A note on cornerstones and the heresy of marriage worship

Note: I wrote this post before Governor Sanford of South Carolina, another staunch social conservative, admitted his affair today. The field for 2012 to run against Obama is being winnowed fast as those who wish to deny marriage equality for all are quick to break their own pledges of fidelity. One is trying, oh how one is trying, to avoid schadenfreude.

Summer school is upon us, we’re planning a move from Pasadena to West Los Angeles, and dear little baby is back to waking up several times during the night. I certainly spend more time lecturing than sleeping, and as a result, whatever dim wit I normally have with which to blog has grown even, well, dimmer. I’m not complaining, of course; this is the exhaustion that comes from happy duty, not grim obligation. But still, when I sit down at the computer all I seem to want to do (when I’m done returning legions of emails) is read the news.

The comments below yesterday’s post in response to Kathryn Lopez got sidetracked into a discussion of “cornerstones.” A bit more explanation of the image is needed. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the reference to cornerstones goes back to Psalm 118, verse 22: The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. In the Jewish or Old Testament context, the rejected stone is a reference to King David himself; for Kabbalists, it’s a reference to the Shechinah, the feminine aspect of the divine. Continue reading

Of hypocrisy and hairshirts and John Ensign: a reply to K-Lo

Kathryn Jean Lopez, who will soon be leaving the National Review Online for other, yet-to-be-named pastures, has a piece up this week about John Ensign (the latest in a long line of GOP senators whose public pronouncements proved to be wildly at odds with his private predilections) and the nature of hypocrisy.

We on the left, you see, frustrate K-Lo with our suggestion that Ensign’s infidelities undermine the case for the traditional and limited marriage franchise, a case near and dear to both the senator and the arch-conservative pundit. K-Lo wants us to know that Ensign’s inability or unwillingness to remain faithful is a private failing that ought to have no bearing on the public discussion about the meaning of marriage. She writes:

A politician’s failings do not render the beliefs to which he subscribes morally impotent. Facts remain. Marriage is a cornerstone. Under a bastardized and unfortunately widespread understanding of hypocrisy, it is “hypocritical” for someone who is not a perfect person to ever make a statement grounded in conscience, morality, or natural law. Presumably, then, all Christians should throw out their Book. The Bible is and always has been directed to sinners. And, save for the star of the show, the preaching comes from sinners, too. Christ warned Peter in Gethsemane, “Watch and pray that you may not undergo the test. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” In Romans, Paul said: “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate.” Men (and women) believing something and falling short has a long history.

I agree with all but her third sentence in that paragraph. The history of marriage, as any scholar will tell you, is less cornerstone than constantly shifting sand. And cripes, enough already with the idolatry of marriage; calling it the “cornerstone” — a term with Christological significance — is sloppily inaccurate at best and blasphemous at worst.

K-Lo is right that a politician’s failings do not make the beliefs to which he subscribes morally impotent. For example, think of Barack Obama’s struggle with smoking. As someone who has proved supremely self-controlled in so many areas of life, it is striking — and humanizing — that he has been unable to kick the nicotine habit entirely. But his own addiction doesn’t mean that he can’t hold a strong position in favor of regulating tobacco; indeed, his sense of his own weakness gives strength to the argument that this is a dangerous substance deserving of greater regulation. He has pointedly not called for a ban on smoking either.

But while a politician’s failings do not mean he forfeits a right to speak out on issues, his failings aren’t incidental to his politics. K-Lo is wrong to suggest that Ensign’s fall from grace is completely unrelated to his views on marriage and sexual matters. It is axiomatic, after all, that we rail and splutter with the greatest indignation against those things we loathe inside ourselves. Those who combine great political power with an acute consciousness of personal sinfulness are particularly dangerous because of the overwhelming temptation to displace their own shame on to others. Private spiritual frailty is turned into an all-too-public club with which to beat those who, in the eyes of a guilt-ridden senator, live openly at odds with traditional morality; the zeal with which he wields that club is fueled by his own awareness of how far he has fallen from the mark. The flame of self-reproach kindles the fire to burn the heretics; the Inquisitor usually wears a hair-shirt.

