Letters to the Catholic Right

Upcoming Projects: Reading “Making Gay Okay” and “Defending Marriage”


First off, sorry for the blog slowdown. I’ve been traveling, and working at my second job, and when I haven’t been traveling and working at my second job, my wife has been traveling, which means I’ve got sole responsibility for the little one. All of which is great, except it leaves little time for writing.

Plus there’s the dissertation, which I have to finish at all costs this year or else. And on top of that, the semester starts this week, which means I’ve got to have some lesson plans in order for the first few classes.

Also, Ferguson has been dominating my thoughts, and I’m not sure how to write about that. This blog really has two notes, arguing and liking; I’m not good at writing anger or shame, at least not to the extent I need to put words to what I feel while watching tear gas streaming into crowds of black citizens on the streets of a Midwestern suburb.

But I will post more in the next couple of weeks. And as soon as I get into my semester routine, I’ll start two new long-form book review series, along the lines of what I did last school year with J. Budziszewski’s On the Meaning of Sex.

First, I’ll get into Robert R. Reilly’s Making Gay Okay: How Rationalizing Homosexual Behavior is Changing Everything. If you haven’t been paying attention, Reilly’s book has been The Book Of The Summer for the Catholic Right. Fr. John McCloskey, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Fr. John Zuhlsdorf—all of them have praised the book. Reilly, who served under the Secretary of Defense in the Bush administration, has appeared on Ave Maria Radio and Relevant Radio (which, believe it or not, I listen to a lot while working at the ranch).

Here’s what Matthew J. Franck says about Making Gay Okay in his review at Public Discourse:

Among the ‘LGBT’ activists and their allies who have lately been so successful in transforming our culture’s understanding of love, marriage, and sexual integrity, Reilly’s book will be hated and denounced. It is likely that many of those who denounce the book most strongly will not actually read it. They will certainly not squarely confront or refute its arguments.

Oooh. Readers, that sounds like a challenge.

But I might be even more pumped to get into the second book, Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity.


Esolen is a literature professor, and I’m familiar with his writing on culture and sexuality, which ranges from anger-inducing to hey-that’s-kind-of-good. Here’s how Longenecker describes Defending Marriage:

We should not suppose that Professor Esolen does anything so banal as to go snooping for proof texts from Shakespeare or Milton. He does much more than that. He takes the reader into the mind and the world of Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, Tolkien and Spenser. He does not argue against homosexuality, but for a healthy, wholesome, innocent and natural approach to human sexuality. Esolen presents us with a vision of human sexuality, courtship, marriage, and romance which is timeless and poignantly alluring.

According to Longenecker, Esolen looks back into literature (Shakespeare, Milton, Twain, Tolkien, Spenser)  and “conjures up a forgotten world where girls and boys were naturally attracted to one another and flirted and played together innocently. He helps us look back to a world where young men and women courted, stole a kiss, and kept themselves pure for their wedding day.”

Against this “forgotten” world, Longenecker says, Esolen will pose the sexual revolution, “with its tragic legacy of divorce, broken homes, battered and scattered fathers, predatory and prostituted females, the fractured family, ravished relationships, and a desiccated sexuality” that has “left us as wounded warriors wandering alone on a devastated cultural battlefield.”

Um, wow. THAT book sounds right up my alley. Remember when we puzzled over Budziszewski’s use of Dante and Beatrice as his ideal for married love? Remember when I got to pull out two of my favorite Sidney sonnets so we could look more carefully at historic notions of marriage, love, and sex? This sounds like a whole book’s worth of that, though I expect Esolen to be a savvy reader of the texts he handles. I can hardly wait.

I’m not sure how exactly I’m going to do these two reviews. Longenecker says the two books complement each other (yay!), so I’m thinking about reading the two books together, and posting a review of a chapter from both books each weeks. But that also sounds insanely ambitious, so I’ll probably end up reviewing them consecutively. 

But the reviews are coming soon. Be ready!

