Saturday, November 18, 2006

A Satirist's Dream

Italian comedians are making fun of the Vatican. The Vatican is upset about it. Humorless lay people are threatening to boycott the sponsors of the satirical shows.

It is a satirist's dream. Touchy powerful people are the best gift one could ask for. I hope the Vatican gets so worked up about it that it becomes a story here. It would be great to have Stephen Colbert, conservative Catholic, slyly satirizing the Pope's secretary.

A representative joke:

The Holy Trinity won a free trip and had to decide where to go.
God the Father said he would like to go to Africa,
Jesus to Palestine, and
the Holy Spirit to the Vatican.
Asked why, the Holy Spirit responded: “Because I’ve never been there.”

[Which reminds me of my favorite Pope joke. Jesus calls the Pope on the phone.

Pope: "Jesus, Hallelujah! To what do I owe the honor of this call?"

Jesus: "Well, I've got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that I am back."

Pope: "And the bad news?"

Jesus: "I'm calling from Salt Lake City."]

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Frustrating Necessity of Family Policy

Allan Carlson concludes Conjugal America with a call for governmental "family policy." But he really doesn't want to. He wishes the government would leave the family alone. Since the Enlightenment, though, and especially since the New Deal, the reach of the government is so extensive that it is unrealistic to think the family and the state could leave one another alone. Better, then, to join them than to fight them.

Carlson wants family policy to recognize that the main social purpose of marriage is procreation, not pleasure. The government's main purpose in family policy, therefore, should be to support procreative marriage and to support married parents in raising their children. Everything else is secondary. The state will need to help support children when their parents can't – or at least it should support other institutions that step in the help the kids. And marriage, as a name and legal status, should be preserved for one man/one woman couples, because they could be procreative.

Does Carlson's position rule out homosexual marriage? Yes. Does it rule out homosexual civil unions? Probably not. By the same token, couples that have kids should not be supported by the state as if they were married; instead, they should be encouraged to just go ahead and get married. And any policies which create perverse incentives for parents not to get married should be eliminated.

Carlson has a reputation in liberal circles as a way-out-there conservative. The position that argues for in Conjugal America, though, is actually pretty centrist. It is also quite close to what most Americans seem to support, based on opinion polls and recent votes on marriage amendments. Marriage is for kids. Other relationships can be good enough. But the state should not treat them as the same as marriage, nor is it obliged to consider them just as good for raising kids.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Families are Little Islands of Freedom

Allan Carlson's strongest point in Conjugal America is that families are our best defense against totalitarian projects. He describes the various ways in which the Nazis, and the Maoists, and the Soviets tried to destroy the family, to make each person primarily an instrument of their various totalizing projects. And he does not spare the West's current totalizing project of "militant secular individualism," which he thinks may be the greatest threat of all to dissolve the family. Yet even that danger, he thinks, can be defeated. We are meant for marriage, meant for raising our children together. Some individuals won't and don't, but humanity will.

Carlson does not talk about the other great totalizing project of our day, Islamic fascism. In some ways Islamism, or salafism, is more powerful than the twentieth century's secular and pagan totalitarianisms because it aims to co-opt the family, rather than abolish it. Men and women are enlisted to enforce a strict patriarchy in their own families, as well as on other people's families. When the story of this time in Muslim lands is told there will, no doubt, be many horror stories of men ruling their homes ruthlessly, and, let us not forget, women piously assisting. But I think there will also be many stories of families making their home a safe haven against the various Vice and Virtue police all around them.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Why Society is Interested in Marriage.

When a man and a woman get together, it is not unusual that they would make a baby. Society is interested in marriage to be sure that somebody is taking care of that baby. Otherwise, it becomes our job. Indeed, in most cases where the parents are not married, supporting the kids has become our job, a job that society is not very well equipped to do.

SO, if a man and a woman are going to get together (I am trying to avoid vulgarity here), it is safer for everyone if they get married first.

If they do not, for one reason or another, make a baby, there is no harm done. If they want to be married but don't intend to make babies, or don't even think they can make babies, it is still safer for society and for any surprise children if they get married first. We don't really need to know all the details of what they do together.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Marriage Makes Men and Women More Equal

This week I am working through ideas from, or inspired by, Allan Carlson's Conjugal America. One rich idea is that sexual dimorphism – biologically based difference between male and female – is greatest "when sexual coupling is random or where one male accumulates numerous females" as with other primates. On the other hand, "dimorphism is least when male and female pair off in monogamous bonds."

