orthodoxy—if I hadn’t had a much deeper experience with a better, humbler version of the faith. I’m talking about the education I got at my Catholic high school, where so many of my teachers, both religious and laypeople, were open and joyful and really, truly, smart. I feel like a lot of what I’m doing here is arguing for that Catholic tradition against the one that dominates parts of the internet.

3. No One is Insufficiently Masculine

Speaking of my high school, I’m still grappling with how to write about the fact that one of my classmates, “Jeremy Joel,” is behind the Texas Republican Party’s recent advocacy for reparative therapy.

I’ve been visiting the links that Jeremy recommends on his website and blog, including this site for the Center for Gender Wholeness, which says it’s a “compassionate approach for men who won’t accept a homosexual life due to conflicting values or life goals,” and which promises, “It is possible to stop unwanted behavior, shift sexual desires, and resolve other issues related to unwanted same-sex attraction.”

The center’s approach seems to be built on principles elaborated in the book Becoming a Whole Man, by David Matheson. In the portion of Chapter 7 (“Gender Disruption”) excerpted on the site, Matheson writes:

The patterns of life experiences I observed in the men with whom I worked seemed to point to a common phenomenon shared by the vast majority of them. …

…[R]ather than enjoying masculine sufficiency, we struggle with masculine insufficiency. Rather than experiencing gender congruity, we live with gender incongruity. Rather than being sustained by community with other men, we endure disaffiliation from others of our own sex. And rather than perceiving genderedness and complementarity with women, we encounter distortions in our experience of genderedness.

In this chapter we will discuss the details of these various causes of disruption, beginning with the two conditions that tend to create masculine insufficiency. The first of those conditions is termed “gender incongruity,” and is a sense of being incompatible with or not conforming to your internalized definition of masculinity. It’s caused by gender shame, gender double binds, and gender imperatives. We’ll review each of these in turn. The second condition we’ll discuss is “same–sex disaffiliation,” which is a disruption in our experience of community with other males. After that we’ll turn our attention to the problems that some men with same-sex attraction tend to experience with women, which include unhealthy relational responses to females and gender distortion.

Whenever I read something like that, I want to shake anyone who might be persuaded by it, and say: “Snap out of it! You are not insufficiently masculine. In fact, there is no such thing as ‘masculine insufficiency.’ You are exactly as masculine, as feminine, as androgynous as you are supposed to be. Sure, work hard at being braver, stronger, more dependable. But those aren’t ‘masculine’ traits—they’re as important for women as for men, and they’re modeled as much by mothers as by fathers. Just be who you are and, when you aim at self-improvement, aim for virtue, not masculinity.”

And did you catch the line at the end about “unhealthy relational responses to females”? Okay, I haven’t read the whole book, but I have a funny feeling that just means that “masculine” men aren’t supposed to form close, sustaining friendships with women. 


Three Things for Sunday

[“The Theology of Rest,” from the Forefront Church]

1. Divorce rate shocker? I’m not shocked.

Patrick Madrid linked to this article from CBN News (“Divorce Shocker: Most Marriages Do Make It”) contesting the widely-accepted “fact” that half of all marriages end in divorce. According to researcher Shaunti Feldhahn, the real divorce rate is probably much lower than that. CBN reports:

"First-time marriages: probably 20 to 25 percent have ended in divorce on average," Feldhahn revealed. "Now, okay, that’s still too high, but it’s a whole lot better than what people think it is."

Shaunti and Jeff point out the 50 percent figure came from projections of what researchers thought the divorce rate would become as they watched the divorce numbers rising in the 1970s and early 1980s when states around the nation were passing no-fault divorce laws.
"But the divorce rate has been dropping," Feldhahn said. "We’ve never hit those numbers. We’ve never gotten close."

