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Tolkien, Marriage, Liberalism

December 7th, 2022 | 5 min read

By Jake Meador

A number of questions have come up in response to the piece on the main site concerning the Respect for Marriage Act and what I guess one might call the political theology of Tolkien, who I built the essay around. I’m going to try and use this as something of a clearing house for responding to the most common questions.

Lewis and Marriage

Several readers noted that Lewis’s views on civil divorce are difficult to square with his other writing. This is correct. Frankly, I think Tolkien could have simply sent Lewis a copy of his own lectures from The Abolition of Man and the rebuttal to his views on divorce would have been just as devastating as Tolkien’s own reply.

For Lewis to endorse the views he did on civil marriage in Mere Christianity fairly directly contradicts much of what he says about the Tao in Abolition and implicitly undercuts the vision of marriage endorsed in That Hideous Strength.

Marriage and Nature

Relatedly, another reader observed that Burke’s approach to “conservatism” was not defined purely by procedural or methodological gradualism; if it were that would simply make him a revolutionary at a slower speed, which he wasn’t. In more contemporary terms, a conservatism defined purely by gradualist political methodology genuinely does often become “slower moving progressivism.” This is not at all a fair attack on French, in my view, but if you were to apply it to many of the writers at a place like The Bulwark I would agree.

So what actual positively stated vision of society anchors the gradualist methodology endorsed by Burke and French? For David, it’s a pluralistic civic libertarianism. We shouldn’t undersell the appeal of such a vision. In a deeply interconnected world, pluralism is a fact that we can’t ignore. Indeed, liberalism in many ways grew out of the confrontation with the new realities of pluralism emerging in early modern Europe. David’s desire to preserve a peaceable space for pluralistic co-existence amongst people with radical differences is admirable. The difficulty with this is suggested by the alternative grounding that anchored Burke’s gradualism.

Burke would reject any political system or policy that ran contrary to nature. So something like gay marriage would be inherently outside the bounds for Burke because there is no such thing. “Marriage” as an institution arises naturally from the reality of life in the world. Men and women are joined together and women give birth to children and those children need to be nurtured, protected, and raised to maturity. “Marriage” is the name for the public institution that arises naturally in response to this problem. Are there different ideas about this basic institution that arise across time? Sure. Different cultures have different ideas about any number of things related to marriage. But it took western moderns to come up with the idea that an intrinsically sterile relationship could be a “marriage.”

So while French’s gradualist method allows for something called “gay marriage” to exist, the gradualism of Burke wouldn’t because Burke’s gradualism is constrained by nature while French’s is constrained by pluralistic civic libertarianism—more John Stuart Mill than Burke, basically. It’s also worth noting how Burke’s work on the French Revolution has a number of striking overlaps with the Dutch Calvinist Groen Van Prinsterer’s work on “the revolution.” In which case, one might almost argue that a civic libertarianism detached from nature is itself a form of revolutionaryism and therefore contrary to conservatism.

Marriage and Liberalism

Finally, there is understandably some question here about privileging the Christian conception of marriage within a broader polity’s common life. Isn’t it possible to have some sort of detente? many have asked. In the long run, I do not think so.

Here’s the problem: Though it’s often forgotten now, prior to Obergefell there was actually some considerable debate amongst LGBT+ individuals about the desirability of what is now known as “marriage equality.” The reason isn’t hard to guess: If you regard marriage as inherently constrictive of self-expression, as something that inherently deprives a person of their sexual freedom and expression, as many LGBT+ individuals did, then why on earth would you want gay people to be able to get married?

The argument made by figures like Andrew Sullivan won the day, however, and so gay marriage ultimately triumphed. But it’s worth considering Sullivan’s argument more closely: Sullivan’s case worked because of two key realities. First, the transformation of marriage and family brought about by mass urbanization and widely available contraception had the effect of erasing many of the differences between men and women. Wendell Berry made the point well in this memorable passage,

Marriage, in what is evidently its most popular version, is now on the one hand an intimate “relationship” involving (ideally) two successful careerists in the same bed, and on the other hand a sort of private political system in which rights and interests must be constantly asserted and defended. Marriage, in other words, has now taken the form of divorce: a prolonged and impassioned negotiation as to how things shall be divided.

During their understandably temporary association, the “married” couple will typically consume a large quantity of merchandise and a large portion of each other. The modern household is the place where the consumptive couple do their consuming. Nothing productive is done there. Such work as is done there is done at the expense of the resident couple or family, and to the profit of suppliers of energy and household technology. For entertainment, the inmates consume television or purchase other consumable diversion elsewhere.

In other words, if the human person is chiefly understood in terms of their role within the capitalist marketplace and if the capitalist marketplace is in many ways indifferent to gender, then marriage will likewise take on a kind of androgenized definition. Once this move has been made, then you already have a kind of de facto “gay marriage” because you have a conception of marriage that is indifferent to sex difference. Marriage, in this understanding, has come to be a kind of legal contract by which two people who feel strong romantic attachment to one another make their relationship legible to the state such that they can receive certain goods and benefits from one another. Once that move is made, there really isn’t any reason left to limit marriage to one man and one woman.

From this follows a second key: Sullivan’s vision of “gay marriage” is inextricably bound up with a post-industrial, post-war, globalized open society model. In other words, it derives its plausibility from underlying political and market realities that are fairly unique in human history. Not only that, those realities are actually despised by many western progressives, which are the political bloc most friendly to the broader sexual revolution and gay and trans rights movements.

The outcome of all this is an inherently unstable and temporary movement that is already dying. Consider the reality that many of the loudest opponents of the transgender movement are anti-woke gay conservatives like Sullivan, but also including figures like Dave Rubin, Douglas Murray, Bari Weiss, and Jonathan Rauch. Why has that happened? The answer is simple: Rubin, Murray, Sullivan, and company represent this older version of gay identity which inherently derives its coherence from the post-war global market. The trans movement, on the other hand, runs closely with hard left political groups that tend to be extremely critical of things like free trade, capitalism more generally, and even the institution of the family.

Here’s the key idea: If “gay marriage” is only sensible within a very specific geopolitical context and if that context is both widely despised by many contemporary LGBT+ rights advocates and is likely slowly dying anyway, what comes next?

It is possible, to be sure, that both sides of this dispute might conclude that even now it is desirable to find a way of coexisting because failing to do carries too high a cost. But in the world that is currently emerging—more isolated, warmer, with fewer children, and bleaker economic prospects—will that actually be true? If, for instance, you think the current baby bust is a ticking time bomb that will tear the world apart, aren’t you incentivized by that belief to advocate for the natural family, for pro-natalist policies, and so on? On the other hand, if you think the realities of climate change compel us to have fewer children as part of pursuing a more sustainable future, aren’t you incentivized, in some way, to strengthen the norms and values around forms of coupling and small human community that are explicitly anti-natal?

The post-war global order provided the material conditions in which an awkward detente between religious conservatives and sexual revolutionaries could exist. But is there any hope of such a detente as that world winds down?

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).