Carlson cites a study by a Kent State research team led by Phillip Reno. They found evidence that our pre-human ancestors were both pair-bonded and more similar in size and shape than other, non-pairing primates are.

I think that marriage makes for more complementarity and true equality at the social level, too. Among human beings today, subcultures in which monogamy is rare also show the greatest animosity between men and women, and the greatest hierarchy when they do marry. Old marrieds, on the other hand, famously become more of a seamless team – not the same, but working together, equally yoked as one.

Monday, November 13, 2006

The Unwritten Sexual Constitution of Our Civilization

Allan Carlson, one the leading conservative marriage proponents, uses this phrase in his new book, Conjugal America. The foundation of this unwritten constitution, he argues, is procreative marriage. Tying procreation and marriage firmly together is, he argues, the cultural achievement on which the rest of Western civilization rests.

Carlson frames the creation of the unwritten sexual constitution in the chaos at the end of the Roman empire. The ancient Roman republic had had a stern marriage code. By the early years of the church, though, the decadence of empire had eroded that old standard to an "anything goes" sexual culture. Making babies and being married had become disconnected.

In the first centuries of the Christian era, Carlson argues, "the Fathers of the Christian Church crafted a new sexual order." They were arguing not only with pagans, but also with two Gnostic strands within Christianity. The Gnostics thought they had a secret knowledge that set them apart from ordinary people. One Gnostic group took their specialness to mean that no sexual rules applied to them, that gospel freedom meant all sex was fine. The other, more intellectually potent brand of Gnosticism argued that sex and procreation were bad, that living in our material bodies is a trial and an imprisonment. On the one hand, sex and babies without marriage. On the other hand, no sex and no babies.

The leaders of the early church took a middle path. They saw, as Genesis says, that Creation is good. Babies are good, and thus sex has its place. The great achievement of the early church, Carlson argues, is to promote an ideal that put sex in marriage for making and raising children. Children, as his first chapter title proclaims are the "first purpose of marriage." Carlson credits Augustine with the most enduring formulation of the Christian ideal of procreative marriage. We sometimes think of Augustine as anti-sex, but really he was promoting a high standard of sex within marriage because sex has such a strong potential to lead us astray.

"And," Carlson writes, "as articulated by Augustine in the year 400 AD, this moral order lasted for another 1,500 years."

I think the idea that there is an unwritten sexual constitution to our civilization based on marriage and children is a powerful one. In fact, I would go a step further, and argue that procreative marriage is Article I of the unwritten constitution of every civilization.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Is Yale Religion Liberal Religion?

The current issue of the Yale alumni magazine has an unusual cover story: "The New Evangelists: Yale Divinity School and the Future of Protestantism." This is the first extensive treatment of the Divinity School that I can recall in the alumni magazine in the twenty years since I graduated. Indeed, much of the university regards the existence of the Div School as a curiosity and a relic, not central to the university's mission today. There was even a serious attempt to abolish the school in the '90s, by a president now happily departed (he also tried to kill the sociology department – clearly a misguided individual).

This story, by Warren Goldstein '73, '83PhD, an historian and biographer of William Sloane Coffin, is about the renewal of YDS. What struck me about the story was the fact that the author, and most of those interviewed for it, took it for granted that the mission of Yale Divinity School was to serve liberal religion. Goldstein's framework was that the decline of mainline Protestantism and the decline of Yale Divinity School went hand in hand. The Protestant "establishment" of old no longer rules, and its leading seminaries have taken a long time to adjust to that fact. Goldstein reads the decline of the establishment as the decline of liberalism.

This is a familiar argument, and yet on second thought it seems peculiar. In what other context would we take it for granted that the Establishment was liberal, much less "progressive," a term that Goldstein also uses?

The Protestant Establishment, at its height, was not defined by its liberal religion. It was defined by its traditional religion, applied to guiding, if not running, a modern society. As I see it, the mainline lost its way and began its decline when it lost confidence that that traditional faith could guide a modern society, and cast about instead for a modern faith.

Yale Divinity School was not created to serve liberal religion. It was created to train ministers of God in a learned faith – a learned, old-fashioned, biblical faith. When I was a student there, I thought that was the strongest part of the school, learned from teachers such as Margaret Farley, Paul Holmer, and Brevard Childs. The revival of YDS does not depend on a revival of liberalism, but on a revival of religion.