So I go two days without checking my feed reader and I find a Wendell Berry v. traditional Christians meltdown underway.
“The Bible, as I pointed out to the writers of National Review, has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality,” he said. “If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare — with its inevitable massacre of innocents — as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion.”
“Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so,” he said. “Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses — not all of them together — has made as much political/religious noise as homosexual marriage.”
Another argument used, Berry said, is that homosexuality is “unnatural.”
“If it can be argued that homosexual marriage is not reproductive and is therefore unnatural and should be forbidden on that account, must we not argue that childless marriages are unnatural and should be annulled?” he asked.
“One may find the sexual practices of homosexuals to be unattractive or displeasing and therefore unnatural, but anything that can be done in that line by homosexuals can be done and is done by heterosexuals,” Berry continued. “Do we need a legal remedy for this? Would conservative Christians like a small government bureau to inspect, approve and certify their sexual behavior? Would they like a colorful tattoo verifying government approval on the rumps of lawfully copulating parties? We have the technology, after all, to monitor everybody’s sexual behavior, but so far as I can see so eager an interest in other people’s private intimacy is either prurient or totalitarian or both.”
“The oddest of the strategies to condemn and isolate homosexuals is to propose that homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals,” Berry said. “If this is not industrial capitalist paranoia, it at least follows the pattern of industrial capitalist competitiveness. We must destroy the competition. If somebody else wants what you’ve got, from money to marriage, you must not hesitate to use the government – small of course – to keep them from getting it.”
Berry said “so-called traditional marriage” is “for sure suffering a statistical failure, but this is not the result of a homosexual plot.”
“Heterosexual marriage does not need defending,” Berry said. “It only needs to be practiced, which is pretty hard to do just now.”
“But the difficulty is not assigned to any group of scapegoats,” he said. “It is rooted mainly in the values and priorities of our industrial capitalist system in which every one of us is complicit.”
“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians,” Berry said. “When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”
“Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred,” Berry said. “Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness – as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.”
“Perhaps the most dangerous temptation to Christianity is to get itself officialized in some version by a government, following pretty exactly the pattern the chief priest and his crowd at the trial of Jesus,” Berry said. “For want of a Pilate of their own, some Christians would accept a Constantine or whomever might be the current incarnation of Caesar.”
In case you were wondering, those who defend traditional marriage and oppose same-sex marriage are continuing the tradition of those who slaughtered the Jews and the Native Americans. They’re also perverts who are trying to theocratize America.
According, at least, to Wendell Berry. And no, I’m neither making this up nor exaggerating.
I write this post with deep disappointment. I appreciate Wendell Berry’s literary artistry, and I appreciate his spiritual insights. But he indulged in an epic rant against gay marriage opponents to a gathering of Baptist ministers on January 11th in Kentucky. His comments were relayed by Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press. While Berry repeats uncritically a slew of bumper-sticker arguments and engages in some serious straw-man pyromania, the people in the comments box nonetheless marvel at his genius. This deserves a response.
Bear in mind that I have openly suggested that the time may have come for evangelicals to drop their legal opposition to same-sex marriage, even as they uphold biblical standards for themorality of sex outside of wedlock and thetheology of marriage in the true sense ordained by God. I’ve also been repeatedly critical of the ways in which evangelicals historically have responded to homosexuality, and called for a radical grace and extravagant love shown toward our GLBT neighbors and friends. Also, sincerely, I’m very tired of talking about this. But the constant onslaught of hatred (read the below and tell me that word isn’t justified) for those who affirm traditional biblical sexual ethics and who wish to defend legally the model of marriage instituted by God is so extreme that I find myself compelled time and again to respond.
This will be a long post. But let’s fisk what he has to say:
“My argument, much abbreviated [when he referenced it before], was the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval, and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples,” Berry said.
Fair enough, but defending the traditional definition of marriage has nothing to do with making “the sexual practices of consenting adults” subject to government dis/approval. It has to do with the divine creation of marriage and the family. The overwhelming majority of defenders of traditional marriage in America have no interest, none whatsoever, in outlawing homosexual sex. Many would also be perfectly fine with domestic partnerships that grant “rights, protections and privileges” enjoyed by married couples. But that is not what the advocates of gay marriage are seeking. They are seeking a legal redefinition of marriage — and I think it’s fair to say (though some will deny it) that the movement would also like to see an ethical affirmation that there is nothing morally objectionable with homosexuality.
Dreher’s initial reply:
This is just nuts. It’s ignorant, malicious, one-dimensional crackpottery, ideological hysteria of the sort one never expects from Wendell Berry. It is not remotely serious, and it is not remotely persuasive. Rather, it’s Grampa Simpson standing on the liberal lawn, shouting talking points he read in a Franky Schaeffer essay on HuffPo. It makes Andrew Sullivan in his more emotional moments sound as balanced and avuncular as Alistair Cooke. What a damn shame.
A second reply from Dreher:
Finally, Berry’s business about how Christians don’t oppose divorce, etc., and how the Bible spends more time talking about X than it does about homosexuality — it’s all nonsense. You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting Christians who freely admit that the church has blown it when it came to opposing things it ought to have opposed, either by not standing up to it, or by not standing up effectively. But that is an argument to be more consistent; it is not an argument to quit standing up to anything.
Similarly, there are many things the Bible talks about that we don’t pay sufficient attention to. Berry is so valuable to Christians today in large part because he eloquently and persuasively reminds us that the Biblical ethic for caring for creation requires far more of us than we think. But if Berry condemns us for picking and choosing which parts of the Bible’s moral message we want to follow, he should realize that he himself is doing exactly this on the matter of same-sex marriage.
Anyway, if my child kicks the dog and I admonish him for doing so, would it make much sense for him to say, “Dad, you’ve talked much more to me about other things I do than how I treat the dog. Why are you coming down so hard on me for this?”
I would tell him that it hadn’t really presented itself as an issue before in our household, and besides, I’m telling him it’s wrong to kick the dog because that’s part of the same ethic I’ve told him from the beginning about treating other creatures with kindness and respect.
In that way, I would tell Wendell Berry and those supporting him that Christians spend so much time on same-sex marriage because gay activists have done such a terrific job of putting it on the national agenda and making us face it. If we only started talking about it in the past 20 years, that’s because very few people prior to that took it seriously. And our opposition to gay marriage — that is, the thoughtful opposition — is not strictly and solely based in a few verses in the Bible, but on an entire theology of sexuality, indeed a theology of what it means to be fully human, and what it means to submit to the authority of the God of the Bible. That is to say, opposition to same-sex marriage must be considered within the entire context of the Judeo-Christian moral matrix and tradition.
This is the kind of approach Wendell Berry takes to his writing about the natural world, religion, social ethics, and suchlike. On the issue of same-sex marriage, his gifts and his wisdom have failed him, as has his charity. Perhaps the kinder reaction from Berry followers like me would have been to have done a Shem-and-Japheth. But as someone who has championed Berry’s thought and writing to fellow conservatives — and who still will champion these things — I don’t think I had the liberty of not saying anything out of respect for the great man. Insofar as my charity failed me in my initial response, I apologize.