Thursday, February 28, 2013

Natural Law and Same-sex Marriage

Douglas Wilson and Andrew Sullivan had a debate on gay marriage last night. I assume that video and audio will be coming soon. I disagree with central aspects of Peter Leithart's take on it, even without having seen the debate yet. Primarily I disagree with Leithart's bizarre assertion that "the only arguments [Christians] have are theological ones." What is Marriage by Robert P. George and friends is sufficient on its own to put that notion to bed.

Given a previous and subsequent post, it's clear Leithart has David Bentley Hart's most recent piece -- on the futility of natural law arguments in the public square -- in the front of his mind, here. Which would be fine, except Leithart seems to be taking Hart's perfectly cogent argument and distorting it for strange ends. When two parties share basic metaphysical assumptions (as Wilson and Sullivan do, putatively), Hart's argument is largely inapplicable to that particular situation. Hart never suggests that natural law reasoning can claim no valid purchase between and among fellow Christians, who are committed to certain shared assumptions and principles. His point is about the inability of natural law reasoning to cut across -- and demand fealty from -- those who operate outside those fundamental presuppositions. This in addition to the idea that such arguments -- even if they may be valid in individual circumstances, as here -- when their total force is pitted against certain monstrous cultural currents, they will prove ultimately impotent.

While waiting for the actual debate footage to roll out, I read Douglas Wilson's prepared comments, which seem pretty devastating for Sullivan. Though George and friends are more precise, and though they marshal a wider array of strong arguments, Doug's rhetorical flair serves him well here. Both George and Wilson contend that marriage revisionists (or SSM advocates) are left with no cogent grounds for rejecting polygamy, given their stated case in favor of SSM. That Sullivan believes “monogamy is central to all marriage”, and yet is indignant that others believe the same about sexual complementarity, is stunning hypocrisy and utterly arbitrary. “My arbitrary discrimination against consenting adults who are in love and who want to get 'married' is OK, but yours isn't!” This is Andrew Sullivan. And Wilson teases this hypocrisy out brilliantly.

Polygamy actually has a much more robust track record of being accepted and codified by many societies throughout history, so it's much more difficult to make the case -- from a detached anthropological vantage -- that monogamy is inherent to what marriage is than it is for sexual complementarity. And the Biblical record (taken apart from Holy Tradition, which neither party here has high regard for) is infinitely more amenable to polygamy than it is to homosexual marriage. (Although, with the light of the Church, both are equally out of bounds.)

With that said, this only shows that Andrew Sullivan and most marriage revisionists are inconsistent in their reasoning and application of their principles. This doesn't cut to the heart of the matter, like What is Marriage? does. WIM goes on to deal with the consistent, principled libertarian who says "yes, polygamy is fine too", or "get the state out of marriage altogether" and shows why they're wrong as well. Such is the nature of live debates, I suppose. That is: relatively limited and inadequate. Still, I'm glad the issue is being debated seriously in public forums by personalities of stature.


  1. I hadnt been aware of the debate that you haven't seen yet, but I'm glad to see some of your analysis of DBH's article on natural law. I hope you give us a fuller treatment soon. I haven't done justice to the article yet in my reading, nor to some of the chatter in response to it. But did you see Mr Snell's all-out against Hart at I read a few paragraphs of his first swing at Hart and had this sinking sense that snell Was out to lunch. But since I haven't read well any of the articles, I may well be further out on the lunch spectrum than anyone.
    Hey, I'm enjoying your posts about your journey East. I'm not there at all, but I how

    1. I wonder how the East finds ways to laud the work of aggression in war and politics? I guess this is a thoroughly incomplete comment, and I'm texting from the work truck, but God is love and Jesus calls people to "resist no evil"

    2. (your combox is acting strange=disjointed comment) so, god isn't so much punitive over sin but rather triumphant over death through death, why doesn't that translate into a doctrine of discieship where men also triumph over sin an death, in Christ's footsteps, by not being punitive over sin (via war and law) but simply bear the wrong, just like Jesus did? Well, it's almost lunch break, so fairer climes are calling.....

    3. Hey Ben. Thanks for commenting. Yeah, I read Snell's pieces at Public Discourse (I like the work they do) and I agree with your preliminary assessment. He doesn't really get Hart's argument and is mostly talking past it. Like Leithart, he seems to be taking Hart's argument to be more expansive than it actually is.

    4. As for your comments on the East's view of war and politics, I'm not too well-versed on the issue. My own view is that while Christians are called to do those things (i.e. humbly submit and suffer in order to conquer sin and death through the power of the cross) in our own lives, governments wield the sword for a reason and is ordained to do so by God. This of course doesn't mean any actions they take are just, or that wars of aggression are cool or anything, but governments are not individuals and shouldn't be approached as if there is no difference.