The Questions Regnerus Didn’t Ask


You may have heard about this: Mark Regnerus is pushing research that suggests Christian supporters of gay marriage are, well, a bunch of morally degenerate libertines. At least that’s what it will signal to the audience of The Public Discourse, where he posted it.

Now, Regnerus’ work is entirely unbelievable and unworthy of serious consideration, but his post is worth responding to because it connects to conversations going on around the internet these days: notably, in some of Damon Linker’s recent posts at The Week and, earlier, in Rod Dreher’s insistence that “traditional” Christians can be separated from “modern” Christians solely on matters of sex. Part of Dreher’s argument is that the modernists have been “conquered” by the Sexual Revolution. So there’s an undercurrent there suggesting that “modern” Christians aren’t real Christians, that they’ve given in to secular norms and betrayed “what nearly all Christians for over 19 centuries believed.”

That’s a flawed understanding since, as Linker points out elsewhere, “modernity” as we know it was shaped by Christianity. And, conversely, there’s nothing specifically Christian about the “traditional” understanding of sex, which, at least on the matter of homosexuality, has a lot in common with the beliefs of “traditional” Muslims, and Jews, and even the atheistic regime of Soviet Russia. But that’s a topic for another post.

Back to Regnerus. To summarize, Regnerus asked churchgoing Christians how strongly they agreed with a series of statements, and then compared the answers of Christians who support gay marriage with those of Christians who oppose gay marriage. The statements were:

1. Viewing pornographic material is OK.

2. It is a good idea for couples considering marriage to live together in order to decide whether or not they get along well enough to be married to one another.

3. It is OK for two people to get together for sex and not necessarily expect anything further.

4. If a couple has children, they should stay married unless there is physical or emotional abuse.

5. It is sometimes permissible for a married person to have sex with someone other than his/her spouse.

6. It is OK for three or more consenting adults to live together in a sexual/romantic relationship.

7. I support abortion rights.

Regnerus found that Christians who support gay marriage were far likelier to say viewing porn, cohabitation, divorce, no-strings sex, infidelity, and polyamory are OK, and to say that they support abortion rights. In fact, on those questions, Regnerus concluded that pro-SSM Christians “look very much like the country as a whole—the population average.”

But there are problems.*

For example, Regnerus concedes: “There is more to sexual and relationship morality than just these seven items.”

No kidding.

All of the items he chose reflect an unstated premise: that support for same-sex marriage is all about sexual license, about dispensing with sexual rules. Conveniently, Regnerus’ data seems to confirm that premise.

Of course, I would say that support for SSM comes from a very Christian understanding of equality and the inherent dignity of human beings, and that what may come off as “anything goes” really comes from an understanding of the damage that busybodies can cause by giving strangers, in Jim Burroway’s words, “unsolicited edicts in how to order their lives.”

And I can think of a whole different series of questions that would paint both groups of Christians, SSM-supporting and SSM-opposing, in a different light. Like these:

Should a married woman submit to the authority of her husband?

Should a married woman stay home with her kids rather than working full-time?

Is sex a duty that a married woman owes to her husband?

Is rape within a marriage a contradiction in terms?

Does a provocatively dressed woman bear some responsibility if she is sexually assaulted?

Is oral sex between consenting, married adults a sin?

Is contraception a sin?

Should homosexuality be criminalized?

With little effort, I could find a blog post from an opponent of same-sex marriage answering all of those questions in the affirmative. Certainly those views are reflected in our “traditional” social and legal customs, the very ones that “modern” Christians (and secularists) are working to challenge. And while plenty of opponents of SSM don’t hold those positions, I think we all know that those views are more prevalent among opponents of gay marriage than among supporters.

I’m not saying that Regnerus’ questions are bad. They’re worth asking, but so are the questions I brainstormed above. My point is just that Regnerus’ questions reflect an obvious bias. As Bill Lindsey writes, Regnerus’ post is a blatant attempt to say “morality belongs to us. It does not belong to you.”