Self-reproach is not only a right, it is a responsibility; people — especially, in our culture, men — could do with a good deal more self-examination. If we don’t like what we find, we need to go to therapy or confession or a Twelve Step program to heal and to grow. What we don’t get to do is to externalize that self-reproach into a sanctimonious defense of the traditional values we ourselves lack the capacity to follow. This doesn’t mean that the privately virtuous have more of a right to be judgmental, of course. But as most of us have come to find, those whose private virtue is deep and genuine are, as a rule, particularly disinclined to condemning others. And as the cases of Larry Craig, John Ensign, David Vitter or any in the legion of powerful men whose public commitment to biblical values was radically at odds with their intimate lives have shown, the reverse is true as well.

“When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”: of a doctor, an usher, and the answerer of a call

It’s been years since I’ve been as shocked by an assassination as I was by today’s cold-blooded murder of Dr. George Tiller. I’d followed Dr. Tiller’s career since his town of Wichita, Kansas, became “ground zero” for the anti-abortion movement in the early 1990s; I knew he had been shot before, faced harassment and death threats. I knew he had also persevered with quiet dignity to provide late-term abortions and other reproductive services to women in his community and from across the country, often at little or no cost. I knew he was tops on the “target list” for those who were willing to kill abortion providers. And yet I was still stunned and heartsick when I saw the news this morning.

But here’s one thing I didn’t know. Dr. Tiller was a Christian, active in his local Lutheran church. It was at that church where he died this morning, ushering just as he had done on countless Sundays before. I had no reason to suspect he wasn’t a church-goer, of course. As a Christian who has wrestled mightily with my own views on abortion before coming to what is today a staunchly pro-choice position, I know full well that it is possible to believe in a loving sovereign God (as the Calvinists always put it) and to believe in a woman’s sovereignty over her own flesh. (I belong to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, and have heard that good Dr. Tiller did as well.) Dr. Tiller gave hope and comfort to women who were often in desperate, medically dangerous situations; far from being a craven Dr. Death, he was a gentle, dignified man who did what he did out of a profound commitment.

That commitment was to his patients, but it was also clearly to his faith. He had faced death so many times, faced trials and lawsuits and threat after threat. Where did he find the strength and the courage to continue to do what he did? Did he find it in a sense of an ethical obligation to women who had nowhere else to turn? Certainly. Did he also find it in his belief in a loving God who had called him to do something hard, something that many would not understand, something that would cause him to risk his very life? I suspect he did. Lutherans are famous for their sense of “calling”; it was Luther himself who first began to emphasize the idea that each of us has a “calling”, a vocation, outside of our role in the church. And it was another Lutheran, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who wrote the famous Cost of Discipleship, with its devastating line: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Bonhoeffer, of course, was martyred by the Nazis for many reasons, not least because he stood up for the dignity of creation in the face of the monstrous evil that was the Third Reich. George Tiller was martyred today, not least because he stood — and stood publicly and openly — for the God-given dignity of women in the face of a movement that seeks to deny women their full humanity.

(I am well aware that today, some loathsome folks have dared compare Tiller’s murderer to Bonhoeffer; the latter, of course, was involved in the plot to kill Hitler. Some see abortion as akin to the Shoah, and an attack on Tiller as akin to the less-successful one on Hitler. But these bloggers have it back-to-front. It was Tiller himself who was far more like the gentle German pastor, and his assassin far more akin to those who martyred him.)

According to the Wikipedia entry on his life, Dr. Tiller had originally planned to be a dermatologist. Few emergencies or controversies in dermatology, after all; his life would have an easy and untroubled one, no doubt far more lucrative to boot.* But something changed, as he himself said:

In July of 1970, I planned to start a dermatology residency. On August 21, 1970, my father, mother, sister and brother-in-law were killed in an aircraft accident. My sister had a 12-month-old boy, Maurice. They had written out a will in longhand the evening before the airplane crash, that I was to raise Maurice. So we took charge of my sister’s boy and we moved back to Wichita. My game plan was to spend six months here, close out my father’s huge family medicine practice.

We Christians know a lot about game plans. As we say, if you want to hear God laugh, tell him your plans. Tiller:

And I found out that in 1945, ’46, or ’47, a young woman for whom Dad had already delivered two babies came to him pregnant again right away, and she said something to the effect that, “I can’t take it, can you help me?” That is apparently the way you asked for an abortion from your regular doctor before abortion was legal. Dad said, “No. Big families are in vogue, by the time the baby gets here, everything will be all right.” She had a non-healthcare provider abortion and came back and died.

