Saturday, January 13, 2007

The First American Coffee House Began in a Bookstore

In the 1670s, in Boston, before Paris even had a coffee house.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Marriage is the complementary union of a man and a woman to make and raise children

I made this claim yesterday. It has occasioned some misunderstanding, so let me elaborate.

One misunderstanding is that when I say that marriage entails submission and sacrifice, I am contending that homosexual couples are selfish. I did not mean to suggest that homosexual couples are incapable of submission or sacrifice; I am sure that that happens in many actual homosexual couples. My thought is that the complementarity of man and woman entails (mutual) submission, in a way that the similarity of a same-sex couple does not. Likewise, parenthood entails self-sacrifice, and parenthood is entailed in the social institution of marriage. Some actual marriages don't have children, and some homosexual couples do, and no doubt there are many exemplary marriages and parents contained in those groups. I am talking about is the social ideal, not your relationship or mine.

Another misunderstanding is that when I say that the social purpose of marriage includes children, I am condemning childless marriages. Again, I am talking about the social ideal, the reason that society depends on marriage. All actual marriages, mine included, deviate from this ideal. I do think that marriage as an institution entails children. Children are why complementary couples take the step to become a permanent, faithful, one-flesh unit – that is, become married. Some actual couples do not have children. Society, and the institution of marriage, can live with that. However, if all children were produced without marriage, society would disintegrate. And if no marriages produced children, society would end.

A third misunderstanding is that I am ignoring love as the basis of marriage. I do think that the deepest love among human beings is found between parents and their children, and between husbands and wives. Marriage, though, adds to that love a permanent institution that changes husband and wife into one flesh. This relationship, unique in all social life, has deep consequences for their material lives, as well. Sometimes the feelings of love fluctuate, especially between the husband and wife. The marriage does not need to end, though, if love is at low ebb; rather, the institution of marriage is there to protect the couple from their changing emotions, and especially to protect their children from rash emotional actions that their parents might feel like making.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Why Would Civil Unions Harm Marriage?

I am in favor of civil unions, as I argued two days ago. I favor them despite the fact that I think they will contribute to undermining marriage. I have been asked by some respondents to explain why I think civil unions would harm marriage at all.

Some argue that if I am free to marry, what difference does it make if other people conduct their relations differently? I believe that we should tolerate many different ways of conducting our relationships. But this is not because they don't affect mine.

Marriage is a social institution. It works because society as a whole believes in it, and supports marriage as such. My marriage is not just made by my wife and me, but by the whole society. Marriage is one of the most powerful of social institutions because it has huge social support.

If marriage were treated as just another private contract (as it is in increasing danger of descending to), fewer marriages would be formed, more marriages would fail, and each marriage would be more tenuous because less taken for granted.

Marriage is the complementary union of a man and a woman to make and raise children. This is the social model for marriage, around which all actual marriages are arranged.

Civil unions are, I think, a species of intense friendship between people of the same type. A civil union is designed to benefit the couple. Children may be brought into the union, but they are secondary.

If some people pursue unions with their opposite sex partners to benefit just themselves, with only a secondary consideration for children, this undermines marriage. Not just that marriage, but marriage as an institution.

It is natural in an individualistic culture such as ours to recast social institutions to benefit me, rather than forcing me to discipline and sacrifice myself for others. Even without children, marriage entails the discipline of submission – mutual submission. With children, to that submission must be added self-sacrifice. It is hard for us to sustain this high standard of marriage anyway. We only make the task harder when we add a competing marriage-like relationship that does not entail the same kind of self-sacrifice, and may not even require self-submission.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Married Homosexuals Can Stay That Way

Children do better if their parents stay married. Sometimes a married parent discovers or decides that he or she (more likely he) has a primarily homosexual orientation. Obviously, we are not talking here about people who have an exclusively homosexual orientation, or they wouldn't have gotten married and had kids in the first place. Rather, we are talking about the dilemma of those who feel torn between their love and duty toward their spouse and children, on the one hand, and their newly estimated sexual orientation.

A pastor recently told me of a discussion in his church about homosexuality. The talk was stopped dead by the stories told by two women whose ex-husbands discovered that they were gay. In this pastor's mind, that case settled the issue: gay men can't be married to women, so they should be free to divorce their wives and, if they want to, marry other men. And the same would go for married lesbians.

I think, though, that these sad cases do not settle the issue at all. There are many married men and women with a homosexual orientation, who nonetheless remain effective and contented spouses and parents. This situation is not ideal, but it is good enough. Michele Wolkomir's studies of effective ex-gay ministries found that the men in these groups (her study did not include lesbians) were not trying to change their orientation. Rather, they were getting all kinds of help in disciplining their actions because they loved their wives and children.

I am not saying that married parents who discern their own homosexual desires must stay married, and I am certainly not saying they should be forbidden to divorce. Rather, I have noted that there are success stories and supportive resources for men (and women, though I know this less well) who wish to stay married.

There is a peculiar tendency on the liberal side of the aisle to regard sexual identity as a mere social construction, a "gender," – whereas sexual orientation is imperious biological identity that we must always bow to. This is odd, if not upside down. At the least, I think it would be safer to think of both sex/gender and sexual orientation/preference as composed by both nature and nurture. Personally I think of both of them as 50/50 propositions.