Or, if he’s really, truly, honestly trying to answer the question What is the sexual and relational morality of Christians who accept same-sex marriage, compared with those who don’t?, then his research is very poorly designed. Again.


*I can’t get to all of the problems in this post. I recommend Jim Burroway’s post on the subject at Box Turtle Bulletin, and Jeremy Hooper’s post at Good As You, and Bill Lindsey’s (linked above).

Three Things for Tuesday or Wednesday

(as usual, I meant to get these out on Sunday)

1. A Happy Return

A couple of weeks ago, I lamented the fact that Casey Fleming had stopped posting her weekly sermons. In her goodbye post last year, she said that in writing the sermons she had come to recognize that she has “the right subject matter, the right form, the right experience, the right motivation” to write a book, and she was going to take time off from her blog to work on that book. I hope that book is coming along well, but I’m also thrilled to say that Casey has resumed her posts, and they’re as good as ever. Do visit nonseculargirl.com every Sunday, or subscribe to the site, so you can get the sermons in your email inbox. You won’t be sorry.

2. Another Happy Return

Bill Lindsey is back from much shorter hiatus, but it must have been a fruitful rest, too. Since returning, Bill has hit all of the notes that make his blog indispensable daily reading: a beautiful meditation on a journey through the Midwest, a scathing call to conscience to those of us with privilege, a touching message of gratitude.

In his first post back, Bill says he’s contemplating writing a book, and he writes about writing as calling (the theme, coincidentally, of Casey’s most recent sermon). He says:

I am called now (including by the comments of so many of you here, which I value very much) to remember in what I write. I am called to write out of remembrance—but out of remembrance as the spiritual act of capturing (better: of pointing at) meaning that goes well beyond what is specifically called to mind by memory.

I am called to write as someone who challenges himself to be spiritually alive, writing what he writes not to please others, with a view to the success of what he writes or even the completion of what he writes. But because he must write. Because the significance to which the remembered events point needs to be captured, even if very imperfectly, in words.

And to be shared, passed on, transmitted.

Also, Bill was also kind enough to share my post on sex and union on his blog, where it generated lots of thoughtful comments.

3. Joan Didion on Marriage

Finally, I recently came across this 2011 conversation in Believer between Sheila Heti and Joan Didion. Whenever two people that smart get together to talk, something interesting is bound to happen. This passage in particular, about marriage and motherhood, caught my attention.

BLVR: I want to ask you about the idea of the “extreme or doomed commitment.” You have a line in The White Album where you say, “I came into adult life equipped with an essentially romantic ethic,” believing “that salvation lay in extreme and doomed commitments.”

JD: Right.

BLVR: I wonder if you consider marriage or motherhood, or even writing—

JD: I did consider marriage and motherhood extreme and doomed commitments. Not out of any experience of them as such, but it was simply the way I looked at things.

BLVR: And having experienced motherhood and marriage, do you still see them as extreme and doomed commitments?

JD: No, I don’t. I mean, not—I don’t. I see them as, well, certainly they were for me a kind of salvation.

In her original formulation, salvation and doom aren’t mutually exclusive—in fact, salvation comes through doom. Remember, Didion’s recent books have included Blue Nights, about her troubled relationship with (and the death of) her daughter, and The Year of Magical Thinking, about the death of her husband. So, in a real sense, for Didion, marriage and motherhood have been extreme and doomed commitments. And yet she doesn’t hesitate to affirm that they’ve meant salvation.

In a weird way, the exchange reminded me of Elizabeth Bruenig’s recent post on tragedy and marriage. Bruenig writes, “[I]f you allow tragedy to guide you to look beyond the meeting of needs, beyond the temporary scarcities and lacks of life on earth, you see that the irresolution of tragedy imagines a looming surprise.”

That surprise, Bruenig says, is salvation.

Of course, Bruenig is responding to a very different subject—specifically, the phenomenon of polyamory and the notion that marriage is supposed to meet every single one of our needs. And Didion probably wouldn’t hold her thoughts to exactly the same Christian meaning that Bruenig does. Still, it’s striking that the two come down in the same place, on the same word. 