I can understand how upset my father was. I do not know whether he did 100 abortions or 200 abortions or 300 abortions. I think it may have been something like 200 over a period of about 20 years, but I don’t know for sure. The women in my father’s practice for whom he did abortions educated me and taught me that abortion is about women’s hopes, dreams, potential, the rest of their lives. Abortion is a matter of survival for women.

When it became legal and my patients began to ask for it, I’d say, “Sure. It’s a legal process.” I was a service provider. I was a physician. The patients needed abortions, and I did them. It is my fundamental philosophy that patients are emotionally, mentally, morally, spiritually and physically competent to struggle with complex health issues and come to decisions that are appropriate for them.

Bold emphases mine. God didn’t want George Tiller doing facial peels, removing basal cells, and comforting the be-pimpled. God had something else in mind for him, something that in the end George was one of the few to do. Dr. Tiller heard a call in the midst of a family tragedy, and answered it. He lived and — died — in a very Lutheran way. Christ called Him, and George said “yes.”

George Tiller died today while ushering. Ushers quietly and unassumingly help folks to find their place in God’s house. Ushers, in many churches, are the first to tell a visiting newcomer that he or she is welcome. Dr. Tiller did that at his church on Sunday mornings, and he did it at his clinic all week long when he welcomed in women who had nowhere else to turn. And he was murdered in cold blood today as he did this precious work. I have not peeked at the Lamb’s Book of Life; but I say this with all the certainty that my rebirth in Christ has given me: I think George Tiller’s name is in that book, and that he has been welcomed today with love and rejoicing on the far side of the Jordan.

When I first heard the news, I prayed. I got angry, very angry. And then I donated money, as that seemed the only tangible way I had at my disposal to strike back against this act of evil, this killing of a righteous man who knew how to do what was needed in the face of so much danger and hatred. I give monthly to Planned Parenthood, but at Heather Corinna‘s suggestion, gave a large donation today to the National Abortion Federation. I gave a smaller donation to Medical Students for Choice, which works to raise up the next generation of abortion providers. I gave in memory of Dr. Tiller, of course, but also in the name of my wife, my daughter, my mother, my sisters, and all of the women in my life. As I’ve written before, any lingering sense I had that I might still place a foot in the anti-choice camp ended the day I saw my wife give birth to our daughter. I pray that my daughter will never be in the situation that so many of Dr. Tiller’s patients were in. But if she should be, I pray a doctor of his decency and caliber will be there for her.

Please check out a list that Jill has put together at Feministe. Many suggestions for where to give in Dr. Tiller’s name, and more in the comments.

Any comments here suggesting that what was done today was somehow justified will obviously be deleted.

I am George Tiller. If you support the thug who killed the good doctor, know that I stand with Dr. Tiller and give time and money to support his work. Come for me. And if you stand for a woman’s right to choose, even if it is a hard choice, then say it and repeat it: I am George Tiller. They can’t shoot us all.

*Update: Having had time to sleep on this post, I stand by all of it — save my unfair mischaracterization of dermatologists. I have dear friends who are dermatologists, and they do far more than I suggested in this piece. My apologies.

Of Popes and Playboys and Pueri Aeterni: Some thoughts on Hugh Hefner and the theology of the body

Through Dawn Eden’s blog, I found two interesting links: the first to a Nightline story about Christopher West, a popular evangelist for the “theology of the body” teaching now sweeping the church; the second, to a post by Father Angelo Geiger in response to West’s television appearance. The headline out of West was his comparison of Hugh Hefner to John Paul II, and this:

“I love Hugh Hefner,” said West. “I really do. Why? Because I think I understand his ache. I think I understand his longing because I feel it myself. There is this yearning, this ache, this longing we all have for love, for union, for intimacy.”

Father Geiger is concerned, and explains why. I’d never visited his site before, and I appreciate some aspects of his post, particularly his willingness to proclaim that asking women to cover up is not the right solution to the problem of male objectification of women. The padre gets props for this:

…men are perfectly capable of controlling themselves. I think too much attention paid to controlling women’s fashions… just leads to a kind of negative preoccupation with sexuality that does err on the side of prudery.