When married parents discern a homosexual orientation in themselves, they are not obliged to drop everything and respond. Married parents have other identities, orientation, preferences, and duties that call at least as forcefully.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Why Civil Unions?

My post of January 5, 2007, " A Free Society Can Accommodate a Homosexual Minority," generated a rich set of comments. One thread asked the important question, why civil unions? Why not same-sex marriage? My answer is a bit different for civil society and for the church.

For both kinds of society, I believe that marriage as an institution is designed to unite the equal and complementary halves of the human species, a man and a woman, to make and rear children. Individual men and women, and individual marriages, approximate this ideal more or less fully. If they do not fully realize the ideal, they are not any lesser morally or ethically. Individual variation is normal and can have many benefits. The social norm of marriage sets a form of what is usually good for society as a whole, a norm around which all the actual marriages vary. A healthy society can tolerate quite a bit of variation, as long as the core is robust.

A free society ought to tolerate quite a bit of variation, for the sake of freedom. Too much variation, and too much freedom, can, of course, destroy society. That is always a risk. But we should err on the side of freedom wherever possible.

I think that our free civil society in the United States should support the social norm of marriage as a man and a woman united to make and rear children. This norm has ample support in our law, history, practice, and popular custom. Indeed, most people think it is the foundational institution of our whole society; I agree.

Some people, for one reason or another, cannot or do not wish to achieve that norm. I believe that our society is free and robust enough to accommodate many of those variations. Celibate people, married couples who cannot have children, even married couples who choose not to have children in the interests of a different social good are all good forms under the umbrella of our traditional standard of marriage. Single parents of many kinds, cohabiting couples, and cohabiting parents are good-enough forms of family life.

I do not see under our Constitution why same-sex couples, with and without children, are not good-enough approximation of marriages to be allowed under our civil law.

I think the term "marriage" means the equal and complementary forms of man and woman. A same-sex couple cannot, therefore, be married. This is the overwhelming sense of our tradition and our popular opinion about what "marriage" means. However, a civil union would give same-sex couples a good-enough legal status that was as close to marriage as the nature of their relationship allows. The countries with the most experience with homosexual civil unions, the Scandinavians, have found that most people – gay and straight -- can accept this approximation. Opinion surveys in the United States suggest that most people could accept a similar accommodation, especially in the younger generations.

I do not think homosexual couples would ever form civil unions at the same rate that straight couples marry. I think same-sex unions would have a higher break-up rate than marriages, in part because same-sex unions are much less likely to have children. Nonetheless, I believe a free society should offer the option to homosexual citizens who desire it. The effects on society of this accommodation would not be large.

The situation in the church is a little different, because, as I have argued earlier, I believe that the Bible does hold that same-sex sexual relations are sinful. I do not see how the church can condone an intentionally sexual relationship between persons of the same sex, even if such a relationship is likely to curb more or worse sins. I believe that the furthest that the church can go down this road is to tolerate same-sex relationships among those who are trying to avoid sex, even though we all sometimes lapse.

I do not relish reaching this conclusion, but I can see no other way around what appears to me to be the clear word and intention of Scripture, and the reality of desiring people in a fallen world.

I further think that the church can support same-sex civil unions, without asking the civil society to make any judgments about the sexual practices therein. The church itself, though, must make judgments about the sexual practices of those very same unions when they involve church members and officers. The church can, without inconsistency, recognize that the standards of the Constitution are not as demanding as those of the Bible. All citizens are entitled to the protection of the Constitution from the state, while all church members are entitled to choose to put themselves under the more stringent rule of the Bible in the church.

Thus, I support same-sex civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Starting the Year With a Bang

I like to start the new year with a bang. This past week's series on a centrist Christian approach to homosexual practice has certainly done that. I am still working through the comments -- I will give a more thoughtful overview tomorrow.

One point has struck me, though: we do not have a good name for a category of moral acts which are discretely tolerated, or formally overlooked, if the actors are making a good faith effort to wrestle with the dilemma. And yet, I think, in dealing with real people, we make such allowances all the time. There is no good way to build this kind of toleration into an ethical principle, because it really is a species of practical judgment in a particular case. Because we have to rely on many actors to make correct practical judgments in cases like this, the issue cannot be settled at the level of ethics.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

The Presbyterian Position is Already a Viable Centrist Position - Almost

The upshot of the argument that I have been making over the past week is nearly identical to what the Presbyterian Church (USA) already teaches and promotes.

The church says that homosexuals are welcome in all offices of the church, and should be protected in civil society.

The church teaches that in God's plan for human beings the gift of sex is only properly expressed in marriage (of a man and a woman). Celibacy is a good though difficult discipline. We all have impulses to sex outside of marriage, including homosexual acts, but they are not part of God's plan for us. We should try to control them, and ask for help to do so. We should repent of our lapses. This applies to everyone, regardless of act or orientation.

The one point not yet clarified is whether it is better to try to curb those impulses within a committed relationship, or whether that is already too much of a structure of temptation. The church has already accepted this kind of unmarried but committed relationship as a good-enough starting point for opposite-sex couples. The issue now is whether it will do so for same-sex couples.


IF conservatives in the church were willing to accept the idea that two people of the same sex in a committed relationship is not ideal, but good enough;


IF liberals in the church were willing to accept that idea that homosexual acts are something to repent of,


The church could have both its people and its standards, and achieve peace, unity, and as much purity as this fallen world allows. On this issue, anyway.