Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Virtually Freaky; or, The Slithery Slope

I was going to say something like "While I'm talking about religion...", but I'm not sure how much this is about religion. Ostensibly it's not, but religion's probably lurking beneath the surface.

IOZ linked to this article at National Review Online by Mona Charen, the author of a couple of attack books on anyone to the left of Ronald Reagan. It's an oddly half-hearted defense of Rick Warren, in particular of his comparison of homosexuality to polygamy, pedophilia, and incest. "Those were not the most felicitous comparisons and probably unnecessarily hurt the feelings of gays and lesbians," Charen allows. I hadn't looked at Warren's actual remarks before, and they're interesting if you look at them with any care.
Steven Waldman: Now you, one controversial moment for you in the last election was your support for proposition 8 in California. A couple of questions about that. First, to clarify, do you support civil unions or domestic partnerships?

Rick Warren: I don’t know if I use the term there, but I support full equal rights for everybody in America. I don’t believe that we should have unequal rights depending on particular lifestyles or whatever stuff like that. So I fully support equal rights.

Steven Waldman: But what about, like, partnership benefits in terms of insurance or hospital visitation?

Rick Warren: You know, to me, not a problem with me. But the issue to me is, I’m not opposed to that as much as I’m opposed to the redefinition of a 5,000-year definition of marriage. I’m opposed to having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage. I’m opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage. I’m opposed to one guy having multiple wives and calling that marriage.
It looks to me as though Warren is dodging the question about civil unions and domestic partnerships, though he does seem to say that insurance and hospital visitation are "no problem" with him. On the other hand, he also says, "I’m not opposed to that as much as I’m opposed to the redefinition of a 5,000-year definition of marriage," which means that he is opposed to guaranteeing insurance and hospital visitation for same-sex couples, but not as much as he is to letting them marry. I think he should be pressed closer on civil unions and domestic partnerships (which are not, be it noted, limited to same-sex couples). Don't let him blather about equal rights regardless of "particular lifestyles": does he or does he not approve of same-sex civil unions?

Look at what Warren says about "a 5,000-year definition of marriage." Even if I agree to let him focus solely on Judaism and Christianity here, he's being absurd. Brother and sister marriage? Abraham and Sarah, according to Genesis, were half-siblings -- same father, different mothers. Most people would call that incest, yet according to Genesis they were husband and wife. Who's Rick Warren, to go against Scripture?

Maybe Abraham and Sarah are an isolated case, but "one guy having multiple wives and calling it marriage"? That is virtually the norm in the Old Testament, as a Bible-believing pastor like Rick Warren must know, and when the Christian father St. Augustine wrote about marriage he conceded that biblically speaking, polygamy is lawful, but "Now indeed in our time, and in keeping with Roman custom, it is no longer allowed to take another wife, so as to have more than one wife living." It appears, then, that the ban on polygamy derives from Roman paganism, not Christianity. From Jacob, who married two sisters (and his first cousins), to Solomon with his seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines, there is no suggestion that plural marriage is anything but marriage. Who's Rick Warren, to go against scripture? I'm not sure why people like him should be allowed to redefine marriage, etc., etc.

Mona Charen takes basically the same line in trying to defend Warren.
Once traditional marriage — supported by centuries of civilization and the major Western religions — is undermined in the name of love, there is no logical or principled reason to forbid polygamy, polyandry, or even incest. Gay activists recoil from incest. But on what grounds exactly? Suppose, after we formalize gay marriage, two 25-year-old sterile (to remove the health of offspring argument) twins wish to marry? Let’s suppose they are loving and committed. What is the objection? That it offends custom and tradition? That it offends God? Isn’t that just bigotry?
I think that it's misleading to speak of "the major Western religions" as though there was a slew of them; granting Judaism "major" status because of its influence on Christianity, there seem to be two major Western religions. But as a Jew, Charen must know as well as Warren that "traditional marriage" is compatible with polygamy. In Judaism, plural marriage was only banned about a thousand years ago. Who's Mona Charen, to go against zillions of years of polygamous tradition?

