I like Ross Douthat.  A lot.

I started reading him when he was at The Atlantic, and was instantly hooked.  While I have no pretensions that  I’ve gotten close, I have consciously tried to model my level of discourse after his.  He is without a doubt one of the most reasonable conservatives I have read.

While I was initially disappointed by his recent essay on gay marriage, I’ve moved on to simply being confused.

I don’t think I’m the only one.

Adam Serwer at The American Prospect suggested that, “Ross Douthat‘s column this morning reads like a column from someone whose religious and cultural views lead them to oppose marriage equality but can’t think of a very good reason for the state to prevent recognition of same-sex marriages.”

But then, that’s not quite right.  Douthat’s goal isn’t doesn’t seem to be to articulate the reasons why traditional marriage is to be preferred at all.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Douthat critiques two “commonplace arguments” for gay marriage, and does so rightly.  But he has to know that those aren’t the best arguments social conservatives have in their arsenal.  In the case of what counts as “natural,” we’ve spent all kinds of time trying to disabuse people of the notion that it can easily be identified with Darwinian theories of biology–a task made more difficult by Douthat’s decision to reinforce the wrong interpretation.  Even while Douthat grants too much to alternative theories of sexuality, he is beating up a straw man.

What social conservatives are defending, according to Douthat, is an “ideal”:

“The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.”

Fair enough.  But there is no suggestion here that this notion of marriage is specifically religious, or that the “order of creation” is only accessible in and through special revelation.  Additionally, it neglects the third party in the cultural mix–the Greeks.  Their philosophical vocabulary (teleology) helped Christianity find its sea legs and articulate its “order of creation” in ways that support the case for traditional marriage.

The odd note in Douthat’s piece is this line:  “If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights.”

It’s not clear why a “more impressive” relationship than serial monogamy makes it necessary to give up on the “ideal.”   Under those terms, committed caregiving relationships should count as “marriage” as well, despite the looseness of the affective bonds.  They are, after all, more “impressive” relationships than serial monogamy.

What’s more, Douthat’s willingness to give up the ideal because of heterosexual’s failure to live up undermines the point of having any ideals at all.   It’s a sort of “Anne Rice style politics”–if people fail to meet your standards, jump ship.

But we don’t keep ideals around for fun, or because everyone agrees with them.  We argue for them because they’re true–regardless of whether they’ve been instantiated in most places and times.  The more transcendental your ideals, we might say, the more practical our politics.  If the ideal is true, then we ought to get to the business of figuring out how to take incremental steps toward it.

Look, Douthat is right to point the finger at heterosexuals.  We have done an enormous amount of harm to the Western ideal of marriage.  But heterosexuals didn’t one day wake up and decide they wanted to become serial monogamists–specific legal and political developments made that a real possibility.  It’s impossible to tell the story of the heterosexual betrayal of traditional marriage without including the legal underpinnings of that destruction.

And yet Douthat wants us to see the continuation of that legal destruction of marriage as morally necessary, apparently so that gays and lesbians can join heterosexuals in our “no-fault divorce, frequent out-of-wedlock births, and serial monogamy.”  Welcome aboard the Titanic, folks!

Douthat’s endorsement of traditional marriage is about as tepid as you’ll find, down to being nearly incoherent.  He wants to talk about the ideal, but then let it go when it becomes socially inconvenient.  He’s worried–rightly–about being called a bigot, but attempting to straddle both sides won’t satisfy anyone.

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Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

10 Comments

  1. Ross Douthat’s Tepid Defense of Traditional Marriage http://bit.ly/cVw1WB

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

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  2. I concur. I too have been a fan of Douthat, but this piece left me first confused, then quite underwhelmed…like underwhelmed to the point of, “really? I just spent 2 minutes to read this?”

    My thought was that Douthat was either a) on vacation and penned this on a beach with a Blackberry in one hand and a martini in the other, b) sorely out of touch with sophisticated conservative treatments of the issue, or c) doesn’t care but had to say something given the recent decision.

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  3. Man… what a disappointing read. More importantly, what an important blog post. Anderson, you’re doing a great job of digging up and articulating arguments against some of the biggest, weirdest, and most-important-though-we-don’t-know-it-yet articles relating to Western Christianity.

    We need more people doing this “yeowman’s job” of seeing the weaknesses in our own team’s arguments – not less.

    In fact, this reminds me of the case that ultimately turned the tide in the centuries-old UVA rivalry between the Washington Society and the Jefferson Society. For decades, the Jefferson society beat the Wash in annual formal debates, which caused Jeff Soc to get complacent and presume they were better. In just a few years, internal critique dropped off while The Wash continued tearing each other apart – desperate to get good enough to regain their reputation. And, of course, they did.

    Conservatives need to be softer on each other and tougher on each other’s ideas.

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  4. Matt,

    Maybe I’m naive, I don’t read Douthat’s argument so much as a tepid defense, but as (at least from his perspective) a last gasp. Don’t get me wrong. I’m equally mystified by his apparent willingness to roll over as well as his willingness to cede the “commonplace arguments,” and your critiques there are spot on. But it concerns me less that Douthat himself is ceding the biological case to Darwin for example, than that he is accurately summarizing the views of an increasing percentage of Americans who agree with him.

