Saturday, April 01, 2006

Simulated Authenticity on Beale Street

I am in Memphis for a workshop, staying a block from Beale Street. There are crowds and music and lots of "Big Ass Cups of Beer." But Beale Street is no longer a commercial part of black Memphis, a vibrant row of honkytonks playing popular music. It is now a cleaned up, safe, three-block theme park which pays homage to black popular music and life of two generations ago. The clubs are named for B.B. King and W.C. Handy and, somewhat incongruously, Elvis Presley and Isaac Hayes. But the music is fossilized, or regular white rock of today. It is not bad, it is just bourgeoisified.

A symbol of what Beale Street is now is that one block south, looming over the backs of the blues clubs, is the new FedEx Forum, Memphis' downtown domed arena. FedEx and Beale Street represent different eras of culture, commerce, and race relations. Now, through the genius of capitalism (which I praise and do not slight), both are brought together to provide seemingly dangerous, but actually safe and clean, entertainment.

I think I may go to the Starbucks, which is not a simulated anything, but a genuine Starbucks.

Friday, March 31, 2006

"Gay Parent" Research Full of Holes

Maggie Gallagher's Meaning of Marriage essay points out that in all but one of the subfields of research on parenting, there is a growing scholarly consensus that kids benefit most when they are raised by their own married father and mother. The one genre of parenting research that says otherwise is the research on homosexual parents.

The big claim made about the homosexual parenting research is that kids do just fine when raised by homosexual parents and same-sex couples. However, Gallagher cites Steven Nock's comprehensive review of the literature, which concludes that "all of the articles I reviewed contained at least one fatal flaw of design or execution."

One big hole in the whole body of gay parenting studies is that none (or maybe one) uses a nationally representative sample – a norm in family studies otherwise. Another big hole is that most of the gay parenting studies have been done by psychologists looking at gender identity and self esteem – important questions, but not like the range of economic, medical, academic, criminal, attitudinal, and behavioral measures that social science routinely asks about families. The psychological studies have found that children of homosexual parents are no more likely to be homosexual themselves than are other kids. It is a long way from that finding, though, to a conclusion that children of homosexual parents are no different from other kids across the board.

Lately, the major policy concern has been about same-sex marriage. The "no difference in the kids" claim has been applied to this debate, too. Yet one of Nock's important findings was that the vast majority of the studies of homosexual parents have been about lesbian single mothers. It is not so surprising that the children of homosexual single mothers are not that different from the children of heterosexual single mothers. But that is a long way from showing that the children of same-sex couples turn out the same as the children of their own married parents.

Gallagher can not answer the big question – do children of same-sex couples turn out the same as children of their married parents? – because there is almost no research on same-sex couples raising kids over time. And obviously, since the possibility of same-sex marriage has only existed for a few years anywhere, there is no research on the effect of same-sex married couples on their kids.

Gallagher expects that when such research is done, children of their own married parents will still do better. She thinks this because two biological parents still invest more in their own kids than one parent and a step-parent. Moreover, men and women, as a rule, are different, and children generally benefit from having both kinds of parents. Those lesbians couples which have done the best in raising boys, which I wrote about earlier, went out of their way to involve men as role models in their sons' lives.

Few researchers expect that same-sex couples will turn out to be bad parents. But it is very premature to conclude that their kids turn out the same in all respects as children of married parents.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Faith Through Marriage

Seana Sugrue, in the Meaning of Marriage essay that I wrote about yesterday, also makes this interesting claim:

"the tenets of religious faith are primarily transmitted through conjugal society."

She brings this up to further her argument that if marriage comes to be defined and controlled by the state, not only will the family lose freedom, but religion will be undermined, too.

What interests me today, though, is the claim itself that faith is primarily transmitted through the family. I can see this for the rich way of life that is Catholicism, which Sugrue, an Ave Maria University professor, represents. I can see it being doubly true for Judaism. Islam works pretty well as a family-taught faith. And all the Eastern religions, as everyday religious practices, are primarily taught in families, since they are not really congregational religions at all.

The exception is Protestantism. Over time, all Protestant denominations tend to become family traditions. The everyday practice of the faith at home makes a huge difference in what the children will actually do and believe. And the family that prays together is more likely to stay together. But the more sectarian the Prots, the more the faith is transmitted in the church (or parachurch). Faiths which are based on adult converts are not primarily transmitted in conjugal society – not to the adults, and not very successfully to their children.

Now, this may be a weakness of Protestantism – something that some Catholics I know have always suspected about the "sects." On the other hand, Protestantism made the modern world, and fits into the modern world so well, because it is at heart an individually chosen or re-chosen faith. The priesthood of all believers undermines the religious significance of the family just as state control of marriage does. This creates a sociological weakness for Protestant culture, which is always in danger of dying off when it stops evangelizing. But the priesthood of all believers – not of all marriages of believers, or of all families of believers – is at the heart of the culture-shaping power of Protestantism to change lives.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Marriage is Not a Creation of the State (and We Should Keep it That Way)

Political scientist Seana Sugrue, in The Meaning of Marriage, starts with the ancient view that the family is pre-political. Marriage and childrearing are not creations of the state, but precede it. Marriage is not a contract created by the market, but precedes it. Having children, she argues, raises marriage above any possibility of being a mere contract to a sacred duty.

