walter russell mead peter berger lilia shevtsova adam garfinkle andrew a. michta
Published on: June 4, 2014
Feminism and the Gay Rights Movement
From Counter-Culture to Cultural Orthodoxy

It is very doubtful whether there are any “laws of history”. However, there are certain recurring sequences of events that make one suspect that similar circumstances are likely to have similar consequences. One such sequence is that movements of liberation result in repressive regimes.

The law school at Emory University houses a Center for the Study of Law and Religion. I have not visited this program, but the information provided on its website is impressive. I continue to benefit from its online summary of international and domestic developments in religion (not just those that involve the law). The summary appears daily (it even popped up on my computer on Memorial Day – those folks in Atlanta must have either a very devoted staff, or an automated and very sophisticated search engine!) On May 26, 2014, the summary referred to two stories originally published in Evangelical media.

The first story deals with reactions to a PG-rated film, “Mom’s Night out”, apparently containing a sympathetic portrayal of a stay-at-home mother who wants a night out with friends, away from the stresses of family life. The film did well commercially, but was savagely attacked by feminist critics—“regressive and borderline dangerous”/ “peddles archaic notions of gender roles”/the main character presented as a figure of “Eisenhower-esque irrelevance”.  Andrew and Jon Erwin, the filmmakers, exressed shock at the barrage of attacks: “We don’t make movies for the critics. We make them for the people. We’re proud to make a movie where the stay-at-home mom wasn’t the butt of jokes but was the hero of the story. But in no way is it a movie preaching that women should stay at home”. The makers of the film also point out that, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, 29% of American mothers do not work outside the home. Thus the critics insult a large segment of the population.

The second story is headed “Are Southern Baptists Wavering in Their Opposition to Gay Marriage?”  There has been some debate about a recent statement by Russell Moore, head of the ethics commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, to the effect that a constitutional amendment defining marriage in exclusively heterosexual terms would be “a politically ridiculous thing to talk about right now” (my italics). Moore did not advocate same-sex marriage; he simply gave his opinion (a correct one) that such a project would not get anywhere at this time in American politics, given the state of public opinion. He had on an earlier occasion said that Christians should not be fixated on the few key themes of the erstwhile culture war; he explicitly reaffirmed the traditional Evangelical view of marriage. The author of the story (Rob Kerby, in Christian Headlines, an online Evangelical outlet) compared the brouhaha over Moore’s statements with the enthusiasm of the liberal media about an impromptu remark by Pope Francis (made in an informal conversation with journalists on an airplane). He said that if a gay person has faith and good will, “who am I to judge?”  This too was quickly interpreted as a papal endorsement of same-sex marriage. Of course it was nothing of the sort. It was amplified by the Pope when he said that “[gay persons] should not be marginalized… they are our brothers”.

The two stories have in common a perspective on the world based on a cultural orthodoxy that has come to be taken for granted among American progressives. Every orthodoxy has a list of dogmas binding on believers and a corresponding list of heresies to be condemned (in traditional Catholic terms, before the Church relaxed its inquisitorial rigor, respectively a “deposit of the faith” and a “syllabus of errors”). Two important dogmas of the progressive orthodoxy pertain to gender roles and to sexual diversity: Women have equal rights with men in everything from the capacity for orgasm to access to any job whatever—in other words, they “can have it all”. One corresponding heresy is the idea that it is good for mothers of young children to stay at home. Another dogma is the proposition that all sexual arrangements between consenting adults are equal morally and should be so in law. A corresponding heresy is the notion that a permanent relationship between one man and one woman should have a privileged status. For the guardians of the orthodoxy every sympathetic depiction of heresy is “borderline dangerous” and must be vigorously suppressed, as in the case of the aforementioned film. Furthermore, since the orthodoxy claims inerrant truth that must eventually triumph, every sign that unbelievers are beginning to see the truth confirms the faith and is warmly welcomed, especially if the putative converts are important representatives of the heresy, such as Popes or officials of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Human history is not a direct continuation of biological evolution. It is therefore very doubtful whether there are any “laws of history”, and therefore equally doubtful if one asserts that anyone is or is not “on the right side of history”. However, there are certain recurring sequences of events that make one suspect that similar circumstances are likely to have similar consequences. One such sequence is that movements of liberation result in repressive regimes. Repeatedly, the Storming of the Bastille is followed by the Terror. The two movements in question here are feminism and the campaign for gay rights. Both emerged from the political and cultural turmoil of the 1960s. As of, say, the early 1980s they have become institutionalized, no longer confined to a progressive subculture but influential in the larger society, with some of its propositions having been enshrined in law. Of course there are resistances to this trajectory from a liberationist counter-culture to a cultural orthodoxy. Its dogmas of “political correctness” have penetrated many sectors of society, from academia to the Marine Corps. In many places this orthodoxy has become coercive, endangering jobs and careers. Not all orthodoxies are equally repressive, and there is no moral equivalence between the worry of American professors about making jokes that feminists might find offensive, and women in Afghanistan having to worry about being killed by their brothers for sexual behavior deemed to dishonor the family.