Where is the Union in Sex?

It occurs to me that while we talk about sex a lot here, we’ve still got some fundamental gaps in our vocabulary, some essential disagreements that keep us talking past each other. For example, there’s a huge gap between what I mean when I say “union” and what that word means for some other people.

“Union” has long been used as a euphemism, even a synonym for sex. In other words, you don’t achieve union through sex; sex is union. Which is fine. But “sex” is also a big, messy word that (if you’re doing it right) includes lots of different actions and distinct moments.

So within sex, where and when and how does union occur? When we talk about sex, what exactly does union mean?

Here’s one answer, from a commenter in a thread at Leila Miller’s Little Catholic Bubble:

"The bodies become fully united at, well, to be blunt, ejaculation in the vagina, thus fulfilling the necessary requirements to allow the potential of reproduction to take place."

Leila said something similar later in the thread, and that notion clearly underlies a lot of the Catholic Right’s thinking on sexuality. It was used in that thread to argue against the use of condoms; it’s also used to argue that gay marriages are impossible, because in them union is impossible, since two don’t become one in gay sex acts.

To me, that idea is at once too literal and too symbolic. Too literal because it defines union only in the most obvious, most physical way: in the genetic material of two parents coming together to form a child—which remember, doesn’t happen in the vast majority of human sexual encounters. It thus misses the subjective value of sex, the ways that everything besides the male orgasm brings a couple together.

Too symbolic because it doesn’t explain how union happens, especially when no child comes from the encounter. I mean, what happens: the semen comes out, and magically, the couple is united? This is the idea that Bill Lindsey calls the “union-cementing function” of semen, which he describes as “bogus natural law propped up by ludicrous science posturing as religious conviction and profound, serious moral insight.

In fact, this definition, traditional though it may be, takes all of the meaning out of the word union. Think about it: it means that one-night stands are union, and inconsiderate sex from which only the man gets pleasure is union. It means that a woman’s pleasure, while nice, is not necessary for union. Chillingly, it means that rape is union. And it means that a loving, married couple having a transformative bonding experience is not union, if the man is wearing a condom. Leila says as much, writing, “There is no ‘one flesh’ union, no real intimacy, when the people uniting have placed a physical barrier between them!” And later, she says:

“[S]ex is about full union with another, becoming one flesh. It’s the closest we can get to another human being on this earth (and I’m talking conjugal union, not any type of sodomy). It is the mechanism that is so life-giving, so profound, that it brings new human beings into existence. To put a barrier between two people when they are ‘speaking the language’ of total union, is to lie. One does not make love by gearing up as if one is going to battle. It’s a contradiction. Using a condom in lovemaking is a contradiction.”

Those claims are absurd for anyone who has had unifying sex while wearing a condom.

Robert George at least tries to explain how union happens with ejaculation. He locates union in the idea that, in heterosexual sex, the two bodies are (together) trying to produce a baby. Granted, that is a form of togetherness. But he’s bedeviled by the fact that the female body actually isn’t “trying” to produce a baby in most sexual encounters. A woman is only fertile for a few days of each month, and even then only as long as she’s not pregnant, breastfeeding, or past menopause. And humans have sex during all of those times—much more so than animals with a marked estrus, or heat, period. So while it might make sense to say that for cows or dogs or horses sex “means” reproduction, that’s not the case with humans. We’re built differently. 

What’s more, as Rob Tisinai outlines here, George is still defining union as dependent solely upon “what is happening between their bodies,” which, George says, is independent of any psychological factors, such as the couple’s thoughts and goals. So his definition of “union” still includes rape.   

Now, I want to be clear: I’m not saying the Catholic Right, represented by the above commenters, is opposed to women’s pleasure—or still less, tolerating rape. I know that John Paul II said that, from an “altruistic standpoint,” men have a responsibility to bring their wives to climax. And he’s serious about that. But I do think that any understanding of sex that starts with the idea that union equals ejaculation-into-a-vagina is wrong right off the bat.