Even more, she offers no "logical or principled reason" for opposing same-sex marriage, plural marriage, incest, or marriage between adults and children; all she does is appeal to "tradition." Tradition in the West has permitted slavery, anti-Semitism and other forms of racism, child labor, and many other practices that I doubt Charen would want to endorse now. (If Tradition still ruled, she'd be running a grocery stand in a ghetto while her husband did the studying and writing, but they'd both be worrying about pogroms and the Inquisition.) Adultery, traditionally, means having sexual relations with a married woman: a married man is allowed to stray with impunity, and as late as the end of the 1800s the English parliament refused to make a husband's adultery grounds for divorce, as a wife's adultery was already (see pages 38 and 39 at that link).

As for marriage between a child and an adult, the definition of a child has been in flux for some time. When Victoria became Queen of England in 1838, the age of consent was 10 (though a girl couldn't marry until she was 12), and it stayed there for most if not all of her reign. What most Americans and Britons nowadays would consider the marriage of a child to an adult was legal in an officially Christian nation in those days. (How old was Juliet again?) I'm not sure what the age of consent ought to be; logical and principled reasons for raising it above 10, as it was traditionally, seem to be in short supply, but I'm open to discussion.

The same goes for "incest." Leaving Abraham and Sarah aside, what about marriage between first cousins? Thirty-one states in the US forbid marriage between first cousins, though Canada and most European countries do not. As I mentioned before, the Bible seems to have no objection either. To be honest, I am not sure I see any logical or principled reasons to forbid even brothers and sisters from marrying; certainly Charen doesn't offer any. If there are no such reasons, maybe it should be permitted. Again, I'm open to discussion.

Please understand: my point here is not that I endorse polygamy, or the marriage of children to adults, or of siblings. My point is that Charen and Warren, and the gay and pro-gay Christians they oppose, have no real arguments against such practices either. Or against same-sex marriage, come to that. All they can do, apparently, is point to Tradition, as if it were monolithic and unanimous in its judgments. But it doesn't really support them. Despite all their babble about "redefining" marriage, marriage has been redefined in many ways over the past several millennia, let alone in the past half-century. (In 1967 the US Supreme Court redefined marriage in America to include mixed-race couples, for example; the early Christians redefined marriage to forbid divorce, which was permitted in Judaism, but since the political rise of Ronald Reagan at least, conservative evangelicals have decided that divorce is tolerable, and their own divorce rate is higher than that of the general population.)

On top of everything else, it would be interesting to know why both Warren and Charen present themselves as willing to accept homosexual relationships short of marriage. I mean, if the government gives special rights to sodomitical couples instead of putting them in jail or executing them (as the 5,000-year definition of sodomy would require!), letting them have insurance, and visit each other in the hospital, isn't that approving homosexuality? Won't we have to let polygamists visit their wives, or incestuous couples have insurance? What are we going to tell the children?

Charen says,
Gays and lesbians argue that their same-sex unions are loving, committed relationships. Fine. But there are, or could be, other loving, committed relationships involving more than two people. Supporters of gay marriage say this is a ridiculous slippery slope argument.
I'll pass on whether it's ridiculous, but it is a slippery slope argument, and as I've already suggested, it's a bit late to invoke it now that American traditionalists have already caved in on miscegenation, divorce, letting wives own property (or vote, or serve on juries, or keep their wages when they work outside the home), and so on -- they even seem to have given up on sodomy laws! To say nothing of Warren's claim that he supports equality for sodomites and sapphists. I don't believe he really means it, he's too cagey in his phrasing, but it's still a retreat from the grand Judeo-Christian tradition of stigmatizing queers.

My ambivalent Obama-supporting friend, by the way, referred me to Change.gov, the Obama Transition Team's site. It says there, inter alia, that "Barack Obama supports full civil unions that give same-sex couples legal rights and privileges equal to those of married couples." That's pretty clear, but 1) most state constitutional amendments that ban same-sex marriage also "affect unmarried relationships of same-sex and different-sex couples," according to Nancy Polikoff in Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage (Beacon, 2008, page 95), which means Obama has his work cut out for him; and 2) what's to stop same-sex couples in civil unions from considering and calling themselves married, especially if they decide to have a religious wedding of their own, which the law doesn't and can't forbid?