CBN doesn’t link to any actual studies, but says that Feldhahn’s work appears in her new book The Good News About Marriage. Feldhahn’s research is in line with these observations (a little old now, but still good for looking at long-term trends) from economist Justin Wolfers. Wolfers writes:

The number of divorces per thousand marriages has now fallen by 27 percent since the peak in 1979. The latest data suggest that the divorce rate for 2007 will be even lower still. And our own analysis of the stability of marriages suggests that those married in the 1990′s appear to be less likely to divorce than those married in the 1980′s, who in turn are less likely to divorce than those married in the 1970′s. As such, the divorce rate seems likely to continue to decline for some time yet.

For some reason, people (from the cultural right and left) resist any good news about marriage; the idea of “soaring divorce rates” is just so ingrained in our national psyche. Whenever I bring up dropping divorce rates, people try to argue that the stat is misleading, since marriage rates are also dropping. But notice that Wolfers uses divorces per 1000 marriages, which means that the drop in divorces is not a function of the drop in marriages. It means that people really are marrying better now than they did in the 1970s or 1980s.

2. Bob Dylan, traditionalist?

Robert Dean Lurie (h/t Andrew Sullivan) explores Bob Dylan’s 1960s period of idiosyncratic traditionalism in this fascinating post. Lurie writes:

On a personal level this involved getting married, moving to the country, and having a lot of kids. For a time he gave up smoking, drinking, and the various other substances that had fueled his manic outpourings over the previous years and had almost led to his demise. Journalists and commentators at the time attributed this transformation to his convalescence following an alleged motorcycle accident in July 1966. Whether or not the accident actually happened (and there are no hospital records to corroborate it), the young songwriter used the story as a pretext to pull himself off the fast track.

Inevitably, with the downtime came introspection. “When I [moved to] Woodstock,” Dylan wrote years later in his memoir, Chronicles, Volume One, “it became very clear to me that the whole counterculture was one big scarecrow wearing dead leaves. It had no purpose in my life.” This revelation brought with it some pretty serious implications for Dylan’s songwriting. If the “spokesman of his generation” repudiated said generation, would he have anything left to write about?

The answer turned out to be a decisive “yes”: He wrote enough to fill the albums “John Wesley Harding,” “Nashville Skyline,” “New Morning,” and “Planet Waves”—what would be a career’s worth for anyone else. Writing from a position of stability for the first time in his life, Dylan imbued his new material with warmth and melody.

3. The Theology of Rest

Finally, ironically, I haven’t had time to watch all of the video at the head of this post. But I did love Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings post on it. Popova pulls out these quotes:

We’re picking up cues from our culture about the way we live our lives and the pace at which we live our lives. Rest isn’t a priority, because so often rest is confused with laziness… Sometimes, rest isn’t a priority because we’ve incorrectly measured success.


Rest, instead of being something passive, is actually an act of resistance. We live in The City That Never Sleeps — so resting may be the most countercultural and spiritual thing we do with our lives.

Unfortunately, what I need is less a theology of rest than a theology of stop-f*ing-around-on-my-blog-and-write-my-dumb-dissertation. But at least sermons like this help me feel better about not working.

Randall Smith, Dostoevsky, and the “Modern” Family

I don’t think of myself as very old. I am old enough, though, that I was raised with the idea that men marry women and women marry men. Not because I was raised by homophobes—my parents were fairly liberal on social issues—but because, culturally, the question of gay marriage hadn’t really been asked during my childhood. The national conversation around gay marriage arguably started with the 1993 Hawaii Supreme Court decision in Baehr vs. Miike, which precipitated the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. Even when DOMA was being debated it was still a new conversation—basically, when I was a teenager, we went from an understanding that marriage is between a man and a woman to a question: is marriage necessarily between a man and a woman?

My answer to that question is No, not necessarily. Still, I understand when anti-equality folks, especially the older ones, say that marriage is between and a woman. Not because I think they’re right, obviously, but because I get that they’re just offering their answer to a question that is still, historically, very new.

But I’m taken aback when these same anti-equality voices expand their argument from the definition of marriage to the definition of family. When they say, for example, that families led by gay couples aren’t real families, or that “family” is determined exclusively by biology. These sentiments stop me in my tracks, because I was raised with an ironclad understanding that love makes a family. I was raised, for example, with the idea that if a man has a biological son and an adopted son, those boys are both equally his sons, and they are brothers, and the group of them are family in every real sense of the word. That this might be in question is absolutely dumbfounding to me.