Which leaves the question: what is union in sex? Where and how does it happen?

I would say that it’s in the responsiveness of two bodies moving together—most of all, in the way that one partner’s arousal arouses the other partner and one partner’s pleasure pleases the other. That’s union. That’s two becoming one. Literally. Though it has a subjective dimension, it’s also objective, in that it writes itself on the body. It can be transitory, but it is real and, like grace, it can be transformative, too.

In “The Body’s Grace,” Rowan Williams writes:

To desire my joy is to desire the joy of the one I desire: my search for enjoyment through the bodily presence of another is a longing to be enjoyed in my body. As Blake put it, sexual partners “admire” in each other “the lineaments of gratified desire.” We are pleased because we are pleasing.

Good sex embodies this mutuality. In good sex, desire, arousal, pleasure, and even climax are all reciprocal—by feeling those things, you inspire them in your partner. By inspiring them in your partner, you feel them in yourself. Again, that’s union. And this understanding of word, it seems to me, better clarifies what happens in sex, and why it’s good, and why we can talk about it as pointing to God’s presence in the world.

Marriage is a Natural Institution: Just ask Charity and Sylvia


"If I were permitted to draw aside the veil of private life, I would briefly give you the singular, and to me most interesting history of two maiden ladies who dwell in this valley. I would tell you how, in their youthful days, they took each other as companions for life, and how this union, no less sacred to them than the tie of marriage, has subsisted, in uninterrupted harmony, for forty years, during which they have shared each other’s occupations and pleasures and works of charity while in health, and watched over each other tenderly in sicknesss; for sickness has made long and frequent visits to their dwelling. I could tell you how they slept on the same pillow and had a common purse, and adopted each other’s relations, and how one of them, more enterprising and spirited in her temper than the other, might be said to represent the male head of the family, and took upon herself their transactions with the world without, until at length her health failed, and she was tended by her gentle companion, as a fond wife attends her invalid husband. I would tell you of their dwelling, encircled with roses, which now in the days of their broken health, bloom wild without their tendance, and I would speak of the friendly attentions which their neighbors, people of kind hearts and simple manners, seem to take pleasure in bestowing upon them, but I have already said more than I fear they will forgive me for, if this should ever meet their eyes, and I must leave the subject."

—William Cullen Bryant, Letters of a Traveller (1850)

The next book up on my Kindle is Rachel Hope Cleves’ Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America, about the 40-plus year shared life of two women in rural Vermont in the first half of the nineteenth century.  Laura Miller reviewed the book here; Rebecca Onion interviewed Cleves here.

Jim Burroway regularly includes, in Box Turtle Bulletin's “Daily Agenda” feature, stories of gay marriages that made it into the historical record. Their situations vary—sometimes, as in this story, one partner lived as the opposite gender. Sometimes these marriages were secretive, sometimes they were acknowledged by a small circle, like the gay or bohemian or exile community in which the couple lived. Burroway often highlights relatively unknown couples that appear in newspaper articles as novelties or anomalies, but of course there were more prominent examples, and anyone who spends any time in the literature of the past is going to come across a gay marriage. There’s Allen Ginsburg and Peter Orlovsky; there’s Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, whose marriage was even acknowledged (with a bit of a smirk) by Hemingway in A Moveable Feast.
Then there are “Boston marriages,” so-named after characters in Henry James The Bostonians, reputedly based on a relationship of the author’s sister.

What makes Charity and Sylvia distinctive is that their marriage was recognized in some measure by their wider community. In fact, Miller describes Cleves’ book as “a story of the love between those two women and their town,” in which the couple was an “integral and beloved fixture.” As Cleves documents, one local memoirist said that “in town he always heard it mentioned as if Miss Bryant and Miss Drake were married to each other.” And the women’s families seemed to respect their relationship as a marriage, too: Charity’s sister-in-law wrote the women, “I consider you both one as man and wife are one,” and Sylvia’s brother told Charity that “I consider you and my Sister Sylvia Happely one.”

