Rod Dreher Says Strange Things

Rod Dreher has a very puzzling post about gay marriage. There are some bits I will not engage with — for instance, while believing that gay sex is sinful might be part of Dreher’s religious tradition, I do not think it’s at all integral to the Bible; in fact, I have always thought that one could make a decent case for allowing gay marriage on the basis of Paul’s claim that it is better to marry than to burn.

What interests me more is this:

“If homosexuality is legitimized — as distinct from being tolerated, which I generally support — then it represents the culmination of the sexual revolution, the goal of which was to make individual desire the sole legitimate arbiter in defining sexual truth. It is to lock in, and, on a legal front, to codify, a purely contractual, nihilistic view of human sexuality. I believe this would be a profound distortion of what it means to be fully human. And I fully expect to lose this argument in the main, because even most conservatives today don’t fully grasp how the logic of what we’ve already conceded as a result of being modern leads to this end.”

Let’s start with the “purely contractual, nihilistic view of human sexuality” that is supposed to be the danger here. I take it that there’s nothing wrong with a contractual view of human sexuality — that is, a view according to which sex is only OK if both parties consent. The problem has to be with a purely contractual view, according to which the only question one needs to ask before having sex is: has the other person consented? This is akin to the ‘nihilistic’ part: a nihilistic view of sex would be one according to which you don’t even have to ask about the consent part. Anything — literally anything — goes.

Offhand, there would seem to be lots of ways not to be a nihilist about sex. Sex in some situations, or in some ways, can be cruel: e.g., sex with someone you know is in love with you and with whom you are not the least bit in love. It can be disrespectful, or callous, or mean, or irresponsible. It can show a lack of self-respect — e.g., if you have sex with someone just to get them to stop pestering you to have sex with them. It can be self-destructive or a way of avoiding issues or, well, any number of bad things. Or it can be, so to speak, the wrong good thing, e.g. if you have sex with someone whom no one else wants to have sex with, out of some kind of misplaced compassion. Or it can be wonderful.

Dreher seems to think that if we “legitimize homosexuality”, all the ways in which we might morally criticize or praise sex would go flying out of our heads. The alternative to opposing gay marriage, in his view, seems to be one in which “the only rule guiding people’s sexual behavior is their own desire”. But why on earth should that be true? Why, for instance, would I suddenly find myself unable to figure out what’s wrong with seducing someone else’s partner just to spite that person, or having sex with people just to rack up conquests, or not being able to muster the energy to say no? Why should I suddenly become unable to say: sex is deep magic from before the dawn of time; it is strange and powerful and should not be entered into lightly; but done right, it is one of the most glorious things there is — as opposed to just: I want some?

It would be one thing if Christian morality were the only morality in existence. But it’s not. There are other religions. There are secular moralities. Those of us who are not Christians manage to deploy moral concepts all the time without difficulty. I think that I can coherently say that torture is wrong, that I should not be wholly indifferent to the needs of others, and so forth. Does Dreher think that I am wrong — not just wrong about my specific morality, but wrong to think I can talk coherently about this at all? Or is there something about sex in particular that makes it impossible for non-Christians to make moral judgments? In either case, why?

And what on earth does any of this have to do with gay marriage? Here I’m curious about two things. First, what do one’s views about homosexuality have to do with one’s views about whether or not there is anything to be said about sex other than: I want it or: I don’t? I would have thought that the question: can we make moral judgments about sex? was distinct from the question: is ‘homosexuality is wrong’ one of the moral judgments we ought to make?

Second, supposing (for the sake of argument) that I were to conclude, for some unfathomable reason, that unless I disapprove of homosexuality I cannot make any moral judgments about sex at all, why should I take this to mean that I ought to try to prevent gay men and lesbians from being able to marry? What makes it appropriate for me to try to legislate views about the morality of sex between consenting adults?

Andrew Sullivan makes a good point:

“With Catholics, the obvious counterpoint is civil divorce. Catholics do not recognize such divorces within the church nor the second and third marriages that follow them (leaving aside the rank hypocrisy of the annulment scam). But they are prepared to live in a civil society that allows for it as a civil secular matter, just as they live easily with infertile married couples, or post-menopausal couples getting married. Until Rod explains why homosexuals as such represent a unique threat, even while they make up a tiny section of society, his singling out of gays in order to uphold his views of natural law in the civil law will look and smell like animus, not reason.”

Dreher regards “a commercialized, consumerist, individualized culture that believes in no authority but the desiring individual will” as a threat to himself and his children. It is not clear to me why the sight of two people in love making a public commitment to one another might be thought to strengthen that culture.(Sullivan again: “The culmination of the sexual revolution was at 4 am in the Mineshaft in the late 1970s. It is not the civil marriage of two elderly lesbians in a town hall in California in 2008.”) But if Dreher disagrees, it is a lot to ask of those two people that they give up the chance to marry one another to protect him from that threat.

Far better, I would have thought, to find a way to resist our commercialized, individualist culture on his own, and to bring up his children to have more self-respect than the Lost Children of Rockdale County. If Dreher cannot manage to govern his own life, and to give his children a decent moral compass, without requiring that other people sacrifice their love and their happiness, he has bigger problems than our commercialized culture.