Nicely put. But then the priest goes off the deep end:

A more exalted view of human sexuality is needed and a preoccupation with the sinful nature of inappropriate sexuality should be avoided, but in this age when men have been so feminized and have so often recoiled from duty and consoled themselves in soft and lazy sensuality, they do not need to be encouraged to think about sexuality more, they need to be encouraged to mortify themselves, to be men, to be soldiers for Christ…
Hefner has been sleeping with multiple partners for his whole career. His playmates are exactly that, and he has never grown up. The man, now in his eighties, is sleeping with women that are barely legal. Hefner is quoted as saying “The interesting thing is how one guy, through living out his own fantasies, is living out the fantasies of so many other people.” That’s the fact and those fantasies are concupiscence run wild and fueled by a soft and effemninate indiscipline and by a very sophisticated and gnostic rationalization. God forbid that the association of John Paul II and such a “playboy” should end by promoting a religious version of that effeminate gnosticism.

Bold emphases are mine, of course. Geiger has completely — and bizarrely — misread Hefner, both in his assertion that the permanently be-robed octogenarian is a gnostic, and that his sexual exploits are somehow evidence of effeminacy. (Most Christian gnostics were radical dualists, rejecting the idea that Christ had ever been incarnate and exhibiting a hostility to the way of the flesh.) Hefner’s life is, in many ways, wrapped up in a rejection of the Protestant work ethic (with which he was raised) and with the rigid straitjacket of American male adulthood, characterized by a strange blend of self-sacrifice and frantic acquisitiveness. For Hef, the title of the magazine gives it away: “Play, Boy!” The opposite of play, of course, is work; the opposite of boy, is not “girl” or “woman”, but “man.” Continue reading

Shame and scandal: an evangelical reflection on the torture poll

I like polls. I follow polls. Last year, like millions of Americans, I was almost obsessed with polls, and developed a massive man-crush on Nate Silver of the top-notch polling site, FiveThirtyEight. I like it when polls tell me things I suspect are true, or want to be true, such as the recent poll from ABC demonstrating that a narrow plurality of Americans support marriage equality.

But I have never been as distressed by a poll as I was by the much-discussed, much-lamented one released last week by the Pew Forum. The Religious Dimensions of the Torture Debate made it very clear that church-going Christians in general, and white evangelicals in particular, are much more inclined to see torture as at least sometimes both necessary and justified than are their secular counterparts. It wasn’t that I didn’t think that the poll could be true; indeed, I understand all too well the political and theological heresies which are rife in the American church and which encourage this abhorrent and biblically indefensible notion to flourish. (Is Mel Gibson’s snuff film about our Savior to blame? Is it that most folks completely misunderstand — and many pastors misrepresent — atonement theory?) It’s that on an emotional level, I didn’t want it to be true.

As a self-described progressive evangelical, my views on many issues diverge from most who describe themselves as “deeply religious” or “born-again.” I support marriage equality for all; I am prayerfully, at times reluctantly, firmly pro-choice. I believe that wise stewardship over creation means understanding that all of creation — and not merely human beings — are endowed by their Creator with inalienable rights. My veganism and my feminism, far from existing uneasily alongside my Christian faith, are indeed rooted in my own understanding of Jesus and His call upon my heart. I expect to have arguments about sexual ethics with my more conservative fellow Christians. I expect to engage in the old “complemetarian versus egalitarian” debate about gender roles. But I never seriously expected to need to explain to a fellow Christian that torturing another human being was fundamentally incompatible with our faith.

(Before going further, let me recommend Mercer University professor and Christian ethicist David Gushee’s very fine post about the poll.) Continue reading

Living Christian, living feminist: a note for Mercy

New posting returns.

A reader named Mercy (I have a few with that pseudonym, it seems) writes after participating in this discouraging discussion at Christianity Today. Mercy, a young committed evangelical, youth leader, and feminist, asks in an email

How do you deal, as a Christian feminist, with Christians who seem to still believe women are an after-thought of creation, who deny any feminine qualities of God, who think that because birth control wasn’t accepted by a church until 1930 it’s still evil….I could go one and on, but how do you do it? How do you reason with these people? How do you make them see you’re not a pagan, not renouncing Christ, etc, etc.? How do you live your beliefs?

I told Mercy that I could indeed identify with her, and promised to respond publicly.

She raises two of the three issues that Christian feminists routinely face:

1. Hostility from more traditionalist Christians who question one’s theology, one’s hermeneutic, one’s commitment to Christ, and — not infrequently — one’s salvation.

2. The difficulty in getting conservative Christians to consider feminist criticism not only as valid, but deeply congruent with the spirit of Christ and with the Gospel.