One of the tropes you see a lot when you read anti-gay marriage arguments goes like this: the state can’t redefine marriage because marriage is a timeless institution, one that predates the state itself. For example, here’s Ryan T. Anderson, writing last year: “The government does not create marriage. Marriage is a natural institution that predates government. Society as a whole, not merely any given set of spouses, benefits from marriage.”

You know what? That’s one talking point with which I agree.* The state doesn’t determine what is truly a marriage and what is not. The state merely tries (hopefully tries its best) to recognize marriage as it exists.

But that’s not an argument against gay marriage, because, by that standard, gay marriage has always existed, too. In fact, Cleves’ and Burroway’s documentation shows that it’s actually a pretty good argument in favor of gay marriage.

Anyway, I’m very much looking forward to Cleves’ book, which you can order from Book People here.


*Obviously, I disagree with Anderson’s next sentence: “This is because marriage helps to channel procreative love into a stable institution that provides for the orderly bearing and rearing of the next generation.” But that’s a topic for another post. Actually, many many other posts.

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies (an Index)

Earlier this summer, I wrote a series of posts in response to a conversation on a Catholic blog in which the Episcopal Church was described as “completely out of control and untethered to anything but the winds of the age.”

I’ve been meaning to get all of those posts together, along with the footnotes and comments they generated. So here’s an index. Read through if you’re curious about what connects Pope Francis, Susan Sontag, and Freddie King:

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 1

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 2

The Episcopal Church: All Apologies, pt. 3

Footnote to Part 1

Footnotes to Part 2

Anonymous Comment Following Part 1

(not so) Anonymous Comment Following Part 2

Also note that, while commenting is hard to do on Tumblr, I run a mirror version of this site at wordpress, and these posts generated some good insights over there from Michael Boyle and emmasrandomthoughts.

Procreation is the Sole Purpose of Marriage? Yeah, Right.

A funny exchange happened today on twitter between Rob Tisinai and a guy with the handle SoCalCMH. It started with Tisinai’s response to a Ryan T. Anderson tweet, and was going down the normal tortured path of every gay marriage argument, until Tisinai pulled out one of my favorite legal facts:

Read More

One More Round with Douglas Allen and Le Fou du Roi


[Today is Jennifer Lopez’s birthday. She’s now elderly, according to Douglas Allen.]

In case you missed it, last week Le Fou du Roi posted a response to my reading (part 1 & part 2) of Douglas Allen’s “Economic Assessment of Same-Sex Marriage Laws” (2006). I’m very late in responding and I already owed Le Fou du Roi a response to his challenging answer to my post on Dostoevsky and Randall Smith, but here goes.

Taking his posts in tandem (along with the two Allen articles he’s posted) and reading back through what I’ve already written, I’m happy to let the conversation stand where it is now. I think (at least) my key point holds up: Le Fou du Roi and Allen predict negative societal consequences from gay marriage, but still don’t show how those things will come to pass. In his last post, Le Fou du Roi linked a second article by Allen, from 2010, in which the economist argues that his 2006 predictions are already coming true. Specifically, he points to several court cases involving gay couples, custody, and parenting rights, and says that cases like those are changing marriage for the worse. But the examples he uses a) still require a logical leap to the “negative feedback loop” he foresees, in which marriage rates drop and divorce rates rise; b) come almost entirely from places without legalized gay marriage; and c) reflect challenges that have been or could be brought by straight couples, especially ones that use artificial reproduction technology. In fact, the quotation that Allen provides from one of these court decisions reads: In this era of evolving reproductive technology and intent based parenthood, our laws must acknowledge these realities and not simply cling to genetic connections as preconditions to being placed on a birth certificate.” [emphasis added] (1067). 