    So while you say that the arguments Douthat dismisses are not the best ones that conservatives have (What do you think are the best secular or natural law arguments BTW?), they are nevertheless the most common arguments that social conservatives continue making and the ones the culture continues dismissing. At least that’s the case in the less rarefied air that surrounds me. Thus, are they really straw men?

    It’s not that what we believe about marriage is untrue or even that our most common arguments can’t again be useful, it is that playing field has moved and we have been slow to recognize it. Indeed, as Douthat points out and you do as well, heterosexuals and even evangelicals have been complicit in moving it. Marriage is dead and we are its murderers!

    Okay, so I’m not that pessimistic . . . yet. But even if I am, I’ll remain willing to use my last breath to point to the ideal because it is true. In the meantime, however, the positive takeaway from Douthat–at least for me–is that social conservatives must work harder to make the larger, better arguments for marriage in the places that matter.

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  5. Ross tried to get at something, but sold the farm to get it. To point out only one of the many errors in Ross’s piece: monogamy is not a Jewish-Christian thing. Try ancient Greek and Roman, and Germans too. Pagans. Unbaptized, pre-Christian, “who are the Jews” pagans. To imply that traditional marriage has its sole origin in Judeo-Christian–read current religions’–roots is to give up on human nature, the soul, and much more. Ross does not know history or philosophy, so he sees marriage from a religio-cultural perspectives. That is, he has bought the agit-prop of gay marriage proponents…on this and many other points featured in this column.

    To equate emotional commitment of homosexual lovers to that of traditionally married couples is to lift up the exception–if that–in place of the norm (nevermind the “ideal”). And to do that is to make the weaker argument the stronger, which is not, I hope, something Ross means to do.

    His ignorance in this instance is a scandal. If it is knowing capitulation, all the more so. Ross is a healer, but this piece attempts a noble lie which only papers over cultural wounds. If he really wants to heal America…well, sometimes a doctor gives shots, inserts maggots, amputates, etc.. The courage and love that give one the ability to speak the truth to help others even when it will hurt them in the short term–those are conspicuously missing in his piece.

    I love Ross, but he needs to have a beer with some married men who’ve studied the past.

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  6. Did you guys see the follow-up blog posts from Ross on NYT? I think they help. Michael, I think your “last gasp” read is accurate.

    http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/law-culture-and-same-sex-marriage/

    http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/sex-marriage-and-upper-class-obligation/

    Also, Ross wrote this post before his column ran, but I still think it’s helpful for understanding him:

    http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/were-all-marriage-ideologues/#more-9057

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  7. Matthaeus Flexibilis August 12, 2010 at 9:27 am

    In Douthat’s defense, he’s not attempting to make the case for traditional marriage in this column. That’s different than not being able to think of any good reasons for traditional marriage. It’s the beginning of a discussion and a matter of space allotted. (His typical M.O. is to have follow-up discussion on his blog, as he does with this column — two installments so far and more to come: http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/were-all-marriage-ideologues and http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/10/law-culture-and-same-sex-marriage.)

    He makes the valid point in his op-ed column and a follow-up blog posts that the sky is not falling because of gay marriage. Rather, it already fell decades ago when traditional marriage was transformed by the sexual revolution, easy divorce and serial monogamy (cf. “Limbaugh, Rush”), the destigmatization of cohabiting and out-of-wedlock births, etc.

    Marriage is now about the personal fulfillment of two rugged individuals, and in such a paradigm, gay marriage makes perfect sense. Says Douthat:

    “It’s the increasingly commonplace theory that marriage exists to celebrate romantic love and provide public recognition for mutually-supportive couples, with no inherent connection of any kind to gender difference and/or procreation, and with only a rhetorical connection to the ideal of permanence.

    “Since this is basically the theory that much of our society already holds, redefining marriage to include gay relationships is unlikely to have anything like the kind of impact on American life that, say, the divorce revolution of the 1960s and 1970s did.”

    That’s why I’m not as scared by the rhetoric on the Right as they would apparently like me to be. (Nor am I convinced that it means nothing for “hetero marriage,” as the Left proclaims.)

    The institution of marriage needs a reboot and rebirth, not a bandage for one of its many hemorrhages. Hence, we have (among other ideas) the Covenant Marriage movement (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Covenant_marriage and cf. http://marshillaudio.org/resources/topic_detail.asp?ID=119) and some evangelicals like D. A. Carson weighing the separation the civil and religious elements of marriage, even to the point of abandoning the name “marriage” (“wedlock” anyone?) at http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2010/08/06/tgc-asks-should-pastors-separate-the-christian-wedding-ceremony-from-the-civil-rite/.

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  8. Matthaeus Flexibilis August 12, 2010 at 12:41 pm

    Douthat’s latest installment in the series begun by his column on Monday is up. Here he describes traditional marriage as “thicker” than SSM:

    http://douthat.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/08/12/marriage-in-thick-and-thin/

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  9. “Thicker” is like what philosophers use when they don’t know what else to say. : )

    I’ve been reading through those responses, and I have additional thoughts. I’ll try to bang those out tonight.

    matt

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  10. […] has been doing a yeoman’s work making me almost regret my critique of his essay on gay marriage by offering a patient, sophisticated case for preserving the “ideal” of heterosexual […]

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