Sugrue has this wonderful sentence: "the sexual revolution is to the family what communism is to the market." In the case of the sexual revolution, the state was employed to dismantle the family in the name of greater individual control. Communism, on the other hand, used the state to dismantle the market in the name of greater social control. Both cases, though, ended up making the state more powerful over the institution it was "reforming." The sexual revolution did not just liberate individuals from the family – it left the state in control of defining the family.

Which is why Sugrue argues that establishing legal same-sex marriage would diminish liberty.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

The Law is a Teacher

Yesterday I considered Robby George's argument that marriage is a unitive act of complementary persons. I agree with him. Other strategic minorities in industrial societies do not agree with him. They want the state to extend the definition of marriage to same-sex couples, and beyond that, to any close relation, whether it joins the same kind of persons, or could produce children, or is meant to be permanent, or has any limits on how many can play.

Given this deep disagreement about the nature of marriage, some reach for the sectarian solution – the state can call anything it wants a "marriage," but as for me and my house, we will stick with the traditional understanding. And the devil take the hindmost in the culture.

Churches, in contrast to sects, do not and cannot take that approach. George is a Roman Catholic, of the churchiest of churches. They know, as George writes in the essay in question, "the law is a teacher." Committed conservatives will stick to traditional marriage no matter what the law allows. Committed liberals will allow and experiment with every possible combination that nature and custom make possible. For the majority in the middle, though, what the law supports and allows does instruct our sense of right and wrong.

The Presbyterian Church is a middle polity, halfway between the centralized, authoritative, state-coordinated church, and the go-our-own-way, the-state-should-leave-us-alone sect. In this country, Presbyterian and Reformed churches have always supported the separation of church and state.

So what is a middle, Presbyterian position on marriage?

First, the church and state should agree on a minimal definition of marriage.

Second, the state should preserve citizens' freedom as much as it can without threatening social order. This means the state can prefer a good form of marriage, while allowing a good-enough form of union. As I have argued before, the social distinction between the good and the good enough is crucial to centrist thought.

Third, the church promotes marriage as the permanent union of one man and one woman in a mutually supportive life that is open to children. That is the best kind of marriage. Not everyone is called to marriage, but all can make a marriage of this kind if they are called to marry.

Fourth, the church supports the state in creating other kinds of civil unions which allow everyone to have someone they can legally bind to for support.

The law is a teacher. It should teach the kind of marriage that is best for society and for most citizens. But the law is also generous, and should tolerate other options if they do not threaten public order.

And that, pretty much, is the position of the Presbyterian Church (USA) today.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Marriage as a Unitive Act of Complementary Persons

We come now to the essay in The Meaning of Marriage of Robert George, co-editor of the book and one of the heavy hitters of Catholic natural law thinking today.

His argument is that men and women are complementary.
Marriage is a unitive act – an act that unites these two complementary persons, making two people into one flesh.
Marriage is a human good even if children do not result, but the act of marriage aims at procreation.
SO acts which unite people who are not complementary types and which could not be procreative are not marriages, whatever else they might be.

George, and Catholic natural law thinkers in general, would make an argument like this even if alternative theories of marriage were not on the table. Since, however, arguments for homosexual marriage are at issue now, he has to argue for an understanding of marriage that includes sterile men and women, but excludes same-sex couples.

The key claim for including sterile couples is that the marital act is "reproductive in type," even though "some other conditions in the agents may prevent procreation from occurring."

The key claim for excluding same-sex couples is that men and women are complementary types of persons, in a way that two men or two women are not.

I strongly believe that men and women as types of persons are designed to be complementary (those of delicate Darwinian sensibilities may substitute "have evolved" for "are designed").

I very much like the formulation that marriage makes two persons one flesh, and that the law does not make people married, but can only recognize one-flesh unions which have been made by other hands.

I do think that the aim, point, intent, designed purpose, and telos of marriage is children. Couples who cannot have children, but are open to them, are really married.

The place at which my Calvinist understanding balks is at the phrase "acts which are reproductive in type." This seems to me to be, to use an old Prot insult, Jesuitical casuistry – a too-neat distinction designed to get to a pre-ordained conclusion.

BUT I don't know what the right alternative is.

I have not written much about same-sex marriage, the issue of the day, because I am stuck on this point.

I would welcome your edifying responses.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Islam's Price for Living in the World: Letting Muslims Convert to Another Faith

The case of Abdul Rahman, the Afghani man threatened with execution for converting to Christianity, highlights one of the crucial distinctions between Islam and every other faith. Every faith has a triumphalist strain, a "we are right and all other must acknowledge it" doctrine. Thinking that we are right is necessary for any faith that believes in truth. But killing other people who disagree is beyond the line of civilization.

Sociologist John Murray Cuddihy, in The Ordeal of Civility and, especially, No Offense, catalogues the ways in which Judaism, Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism had to give up, or at least soft peddle, some doctrine that was too triumphalist for a mixed society. The Chosen People; the Great Commission to evangelize the Jews; No Salvation Outside the Church - each are still official teaching, but all have been put on the shelf so that we may live in peace with one another.

Islam teaches that everyone is really a Muslim, some just don't know it yet. Muslims are forbidden to convert to another faith. Muslim states are the hardest mission fields in the world because of this doctrine, harder even than the communist lands.

Every faith has had to give up on triumphalism in order to live in a civilized world. Islam will have to give this one up, sooner or later.

Sooner, at least in the state law of Afghanistan, would save Abdul Rahman from execution.