Mercy doesn’t raise the last issue:

3. Bewilderment on the part of secular feminist allies who assume that Christianity is antithetical to both reason and egalitarian values, and who wonder how such an otherwise well-informed and committed activist could hold to beliefs like the divinity of Jesus and the promise of eternal life.

I’ve written before about reconciling faith and feminism — see here and here. I have no hesitation about identifying as a Christian and as a feminist (though I do sometimes use the term “pro-feminist” in certain contexts). I’ve lived a long time now with both labels; I don’t need to share the convictions of every other person who embraces either term in order to feel that they describe me accurately. To sum it up in one sentence: I believe in the unique role of Jesus Christ as the Messiah, my Savior; I believe that the multiplicity of gender identities, like the multiplicity of races, is a sign of God’s delight in diversity rather than evidence of a plan for different roles. And just as no race is to rule over another, so too no sex is to rule over another. Galatians 3:28 is Christology, but it’s also a political statement about how the world should be ordered and how the law ought to treat difference.

Mercy’s real question, it seems, is how to live as a feminist in a community of conservative Christians; how can she push past the cognitive dissonance that some traditionalist evangelicals feel when she proposes reconciling radical egalitarianism with a radical commitment to Christ? Of course, part of the answer is that she’s gonna need to understand that there is nothing she can say that will win everyone over. I assume Mercy already knows that, but it’s worth repeating: being an effective witness for either feminism or faith requires a willingness to be misunderstood and mislabelled and dismissed. And if you’re an outspoken woman in a conservative religious community, the chances of being rejected are excellent. That needs to be okay; as we learn from Jesus, if you’re rejected repeatedly in one village, you need to shake the dust of that place off your feet and move on down the road. That’s true in both forms of evangelism. Continue reading

Sins of Malice, Sins of Passion: of Jerry Falwell and Marilyn Chambers

Conservative Catholic blogger Francis Beckwith is annoyed with what he sees as a media double standard in the coverage of the passings of porn star Marilyn Chambers (who died this past week) and conservative Christian activist and preacher Jerry Falwell, who died in 2007. Beckwith:

…the Rev. Falwell founded a university, started a social movement of great influence, pastored a church of several thousand for several decades, led many, many people to Christ, and as far as we know was a loving and devoted husband and father. (He was a person that even Larry Flynt called “friend”!) On the other hand, Ms. Chambers, who died young (as is the case with virtually everyone in her “profession”), is portrayed as a cultural trailblazer who enlightened our culture to the “blessings” of anonymous, promiscuous, widely diverse, and videotaped, copulation. For this reason, you will hear no lamenting of the innumerable lives on which her example made chic the infliction of countless miseries. You will not hear of the unborn children killed, the addictions borne and nurtured, the marriages decimated, the offspring abandoned, the spouses betrayed, or even the diseases contracted—spiritual, mental and physical—that her “trailblazing” facilitated.

We live in an age in which we know precisely what recycle bin our newsprint and soda bottles belong. But we have no idea what a human being is, what it’s supposed to do, or who or what it is permissible to sleep with. So, this is the lesson of our time: the “good” man is the one who treats his garbage with greater care than his own soul. This is why, for our cultural gatekeepers, Ms. Chambers is an icon and the Rev. Falwell did not die soon enough.

It wouldn’t have occurred to me to compare Falwell and Chambers, but I’m struck by Beckwith’s little post. Though it’s an obvious strawman to suggest that the left was uniform in its glee when Falwell passed (I was rather charitable, myself, or so I thought), it’s certainly true that many progressives were not overtaxed with grief when the founder of the Moral Majority gave up the ghost. It is also true that without bestowing upon Marilyn Chambers any particular degree of veneration, those of us fascinated by recent cultural history note her central role in elevating adult movie actresses to the status of pop icons. And we can disagree, as we do, about the degree to which pornography is responsible for the litany of ills which Beckwith, channeling Chesterton, provides.

Both Falwell and Chambers came to prominence in the second half of the 1970s; they became household names in the Carter Administration. Falwell was the ardent culture warrior, while Chambers was a symbol — at least for folks like the stout Baptist preacher — of the moral decay against which a coalition of indignant Christians ought to stand. But in one sense, a genuinely Catholic one, it may well be right to speak more gently of Chambers than of Falwell. Continue reading

Of Abraham and Isaac, Peter and his lambs, the Amish and Heloise: how becoming a father has made me rethink my pacifism

Added to the list of things that have shifted since becoming a father: I’m ready to say I’ve left my doctrinaire pacifism behind.