Take, for example, this article by Randall Smith at The Public Discourse. In it, Smith recounts the famous trial scene in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which the slick defense attorney Fetyukovich attempts to get his client, Dmitri Karamazov, off the hook for the crime of parricide by arguing that Fyodor Pavlovich, Dmitri’s father, was not really a father because he never really loved the boy. “He who begets is not yet a father,” the attorney argues, “a father is he who begets and proves worthy of it.”

It’s a fascinating scene, and Fetyukovich does pull some questionable rhetorical moves in his defense of Dmitri (though I’d argue that the least questionable of those is the idea that fatherhood is a title that must be earned). But Smith ties Fetyukovich’s defense to contemporary arguments against abortion restrictions and in favor of marriage equality. He writes:

Here, Dostoyevsky allows us a foretaste of the notion of ‘family’ reckoned not ‘by nature’ but ‘by consent.’ How could he have known? Perhaps it was his ‘reason and experience’ that allowed him to see the direction modernity would inevitably lead. Then again, perhaps it was his understanding of what would happen when the traditional, religious, ‘mystical’ meanings of words such as ‘father,’ ‘son,’ ‘love,’ and ‘human’ were replaced by other definitions more suited to the demands of modern progress and contemporary will to power.

Modernity, Smith says, leads inevitably to the notion that family is determined not by nature, but by consent. According to Smith, the idea I grew up with, that love makes a family, is a demeaning or a diminishing of the traditional meaning of the word family.

The problem is, that’s not a modern concept at all—it’s literally as old as Solomon. Yes, human society has always recognized the importance of blood bonds. But it has also always had more or less formal ways of acknowledging the reality of non-biological family.

It’s one of our best traits as a species. Any damn creature can look out for its own kin. Humans? We adopt. We marry. We make vows. Even when we don’t have to.   

One of the clearest examples of family-by-consent is the story of Ruth and Naomi, from the Old Testament. In that story, Naomi loses her husband and her sons; she begs her daughters-in-law to return to their families, but one, Ruth, pledges to remain with her, to leave her own homeland and follow Naomi into hers. The words she uses are so beautiful they’re often used in Christian weddings:

16 And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God:

17 Where thou diest, will I die, and there will I be buried: the Lord do so to me, and more also, if ought but death part thee and me. (Ruth 1:16-17)

Ruth and Naomi shared no biological (or even legal) bond. But they were family, so much so that when, after re-marrying, Ruth had a child, “her neighbours gave it a name, saying, There is a son born to Naomi” (Ruth 4:17).

What made them family? Consent. Love. Nothing else.

That’s humanity.

The Bible is full of examples like this. Most notably, there’s the Holy Family: Joseph shared no biological bond with either Mary or Jesus. And that’s to say nothing of Jesus himself, who put Fetyukovich’s loose definition of family to shame when he said “For whosoever shall do the will of God, the same is my brother, my sister, and mother” (Mark 3:33).

I wonder if some day in the future, when we’re looking back at the wreckage of the anti-equality movement, we’ll reckon their decision to emphasize “family” as a fatal misstep. Lord knows that all of their talk about the good of the children has backfired: judges from Justice Kennedy in Windsor to Judge Carlos Lucero on the 10th Circuit have pointed out that truly caring about children means making sure that everyone raising them has access to marriage. After all, if you insist that having married parents offers essential protection to children, then it’s morally suspect to deny that protection to children being raised by gay couples. 

But, in a larger sense, by talking about “family,” NOM & friends have pointed right at the inhumanity, the anti-Christianity, of their own arguments. It’s one thing to say “marriage is between a man and a woman” to people who have never thought otherwise. It’s something else entirely to tell people that a couple that has been together for thirty or forty years is not family, that they’re just friends, that they’re “playing house.” That kind of argument is destined to be rejected.

