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Sexual Politics and our Soft Despotism

August 1st, 2012 | 2 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Ross Douthat followed up his weekly column that hit on Chick-Fil-A with a few more thoughts that are worth reading:

The cause of gay marriage has indeed advanced because many millions of people have been persuaded of its merits: No cause could move so swiftly from the margins to the mainstream if it didn’t have appealing arguments supporting it and powerful winds at its back. But it has also advanced, and will probably continue to advance, through social pressureideological enforcement, and legal restriction. Indeed, the very language of the movement is explicitly designed to exert this kind of pressure: By redefining yesterday’s consensus view of marriage as “bigotry,” and expanding the term “homophobia” to cover support for that older consensus as well as personal discomfort with/animus toward gays, the gay marriage movement isn’t just arguing with its opponents; it’s pathologizing them, raising the personal and professional costs of being associated with traditional views on marriage, and creating the space for exactly the kind of legal sanctions that figures like Thomas Menino and Rahm Emanuel spent last week flirting with.

This entire affair has brought me back to a notion James Poulos described a few years back, the “pink police state.”  As he put it then:

What gives me fear is the idea, which large numbers of people seem to be buying into, that a growing sphere of libertinistic freedoms compensates (or more than compensates!) for our shrinking spheres of political liberty and the practice of citizenship….So citizens of a Pink Police State (I should say subjects) are apt to surrender more and more political liberty in exchange for more and more cultural or ‘personal’ license. And the government of a Pink Police State tends to monopolize and totalize administrative control while carving out a permissive playpen for the people.

Judging by recent events surrounding our sexual politics, that “permissive playpen” apparently can only be built if traditional sexual teachings are kept cordoned off on the side.  We may not, as James mused in a longer exposition of the theme, yet have a government that owns our homes and is installing stripper poles for us.  But we do have one that is willing to mandate contraception coverage even by religious employers.  And some of the leaders of our largest cities have taken it upon themselves to make businesses that signal they aren’t quite on board with the playpen’s rules play somewhere else.

It’s tempting, I realize, to dismiss framing all this as unduly restrictive to Christians because of the real martyrdoms that are happening around the world.  And I understand and sympathize with the critique.  But the rightness or wrongness of a state of affairs isn’t determined comparatively, and to say that the calls by mayors and city councilmen to use the force of law to restrict Chick-Fil-A’s sphere of operations is wrong is not to say it’s the most grave wrong.  Soft despotism may be soft, but it is still despotic.