In October 2006, some thirty months ago, I wrote this post in the aftermath of the awful Amish school shooting. Here are two paragraphs from a childless man, excerpted from that post:

The third lie about pacifism is that it is hopelessly idealistic and has no efficacy. Once we convince our opponents that we aren’t cowards (after all, Christian pacifists are dying in places like Colombia and Iraq all the time), we usually get dismissed as “fanatics.” I mentioned in my post on Monday that I hoped that if it came to it, I would be willing to take a bullet for “my kids.” But I would not be willing to fire a bullet, even to protect the lives of my students or youth groupers. That always strikes folks as irresponsible and prideful; I seem to be putting my theological convictions ahead of my obligation to protect the lambs.

But as a Christian, I know that there is more to our story than our life on this earth. I love life, I love this planet, I love God’s incredible creation. But my story — our story — doesn’t end here. This is not my final home. I am a “resident alien” in a beautiful, violent, scary, wonderful place. I know that while death is overwhelming and terrifying, it is not the end. Not only do I have an even truer home elsewhere, so too do those lambs I am called to feed. They are Christ’s lambs, not mine. Their lives are precious, but so too are their eternal souls. Crazed gunmen can kill the bodies of the young and the innocent; crazed gunmen can break the hearts of a community. But crazed gunmen don’t get to write the final chapter of the story. After the tears, there will be rejoicing, no matter what, no matter what, no matter what.

I still stand by everything — save, of course, for the line that has been struck through. I don’t know if I would kill to protect my own life; I might not even kill to protect my wife or other family members. But I would kill without hesitation to protect the life of my daughter. Clichéd as it sounds, everything shifted the moment she was born. My first thought: “I have finally done something I can’t back out of.” My next few thoughts were of awe and love for her and for my wife. And then, later, gently but firmly, the realization that yes, I would kill to protect the life of this child.

Nearly forty years ago, the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder pointed out in What Would You Do? that there is almost always a third option between passive acquiescence and violence. In almost no other area of theological debate does the false dichotomy come up more often; the truth is, as Yoder points out in wonderful and reasonable and convincing detail, is that the choice between “killing or being killed” is far rarer than we imagine. Peace-making (from pax facere, the root of pacifism) is about the aggressive search for third options of the sort that maximize survival, maximize justice, and minimize bloodshed. I still think he’s right, but I know — as he knew — that there are still times and circumstances when there is no other third choice. And my preferred answer, for many years, is that I would trust God and place my faith in Him over my atavistic desire to kill in order to preserve my life or the life of another. Continue reading

Despair on the right: of depressed social conservatives, a lost culture war, and the misogynistic underbelly of the “marriage movement”

This is not an April Fool’s post.

The first three months of 2009 have been among the very happiest of my life. My wife and I have had our first human child, a splendid baby girl, and we are both over-the-moon with joy and excitement (and a fair amount of exhaustion, too, but let that pass.) As befits a new father, my focus has at least temporarily gone inward, towards my family; I have paid less attention to the state of the world than I might normally. But as silly as it might seem, I can’t help but connect Obama’s ascent to the presidency with Heloise Cerys’ birth. This doesn’t mean that both events stir equal excitement, or are of equal global import. But they both mark radical departures with the past, and each has left me suffused with new optimism. Forgive the jaw-dropping parental hubris: the world will be a better place because my daughter is in it, and because of what it is she will grow up to do. And somewhat less jaw-dropping: the world will be a safer, healthier, better place because Barack Obama is president, and George W. Bush and John McCain aren’t.

I’m an optimist by nature, even if that requires taking very long views. I don’t know how long I’ll be on the planet, but I expect the planet to be here for a very, very long time. My God is a very big God, and He works — so all those who know tell me — on geologic time. Though no one knows the time or the hour, my suspicion is Jesus will continue to tarry on his return; contrary to the fervent hopes of many of the depressed and the downtrodden and the downright mean, we are not living, I suspect, in the End Times. There is more to come, much more to come, which is why (among other reasons) I want to see environmnental policies adopted which protect the earth not merely for my daughter’s generation, but for the creatures and ecosystems which will flourish here ten millenia from now.