Do These Guys Have No Self-Awareness? Seriously?

Last week, I linked to John Shimek’s post at catholicvote.org insisting that President Obama’s refusal to use federal funds to discriminate against gays really represents (like everything Obama does, amirite?) a frontal attack on religious liberty.

This week, Shimek gives us “Three Reasons Obama’s Newest Attack on Religious Liberty Concerns Catholics.” I’ll let you read the whole article, but one paragraph stunned me with its obliviousness. Last week, when Shimek complained that Catholic adoption agencies, for example, might lose federal funding under this order, I made a simple suggestion: fund your agencies without federal help. In this second post, Shimek answers objections like mine:

But, some are calling upon the Church to wash her hands of her federal contractor status and to re-commit to performing her good works independent of Obama’s dollars. Folks, let’s not forget something here: Those are our dollars. They belong to the American people. We gave them to the Feds. Catholics have as much a right to them as anyone else. So, let’s not allow the Feds to crowd us out because we refuse to conform to Obama’s radical social agenda.

Sheesh. Yes, Shimek. Those dollars belong to the American people. We all gave them to the Feds. Think about that for a minute.

How is this for a contrast? NOM vs. the Presbyterians

Yesterday, like a lot of folks who write about marriage equality and gay rights, I followed the National Organization for Marriage’s underwhelming “March for Marriage” on twitter. At one point, Joe Jervis snarked that the majority of people watching the rally via the live feed that NOM paid for seemed to be gay activists.

So some people were paying attention. But not many. Sarah Jones, who was there, writes that the March for Marriage “didn’t display an organized popular movement against marriage equality, but rather a straggling, angry crowd” and that it was “it was less a march and more a collective stumble.”  And David Badash notes that the number of attendees was 2000 at most. This is important, he says:

Because clearly if the nation’s top-funded and number one organization attacking the rights of the LGBT community and same-sex couples cannot even muster up 5,000 or 10,000 people to come to a rally in Washington, D.C. — even after providing free busses — then clearly America has grown tired of them. NOM’s rhetoric and tactics are so far removed from the mainstream that only 2,000 want to show up to support their cause? The rally will go down in history as evidence they lost the battle for marriage.

While NOM was rallying, something actually important was happening: the Presbyterian Church of the US voted to allow its pastors to perform gay marriages. Emma Green reports:

Thursday’s vote makes two important changes in Presbyterianism. Effective immediately, pastors are allowed to officiate ceremonies. In a plenary session at the PCUSA’s biennial General Assembly meeting, more than 600 representatives of regional Presbyterian organizations, called presbyteries, voted on a resolution to allow this to happen; it passed 61 to 39 percent.

But the bigger change is definitional: The Church will tentatively change its “authoritative interpretation” of marriage from a bond between “a man and a woman” to “two people.” The General Assembly passed this, 71 to 29 percent; it will go into effect if presbyteries vote to ratify it.

Two votes, neither one close: 61% to 39% and 71% to 29%. No screaming rallies, no ugly signs. Not much controversy. Just people, Christians, thinking about and doing what’s right.

Links & Notes

Weightier posts are coming soon! But for now a few quick-hitters:

1. The HHS Mandate was Just the First Step!

At catholicvote.org, John Shimek tells us that “the fight for religious freedom just entered a new round. Another assault on First Amendment protections just reared its ugly head.”

What is this dastardly attack on religious liberty?

It’s President Obama’s executive order forbidding federal contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Shimek explains:

What practical impact could this executive order have? Picture this. A Catholic archdiocesan or diocesan adoption service, that needs federal monies in order to function, announces plans to place children in traditional families comprised of one father and one mother. Such a plan would violate the new executive order being drafted. What happens next? A phone call from the Feds? Burdensome fines? At this juncture, we don’t know.

He goes on:

Obama’s team is gearing up to place pressure on Catholic charitable social services to conform to its progressive agenda. Church services – like adoption agencies – will have to face a choice: Either conform to that agenda or shut their doors for lack of federal financial support. The choices are bleak.

