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The Great Gay Marriage Debate: Round Three

What more is there to say in the Great Gay Marriage Debate? (Start here for my first post. Then go here and here for Rod's responses. My rejoinder to Rod can be read here. Andrew Sullivan's intervention can be read here. Finally, Rod replies to both of us here.) I've spent the past few days pondering Rod's claim that I concluded my last post with "a snarky and facile summary" of his views. What I wrote is this:

Summary of debate between Damon Linker and Rod Dreher: 

Linker asks: Why is Rod so troubled by the possibility of homosexuality being accepted?

Dreher answers: Because I believe it's wrong for homosexuality to be accepted.

Am I being snarky and facile? Well, perhaps a bit too clever. But I stand by the basic claim. I'm happy, though, to say a little more about why, not only because it's important that each side of this debate understands where the other side is coming from, but also because I think it's the solemn duty of every self-respecting champion of modernity to take advantage of an opportunity to show that Alasdair "All Our Problems Would Be Solved If We Were All Thomists!" MacIntyre is full of it.  

Let's begin with a recap: Rod opposes gay marriage and thinks it would be a disaster for homosexuality to be accepted in our culture -- or rather, he thinks it will be a disaster, since he concedes that his side is going to lose the argument and that homosexuality will eventually be accepted. This whole debate started with me asking Rod why he holds these views. I asked because I wanted to hear a clear statement of the argument, which was nearly always implied but rarely ever explicitly laid out in his posts on homosexuality.

Rod's first response was to say that he holds his views because Christian scripture and tradition forbid homosexuality. In response, I pointed out that Christian scripture and tradition forbid and command lots of things that contemporary Christians (including orthodox/traditionalist Christians like Rod) ignore, discount, or explain away. In other words, appealing to scripture and tradition is insufficient to answer the question I posed. Rod still needs to provide an argument about why scripture and tradition are right to denounce homosexuality.

What is that argument? Well, first Rod claimed that the acceptance of homosexuality would signal the culmination of the "nihilistic" sexual revolution. I disputed that in my second post, as did Andrew in his. (TNR's Christopher Orr also chimed in with some strong posts of his own here and here.) I have to admit that I consider these arguments to be pretty decisive -- and I see nothing in Rod's subsequent posts (like this one, for example) to dispute them. To be sure, Rod continues to make assertions, but (as far as I can tell) he's stopped talking about, let alone arguing for, his assumptions. In other words, he's taking for granted that it's right to denounce homosexuality instead of explaining why it's right to denounce homosexuality. What follows, then, is my attempt to tease out two of these assumptions and explain why I reject them. That is, I'm going to make Rod's argument for him and then explain why I don't think it's persuasive. If I do a bad job of the first part, I trust Rod will correct me in a later post.

First, Rod seems to hold that homosexuality is contrary to (human) nature. Now, as Andrew and many others have argued, homosexuality is pervasive in nature, so this argument assumes that there is something fundamentally distinctive about human nature that precludes homosexuality. Rod and other social conservatives tend to believe that this human distinctiveness can be traced to God and the transcendent ends he assigns to us -- above all, procreation. In other words, homosexuality is wrong because it's sexual behavior cut off from the possibility of making babies.

Now, critics of this view often dive right into the trenches and start disputing claims: What about sex between sterile heterosexual couples? Is that also contrary to nature? And for that matter, don't fertile heterosexual couples engage in all kinds of sexual activities that don't lead to procreation? Aren't we all sodomists now?

These are valuable objections, but I'm going to side-step them, and not only because they've been made many times before. I'm also going to side-step them because I don't think they go to the heart of the matter. To do that, we need to ask Rod how he knows that God has given humanity the teleological goal of procreation. We've seen that it can't just be because scripture and tradition say so. Perhaps, then, it's based on a revelation? But if so, how can Rod convince those of us who haven't experienced such a revelation that it's wrong to act on homosexual desires? (Contrary to what Rod might think, this isn't an example of an insidious "emotivism" -- MacIntyre's catch-all term for deep moral disagreement in modern America. If one group of citizens base their moral beliefs on a revelation that the rest of their fellow citizens haven't experienced, the problem isn't emotivism. It's revelation.) 

Luckily for Rod, Leon Kass has suggested an answer that doesn't rely on revelation: Rod could say that we can know homosexuality is contrary to (human) nature because many heterosexuals (especially men) find the idea of homosexual intercourse (especially between men) repulsive. This is what Kass has described as "the wisdom of repugnance." Now, to be fair to Kass, he uses this argument to argue against cloning, and I have no idea if he'd endorse its use against homosexuality. But there's no reason why the logic of the position can't be applied in this way, since it's undeniably true that lots of straight people are disgusted by the thought of homosexual acts. And that, following the Kassian logic, can be taken as a sign that such acts are contrary to (human) nature and perhaps also intrinsically wrong.

But as any number of people have argued against Kass, the "yuck" response is an extremely weak basis on which to build an argument about nature because the things that disgust human beings change so much over time, and because such responses are so often wrapped up with ignorance and prejudice. I don't often draw parallels between the push for gay marriage and the earlier movement to overturn anti-miscegenation laws. (Why? Because allowing men and women of different races to marry is a much more minimal departure from received norms than allowing members of the same gender to marry.) But in this matter, the parallel is crucially important. Opponents of interracial dating and marriage no doubt felt profound disgust at the thought of blacks and whites engaging in sexual intercourse; and such responses no doubt convinced many of them that miscegenation was contrary to (human) nature. And yet here we are, a few decades later, and thankfully most of that disgust has disappeared, showing, of course, that it wasn't rooted in (human) nature at all -- except in the sense that it might be natural for human beings to fear change.

And that brings me to what I think is the core of Rod's case against homosexuality. It seems to me that Rod's opposition to gay marriage and social acceptance follows less from an argument or an assertion about the world, nature, or God than it does from a disposition or temperament -- from a disposition or temperament inclined toward fear. (In retrospect, I can see how significant and telling it is that one of the first questions I posed to Rod in my original post was "What are you afraid of?", and that Andrew fastened onto that passage in his initial response and returned to it in the title of his longer post in response to Rod. Fear has been at the center of this debate from the beginning.) 

Rod imagines a future in which homosexuality has been brought completely into the mainstream of American life, and he responds with a shudder. But why? What does he fear?

First, as I noted above, he fears change. This is perhaps the most fundamental characteristic of the conservative temperament. (And that's just one of the reasons why I think Andrew is wrong to insist on calling himself a conservative. But that's a topic for another post.) Rod fears that if our understanding of marriage changes to include homosexual unions, this bedrock institution of civilization will collapse. Pretty soon we'll have polygamy. Then before you know it, I'll be taking my golden retriever to dinner parties and introducing him as my fianc