I want government policies that in time will lead to fewer humans on the earth, living more just and sustainable lifestyles — two of many reasons why family planning and environmentalism are the two top issues on my agenda. And those causes are nearer to President Obama’s heart than any of his recent predecessors — hence, my mild optimism.

But I have friends — mostly conservatives, including social conservatives — who have grown grimly anxious about the state of the world. While the budgetary and environmental proposals of the new Administration are a source of encouragement (and, given Mr. Obama’s predecessor, sheer wonder) to folks like me, my friends on the right seem glum. This gloom is particularly strong among those who fight on the opposite side of the culture wars; those who oppose embryonic stem cell research, gay marriage, and what might generally be called “sexual freedom” are a confounded lot these days. Most social conservatives are deeply religious, and have the excellent consolation of prayer, but that doesn’t serve to soothe all of their growing fears and frustrations.

Despite temporary victories for social conservatives like the passage of Proposition 8 in California, the polling indicates a gradually growing consensus in favor of the freedom to marry, particularly among the youngest Americans. Legislative efforts to advance an anti-abortion cause continue to make tiny bits of progress, but much of their work has been undone both by the strongly pro-choice Obama Administration and by a series of disheartening defeats at the ballot box. Younger conservatives may still be anti-abortion, but despite the shrill cries of their elders, they are increasingly likely to see the “life” issue one among many; many young evangelicals are increasingly liberal in their views on fighting poverty and global warming, with many more inclined (rightly so, from a Scriptural perspective) to see the morality of the pocketbook as of more concern to Christ than the morality of the pelvis. And heck, as the headlines have told us just this past month, Americans are less religious than ever before, more likely to have babies out of wedlock than ever before.

Politics works in cycles; the GOP will come back eventually, and conservatives will come to power again. But culture doesn’t work in the same cyclical way. The genie of women’s liberation and cultural emancipation has been hard for the right to put back in the bottle, despite their most furious efforts for forty years. The Pill isn’t going away. Americans as a whole are not showing any signs of a renewed willingness to marry young and stay married to one spouse of the opposite sex for the rest of their lives. Oh, there are a few microtrends here and there that might gladden a reactionary heart — but for the most part, the narrative of American history holds true: rights once granted are hard to take away; freedoms once tasted are hard to give up. And that will be true if Obama is re-elected and it will be just as true if, heavens forfend, a Palin-Jindal ticket sweeps into office in a 2012 landslide.

I think social cons know that even when they win an occasional battle, they’re losing the larger war. This has led some to take some whoppingly extreme positions. Maggie Gallagher, one of the noisiest (and, to be fair, most hard-working) advocates of the limited marriage franchise, has been putting up a series of posts on the National Review’s main blog. This one from Monday is a stunner: The Amazing Power of the Culture (Part 9). Gallagher, who seems the poster child for the increased franticness of the right, is well aware that it’s possible for conservatives to win elections and lose the culture war; she suggests, rightly, that that is what has been happening for generations (but of course, particularly since that great bugaboo of all reactionaries, the 1960s). And in the past few weeks, the previously even-tempered Gallagher has begun to pull off the proverbial gloves, and in doing so has revealed some of the ugly underpinnings of the social conservative Weltanschauung. An excerpt from her latest:

“Marriage is about the love of adults for each other; it’s about caretaking intimacy, passion, not necessarily about children.” When I hear people claiming they are marriage supporters and saying these things about marriage, I cringe. They do not know what they are talking about.

A marriage culture means married men who fall passionately in love with their secretaries or their junior law partners saying, “My marriage comes before my happiness; my family comes first.” It means women watching Oprah and feeling underappreciated, like they are “settling” for less than they deserve, stepping back to say, “It’s not humiliating to accept less than I ‘deserve;’ it’s grown-up. It’s motherly. It’s what women have done for all of human history and it is good.”

And then stepping back and saying: “His mother can love him; if he were my son I would love him, there’s got to be a way for me to love him well and truly even though right this second I’m feeling humiliated and angry with how I’m being treated.” No marriage culture can survive unless adults are actively encouraged to surmount this kind of ordinary temptation…

Bold emphasis mine. Repost it widely, folks. Gallagher wants a world where wives baby husbands like mothers baby sons (she uses the mothering image too often for it to be careless). Her contempt for women and men is staggering; for Gallagher, a man is apparently an eternal child and every woman is called, perhaps like Mary, to be long-suffering, maternal, and self-abnegating. (Since when did the Jesus-Mary relationship become the model for good marriages? That’s a perverse twisting of Ephesians 5 indeed, more perverse than even Freud could imagine!) For Gallagher, humiliation and degradation are feelings to be suppressed, denied, and overcome, while happiness itself — especially for women — is a “dangerous temptation.”