Well, I see another choice. Run the agencies without federal money. How many millions of dollars has the Catholic Right ponied up to finance political campaigns, conferences, events, publications aimed at stopping the spread of marriage equality? Why not direct some of that money towards the adoption agencies you claim to love so much?

For instance, Catholic Right, if you really wanted to find money for your social services, you could stop funding…

2. Secret meetings to form a new League of Anti-equality Bigwigs.

Jeremy Hooper reports that Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, Robert George, Maggie Gallagher, Brian Brown, and others have been meeting to plan their next steps now that NOM, the nation’s preeminent anti-equality organization, seems doomed to extend its multi-year streak of losing court cases, votes, and public support.

As I put it on twitter:

Seriously, I can’t help but imagine that, at the start of their meetings, these guys call roll to the tune of “Yakety Sax.”

3.The Theology of the Imperfect Body

To change the subject a bit, at Patheos Catholic, Pascal Emmanuel Gobry is struck by the (NSFW) tumblr LES CORPS IMPARFAITS, “Because an imperfect body belongs to an incarnate, real person with whom communion is at least conceivable. And because there is a soupçon of transgression associated with the display of imperfect bodies in a society that holds up impossible ideals of ‘beauty’.

He continues:

For we are called (as Augustine well knew) to be imperfect bodies, at least until the world to come, and the theology of the body is, on this Earth, to be a theology of the imperfect body, and this has consequences for its erotic dimension. As true lovers well know, one comes to cherish one’s lover’s bodily imperfections, to go from loving their bodies in spite of them, to loving these imperfections, and from there to loving them because of these imperfections, so that if we were able to trade them for supposed perfections we would not.

It is through loving these imperfections of your body that I grow to love you as you, not some idealized fantasy, but you personally. These imperfections are called, in other words, to be transfigured by love. Through these imperfections I am called to love you personally, for you, to become this selfless divine love of which carnal union is meant to be an icon.

4.Michael Boyle on Holy Sex

Speaking of sex, Michael Boyle has started his long-form review series on Dr. Gregory Popcak’s book Holy Sex!. It promises to be a good series, given Michael’s incisive writing and the promises Popcak makes in the book’s introduction:

In Holy Sex! you will discover what it takes to celebrate a toe-curling, eye-popping, mind-blowing, deeply spiritual, and profoundly sacramental sexuality—a sexual relationship that is both fully sensual and fully equipped to move beyond sensuality so that it can become an authentically transformative, spiritual encounter.  Heaven will be wedded to earth as you and your spouse walk the path toward becoming Infallible Lovers, the kind of lovers who can infuse their marital lives with a passion that reaches biblical proportions.  Literally.

As Michael says: “Wow.  Those are, needless to say, pretty bold claims.” I can’t wait to see how Popcak develops those claims, and I look forward to Michael’s commentary. 

5. Elizabeth Stoker on “Dear Pope Francis”

Finally, I’m losing hours these days reading the blog posts at Augustine-obsessed, Cambridge-attending, Catholic convert Elizabeth Stoker’s site. Today, she took down Robert Tracinski’s “chickenshittishly anti-Catholic ‘Dear Pope Francis’ open letter.” Love it. And she’s from Fort Worth. 

We Need to Talk about Texas

I don’t want to have this talk.

This afternoon, I’m heading to one of my favorite barbecue restaurants, out in the Texas Hill Country, where I’ll have a cold Shiner Bock (or three) and gorge myself on beef brisket, ribs, and blackberry cobbler. Yes, I said blackberry cobbler. I might not eat again until Tuesday.

In case it’s not clear, I love my home state. In fact, I kind of consider myself a one-man, volunteer visitors’ bureau. If you’ve got a question about Texas music, or Texas cuisine, or film, or literature, I’m your guy.

But, as Ta-Nehisi Coates points out, celebrating the good stuff in your home while forgetting its faults is “patriotism a la carte.” So, while it thrilled me to post this, and publicize this survey, being a good Texan means I can’t ignore the ugliness my state has produced recently.

