American Idolatry by Allan Carlson


American Idolatry

Meditations on Same-Sex Marriage

In his 1835 book Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that for Americans, "equality is their idol." Among such a democratic people, he reports, "there are certain epochs at which the passion they entertain for it swells to the height of fury." They prefer equality in freedom, he noted, but if "they cannot obtain that, they still call for equality in slavery." Even barbarism, servitude, and poverty are acceptable offerings to "this irresistible passion."

The same-sex marriage debate might have focused on the purpose of sexuality, or the nature of homosexuality, or the etiology of marriage. Instead, the dominant conversation has been about equality, and the passion generated has been ferocious. Recent polls showing majorities of Americans in favor of this conjugal novelty testify again to Tocqueville's prescient warning.

Morality Redefined

Father John A. Ryan, the early-twentieth-century social ethicist at the Catholic University of America, authored an essay in 1916 on "Family Limitation." Addressed to his fellow priests, the article sought to clarify Catholic teachings on birth control in light of new publicity regarding this practice stirred up by Margaret Sanger. Simple observation, Ryan said, showed that "the generative faculty has as its specific and essential end the procreation of offspring." Consequently, "all positive methods of birth prevention" were "grievous sins," because they violated "the sanctity of nature." As he neatly summarized, "Actions which are in harmony with nature are good; those which are not in harmony with nature are bad."

Several years later, Mrs. Sanger clarified her own views in an article for The American Mercury. Her fundamental goal, she said, was to separate "the ideas of [sexual] love and procreation." Rejecting all talk of "nature," she also neatly summarized her take on moral order: "morality is nothing but the sum total, the net residuum, of social habits, the codification of customs. . . . The only 'immoral' person, in any country, is he who fails to observe the current folkways."

I suspect that neither Fr. Ryan nor Mrs. Sanger ever gave a thought to same-sex marriage. All the same, the latter's basic goal, combined with her definition of morality, opened a clear, compelling path to homosexual wedlock. Put another way, the debate over same-sex marriage is, in an important way, merely a continuation of the modern debate over birth control, begun a century ago. Moreover, since "current folkways" surely include the full normalization—even celebration—of homosexuality, it is also growing ever more clear who now constitute the "immoral."

Eros Returns

"Eros has come alive again." Protestant theologian Carl F. H. Henry offered these words at a 1968 consultation on "The Control of Human Reproduction," sponsored by Christianity Today. At first, I understood this comment as a metaphor that Dr. Henry found useful in helping to justify his newfound sympathy for birth control. As I thought about it more, however, I concluded that this phrase was no mere linguistic device. Rather, I think it was a statement of truth: the Greek god of erotic love has indeed returned.

Eros is a false god, to be sure; nonetheless, he is a real and powerful one, in his own way. His gospel is simple: pursue all forms of sexual pleasure, and allow nothing—not laws, not customs, not prior vows—to stand in the way. Contraception liberates heterosexual trysts from the risks of children; abortion and infanticide clean up the mistakes. Homosexual assignations, free from the perils of fertility, are richer and more complete expressions of sexual passion, deserving of favor.

Margaret Sanger was an early acolyte for Eros, preparing the way for his twentieth-century return. A greater prophet was Hugh Hefner; his playboy philosophy served in practice as a theology for a god seeking to resume his earthly throne.

Eros is also a jealous god. He cannot tolerate the Christian God of self-restraint and natural order. Only one or the other can rule over the emotions of humankind; they are unable to coexist for any length
of time.

Christians have faced this foe before. Nearly two millennia ago, the early followers of Jesus confronted a pagan Roman world where "folkways" included contraception, easy divorce, rampant adultery, abortion, infanticide (particularly of girl babies), and man-boy sex of the Greek sort. These were all signs of the reign of Eros. For their part, the Christians denounced infanticide, abortion, and "Greek love," frowned on divorce and contraceptives, celebrated sexual restraint, and treated marriage as a sacred vow between a man and a woman. Partly for these reasons, they faced periodic and violent persecution.

In the end, though, Eros knew defeat and he disappeared, waiting for a more favorable era. That time, as Dr. Henry seemed to understand, is now. New technologies of reproductive control and new vehicles for prurience (e.g., pornographic films, the internet) give Eros powerful new weapons. Commonly facing only token opposition, he has already gained legal blessings in most Western lands for adultery, fornication, pornography, easy divorce, contraception, abortion, and sodomy. Christian marriage now teeters on the brink of extinction, as well, helped by the Supreme Court decisions in U.S. v. Windsor (challenging the Defense of Marriage Act) and Hollingsworth v. Perry (on Proposition 8, California's marriage amendment). After that is resolved, the new persecution can begin in earnest.

—Allan Carlson, for the editors

Allan C. Carlson is the John Howard Distinguished Senior Fellow at the International Organization for the Family. His most recent book is Family Cycles: Strength, Decline & Renewal in American Domestic Life, 1630-2000 (Transaction, 2016). He and his wife have four grown children and nine grandchildren. A "cradle Lutheran," he worships in a congregation of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. He is a senior editor for Touchstone.

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