I do want to address one more aspect of Le Fou du Roi’s last post. In my post, I wrote that “we have a fuller understanding of the goods of marriage than Allen displays in his writings” and that Allen and many gay marriage opponents need to think harder about the questions What is marriage? and What is the purpose of marriage?

Le Fou du Roi responded “It’s difficult not to read into this, however, the tacit codicil ‘until you arrive at an answer conducive to the endorsement of genderless marriage.’” 

The implication is that my reasoning is a post-hoc rationalization meant to justify what I already believe. Which, ironically, is more or less what I think Allen’s doing. Allen presents his system as objective, but his methodology stacks the deck against gay marriage at just about every opportunity.

Here are three examples, from the 2010 article that Le Fou du Roi linked, “Who Should Be Allowed Into the Marriage Franchise?”:

1. As I wrote, one of the most obvious analogies for gay marriage is marriage between elderly individuals: both types of pairings are incapable of procreating, and both types go into marriage knowing that. But since we allow elderly marriages, and most of us even celebrate them, Allen doesn’t want us to make that comparison. Instead, he wants us to see gay marriage as more akin to incest and polygamy, two types of union that, on the surface, have little in common with gay couplings—but do have the benefit (for Allen) of being both unpopular and illegal.

And, lo and behold, Allen tells us that using his objective system he has determined that the costs and benefits of gay marriage are most similar to those of incest and polygamy.

Why not elderly marriage?

Well, he tells us, the exclusion costs of elderly marriage are higher, because “Like the infertile couple, it is difficult to identify all elderly couples ex ante” (1057).

Wait, what? You’re probably thinking. I’ve never had trouble identifying elderly couples. Plus, don’t we all have birth certificates?


[You sneaky devils. I see you!]

Ah, but as Allen goes on, we learn that by “elderly” he means anyone who might possibly be past child-bearing age, which differs depending on the individual: “It is easy to identify two octogenarians at the local senior center as elderly, but not so easy to identify the marginal elderly couple, who are perhaps in their forties.” And on page 1060 Allen tells us what age he’s using as his cutoff to define elderly:


Yes, 45.

No, really. 45.


Now you see why I’ve taken so long to write this post. Obviously, reading that precipitated a massive existential crisis. I’m only 10 years away from old age! What have I done with my life?

In all seriousness, if Allen is worried about identifying couples on the margins of elderliness, all he has to do is move the cutoff past those margins. It’s true, 46-year-olds might still be thinking about the possibility of kids when they marry, but 80-year-olds aren’t. So make the cutoff 80. Or 75. Or even 65.* Logistically, nothing could be easier than forbidding from marriage couples in which both individuals are past a given age. Of course, that would be an unjust and unpopular law, and Le Fou du Roi says that it would cause considerable constitutional problems. But that’s the whole point.**

In any case, the “exclusion costs” Allen finds for elderly couples, at least the ones that differ from gay couples, are just a function of his idiosyncratic definition of “elderly.”

2. It’s also surprising how little consideration Allen gives to the possible benefit that gay couples might provide by adopting and raising kids that otherwise wouldn’t have two parents. In one sentence in a footnote on page 1065, Allen concedes, “Raising these children may be a social benefit if the children perform better than in single households or the same as in heterosexual households” (n 73).

Well, as everyone reading this probably knows, the consensus is that children raised by gay couples do perform better than in single households and the same as in heterosexual households. Now, I’m not new to these conversations. I would absolutely expect Allen to dispute that consensus. But he doesn’t even address it. He acts like it doesn’t exist, like the issue of how gays are doing at raising kids is a novel question and hey, maybe somebody should look into it?

3.This is sort of a pattern with Allen. He’s thought of lots of ways that gay marriage could semi-conceivably harm society, but he doesn’t even pay lip service to some ways gay marriage might bring benefits, not even to argue why they should be dismissed.