Those who want to limit marriage to a man and a woman have rarely been so honest about the misogyny that undergirds their position. Here’s the shorthand: “marriage is about obligation and reproduction, not about desire. If gays and lesbians are allowed to marry, it will symbolize that marriage has become about love and feeling rather than solemn duty and reproduction. Heterosexual couples will look at gay couples and conclude that they are only expected to remain in a marriage as long as that marriage is fulfilling, because the non-reproductive nature of gay and lesbian relationships indicates that emotional fulfillment, sans reproductivity, is sufficient grounds to wed someone. And thus emboldened to choose happiness over duty, the divorce rate will spike, children will suffer, and the baby Jesus will cry.”

Good luck marketing this one, Maggie Gallagher. And you wonder why you’re losing the culture war?

I think the Maggie Gallaghers of the world are wrong. I think they’re wrong sociologically, wrong theologically, wrong psychologically. I’m not sorry that the tide has turned perceptibly against them, and and I’m absolutely not sorry that the sense continues to grow that though they might win an occasional ballot-box skirmish, the long-term demographic and cultural trend is likely against them. But because I’ve lived and worked among people like these, my schadenfreude is tempered with compassion. As an environmentalist, I know what it is to look at a world which seems to be heading ever faster towards self-destruction. As a vegan, I have a clear understanding of at least one meaning — not the right’s meaning — of what it means to witness a “culture of death” in action. I know what it is to despair of the choices my fellow citizens make, to despair of the seemingly willful ignorance of the majority, to worry deeply about the world in which my great-grandchildren will grow up.

Despair is not a pleasant feeling. It leads some to revolution, some to misanthropy, some to apocalyptic millenarianism, some to Zoloft, and some to unhinged postings at the National Review. As the evidence begins to grow that the battle to drag America and the Western World back to Calvin’s Geneva or Savonarola’s Florence is really and truly irrevocably lost, some essentially decent but misguided folks are struggling with despair. Watch with glee or empathy, but watch — because as they try and hold off despair, their rhetoric grows more honest. And that candor will hasten, I suspect, the irrelevance of the cultural right, as it reveals once and for all the deep-seated misogyny concealed beneath the lofty language of the “culture of life.”

An apology to my progressive evangelical friends

Reader Dan Whitmarsh gently points out the errors of painting with too broad a brush. In this post, yesterday, some of my words were chosen poorly. I gave the impression that all those who believe in abstinence before marriage are committed to an anti-feminist agenda. What I ought to have said is that the organized purity movement — with its rings and balls and pundits and bad comparisons of the sexually active to used chewing gum — is fundamentally reactionary and anti-feminist. But not everyone who believes in pre-marital chastity endorses the tactics, the rhetoric, and the broader cultural goals of the purity myth peddlers.

I left the Mennonite Church USA and the blogging team at Christians for Biblical Equality because my views on sex outside of marriage were at odds with the agreed principles of these two organizations. (I described my — amicable on all sides — departure from those outfits here.) I’ve known a great many folks whose commitment to radical gender egalitarianism and to economic justice is profound and real — but whose persistent sense that Scripture confines genital sexual activity to heterosexual marriage alone is also profound and real. These are not the sort of folks who marched in favor of Proposition 8, mind you, nor are they the sort who would be caught dead comparing a teen who has pre-marital sex to a rose whose petals have been plucked. They generally know that pelvic morality is never a “salvation issue”, as we say around the shop. But — often with reluctance and ambivalence — they will not go where the Bible, tradition, and their own sense of God will not permit them to go. I think they are fundamentally wrong in their hermeneutic (they feel the same way about me), but that doesn’t mean I lump them in the same basket with the noxious “True Love Waits” crowd.

To my friends on the evangelical left whose commitment to social justice and full inclusion for women is real, but whose commitment to marriage as the only licit venue for sex is also real, I apologize for having implied that you were indistinguishable from the “rascals on the right.” I may still believe you’re short of the mark, but you’re a lot closer than those whom Jessica Valenti so rightly excoriates.