And in the past couple of weeks, oh man, have we backslid.

1. A greasy spoon in East Texas (mistakenly described in reports as a barbecue joint) kicked out a gay couple for, apparently, “touching legs.” And the restaurant used a slur while doing it. It seems that Big Earl’s Bait House and Galley Café in Pittsburg, has a “house rule” that says ““Here at Big Earl’s we like for men to act like men and for ladies to act like ladies,” and the couple ran afoul of that.

Raw Story reports that when asked about the rule, the restaurant’s owner elaborated:

“You’re welcome to come and eat, but a man act like a man and a woman act like a woman,” he said. “Dress appropriately and act appropriately when you’re in a public place.”

A reporter from KLTV-TV asked the restaurant owner to specify how men and women should behave in his restaurant.

“The same thing it says,” Cheney said. “That a man’s supposed to stand up and be a leader. He’s not supposed to be a woman. He’s not supposed to come in here in a dress.”

That quote, and the restaurant’s whole approach really, shows such head-pounding ignorance and idiocy that I don’t have to do anything here but point it out.

But I will say this: I’m only half-joking when I equate eating barbecue with Texas citizenship. Of course Texans can be vegans and vegans can be Texans. But food is one of the real ways that a community identifies itself. And so refusing to serve a class of people a meal is one of the surest ways to tell those people that they are not part of the community.

2. Governor Perry compared homosexuality to alcoholism. According to Box Turtle Bulletin, Perry was asked whether he thinks homosexuality is a disorder.

“Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that,” Perry said. “I may have the genetic coding that I’m inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that, and I look at the homosexual issue the same way.”

The alcoholism/homosexuality analogy is one of those things that shows you how far apart the two sides of this issue really are. For Perry, and the people I regularly engage on this blog, it’s a totally logical, reasonable comparison. For the rest of us, it’s both repellent and illogical, since alcoholism is inherently self-damaging—in fact, it’s largely defined as continuing to drink when drinking is causing serious problems in your life. Homosexuality, in contrast, does not necessarily cause problems, as anyone with a healthy, happy gay loved one can attest. Perry’s comparison sounds nuts to anyone who has seen both 1) the destruction that alcoholism can cause and 2) the happiness that gay relationships can bring. Which is part of why his side is losing this argument. In fact, one of the commenters on Box Turtle Bulletin noted that Perry’s comments were met with a a murmur of disbelief.

3. Perry’s statement came in response to a question about the Texas Republican Party’s inclusion of a statement in favor of “reparative therapy” in its party platform. As Mary Elizabeth Williams points out in Salon, reparative therapy has been condemned by the APA since 2009, and has been banned as harmful in two states. It rests on the assumption that gays can be (in some way) fixed, and it furthers the notion that they need to be.

Full disclosure: I went to high school with the writer of that plank, who is going publically by the name Jeremy Joel. I saw him mention something about it on facebook last week, but didn’t think anything of it until, on Thursday morning, his face was plastered on the front page of several of the major news sites I regularly read.

For the record, I know Jeremy as a smart, sincere guy, and I fully believe him when he says he “never meant it as a state endorsement or requirement,” and that he opposes the therapy being conducted against patients’ wills (say, in the case of teenagers who might be sent to these therapists by their parents). Jeremy says he got value from these treatments, and he doesn’t want to see them banned. That’s his motivation.

I don’t know whether Jeremy has thought about the ways these therapies might be harmful to other gays, especially younger ones. But I also have to concede that I know less about these programs than he does.

I can say, though, that while I disagree with Jeremy’s position, the accusations of opportunism that are being lobbed at him in the comment sections of various sites ring totally false to me. From what I can tell, Jeremy is fairly anguished about the whole thing and would have liked to remain behind the scenes in this affair.

I might write more about this soon. I also have to do my Walker Percy posts, and I’m not sure I’m done with the whole Kevin Williamson thing.

But for now, I’m off to get some brisket. And cobbler.