One more example: as Le Fou du Roi points out, Allen’s “inclusion costs” depend heavily on the notion of a negative feedback loop, by which the changes that gay marriage will bring will, theoretically, make the institution less attractive to straight couples. Of course, the feedback loop could also work in the opposite direction: it’s totally plausible that gay marriages could increase the social capital of the institution, creating a positive feedback loop and making marriage more attractive to the general population. Jonathan Rauch has been making this argument for years, and it goes like this:

One way to [encourage marriage] is to signal, legally and culturally, that marriage is not just one of many interchangeable “lifestyles,” but the gold standard for committed relationships. For generations, both law and culture signaled that marriage is the ultimate commitment, uniquely binding and uniquely honored; that everyone could and should aspire to marry; and that marriage is especially important for couples with children. Same-sex marriage may be the first opportunity the country has had in decades to climb back up the slippery slope and say, quite dramatically, that marriage—not co-habitation, not partnership, not civil union, but marriage—is society’s first choice. An American gay couple in their eighties got married in Canada in 2003 after 58 years together. Asked why they bothered, one of them replied, “The maximum is getting married.” That is a good pro-marriage signal to send.

If you take this view of the cultural message of same-sex marriage, then there may be significant benefits for children, gay and straight alike. Gay children, of course, benefit directly from knowing that their future holds the prospect of marriage, with all the blessings that go with it. Straight children benefit when they look all around and see marriage as the norm. If a child sees that Mr. and Mrs. Smith, the neighbors to the left, are married, and that Mrs. and Mrs. Jones, the neighbors to the right, are married—that sends a positive and reassuring message to children about both the importance of marriage and the stability of their community. Every marriage signals the cultural primacy of marriage and adds to the social capital available to adults and children.

This type of thinking has (at least partly) motivated some high-profile conversions on the issue, like those of David Blankenhorn, who testified against gay marriage in California in 2010, but began supporting it in 2012, and Catholic writer Jody Bottum. Bottum wrote last year:

In fact, same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in chastity in a culture that has lost much sense of chastity. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in love in a civilization that no longer seems to know what love is for. Same-sex marriage might prove a small advance in the coherence of family life in a society in which the family is dissolving.

What does Allen think of this reasoning? I don’t know, and I’ve now read about 70 pages of his writing. Despite the fact that he quotes Rauch in his 2006 article, Allen gives no indication that he’s considered the point.

This is what I mean when I say that Allen needs to think harder about the goods and purpose and definition of marriage. It’s not just that he disagrees with me. It’s that I don’t see him grappling with all of the facets of these questions.

However, that’s not an accusation I could make about Le Fou du Roi. I know I’ve left some of his points unanswered, but I appreciate his willingness to engage, and his honesty and thoughtfulness in doing so. Le Fou du Roi says he’s enjoyed this exchange, and I have, too.



*Allen writes, “Hundreds of women in their fifties now give birth each year, and in 2008, a seventy-year-old woman in India gave birth to twins.” He appears to be referring to Omkari Panwar, who may have actually been 72 when she gave birth. Two things to note about that point, though: first, Panwar, like virtually every woman whom I could find documented as giving birth over 65, used artificial reproductive technology to conceive. In fact, most women giving birth after 65 used donor eggs (and often donor sperm), creating the very same third-party parenting problems that Allen worries about with gay couples.

Second, if the purpose of marriage is to bind mothers and fathers to their biological offspring for life, then extremely aged parents present another problem: it’s highly likely that one or both parents will pass away before their children reach adulthood. In other words, even if elderly marriages are fertile, it’s still debatable whether they fulfill what gay marriage opponents say is the essential public purpose of the institution.

Also, in his response to me, Le Fou du Roi brought up the biblical stories of Sarah and Elizabeth. My snappy response: Sarah and Abraham had the same father. I’ll consider her as a counter-example when someone like Allen includes her in his cost/benefit analysis for allowing incestuous unions.

**I’m no legal expert; Le Fou du Roi is. I’m not sure, in constitutional terms, why citing procreation as the purpose of marriage justifies the exclusion of gay couples from the institution, but not the exclusion of extremely elderly couples. I welcome his input on that question.


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.”