One of the (rather few) benefits of being old is that one is given a degree of license to go on reminiscing about one’s past. I will now take advantage of this license, to explain my attitude toward American feminism and gay insurgency. I came to America as a teenager in the deplored “Eisenhower-esque era” (which , as I remember it) was much less sexually repressive than it is now portrayed as). I was a young professor in the 1960s. Initially I was very sympathetic toward both liberationist movements. At least in part it was because, like everyone else, I saw them in continuity with the African-American civil rights movement, whose beginnings I witnessed and enthusiastically endorsed while I then lived in the South. Looking back to that time, I don’t think that my enthusiasm was misplaced. As to feminism, I can appreciate how far we have come since then by recalling one incident. I was with a group of male colleagues, one of whom was a department chairman. He recounted how a female junior professor had given him some trouble, and then exclaimed: “You can be sure—no other woman will be hired while I am chairman”. The fact that such a quite public statement would be inconceivable today is a good indicator of the positive consequences of feminism. I was very conscious of the validity of its original grievances because my wife experienced some instances of discrimination in her early career. My contacts with the early gay movement were more complicated.

While teaching in the South I had a traumatic encounter with the persecution of homosexuals. I happened to visit a court at the end of a trial, in which a member of a prominent family in town was convicted of the crime of “sodomy” (the sexual act with a younger man was consensual) and sentenced to several decades in prison; I happened to see the face of the defendant’s mother when the sentence was pronounced. In one of my early writings I had cited the hatred of homosexuals as a social evil which sociological understanding could debunk and help defeat. I thereupon had a visitor from the Mattachine Society, one of the first gay organizations (it was a rather polite outfit—it compared with the later gay liberation movement as the NAACP related to the Black Panthers). My visitor just wanted to express his appreciation for what I had written. In July 1969 occurred the so-called Stonewall Inn riots. I was then teaching at the New School for Social Research, in Greenwich Village; my office was just a few blocks away from the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar on Christopher Street (incidentally owned by the Mafia, which used to blackmail the customers and pay off the police). The latter periodically raided the bar (perhaps when a bribe was missed or inadequate) and arrested some of the patrons for “public immorality”. As the cops had their usual fun, somebody shouted “that’s enough”, and the patrons started to beat up the police. Reinforcements had to be called in, but hundreds of sympathizers (not all gay) gathered for days in the area, until the city called off the police. The Stonewall riots marked a turning point in the situation of gays and other “sexual minorities” in America.  I thought that this insurrection was morally right and long overdue, and I said so. Again, I don’t think that I was wrong.

In assessing what has happened since those heady days, I believe that the two movements did more good than harm. But the balance between these two results has shifted considerably. Feminists have helped to put in place a quota system that harms the economy and, more importantly, violates the individual rights at the core of the democratic value system. Gay activists have helped to undermine the values on which the family has been based in our culture. Both movements are in denial of certain empirical facts—that “gender” is not a purely arbitrary artifact but relates to biological realities—that mothers are different from fathers—that a same-sex couple, however morally admirable, is not the same as a unit of a man and a woman and (if any) their children. Both movements have also contributed to the deepening interference of the state in civil society (“language police” and the highly dubious category of ”hate crimes”). Finally, and perhaps most seriously, they have demonized their critics, polarized public discourse, and violated the religious freedom of those who disagree with them.

I would modestly draw an additional conclusion: Beware of movements claiming to embody the spirit of the age.

show comments
  • rheddles

    My equally aged conclusion is to beware immoderation. True Believers, what an Eisenhower-esque phrase, are to be regarded with caution.

    • Corlyss

      Good advice for most folks. However, True Believers are needed to get change. Without the obsession and the passion, big ideas would remain just that, ideas.

  • Tina Trent

    It should be noted that the feminist leadership’s sole role in the hate crimes movement was to advance the lie that “gender bias” would apply to crimes committed against heterosexual females (ie. serial rape). The NOW and other feminist organizations played “beard” for the gay, minority, and anti-semitism lobbies as they systematically used the power of bureaucracy and training contracts to teach prosecutors and police to avoid applying “hate crime” charges to violence against women, on the grounds that there was too much such violence and it would distract from their political agenda of finding white, heterosexual males to be the only “hate crime” criminals.

    Also, why not include the excesses of the civil rights movement in your critique? They followed precisely the same path to prejudice, and enforcement of bias through affirmative action and quotas — in fact, their trodding has been more extreme and more destructive: why validate it by selectively excluding it from criticism here?

    • Gary Novak

      Berger is not selectively validating affirmative action by excluding it from criticism. He is commenting on two items that appeared on the website of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University. It is not surprising that there was no article on affirmative action, which is, these days, on the defensive and was never intended to be on the right side of history but only a temporary measure (like the Federal Reserve’s Quantitative Easing, another guest which has overstayed its welcome). Supporters of affirmative action, like supporters of Obamacare, do not want to run on it. University administrators are more interested in finding “back door” methods of circumventing legal prohibitions on affirmative action.

      Your claim that feminist organizations are primarily interested in defending the rights of gays, blacks, and Jews and have “taught” prosecutors and police to go after serial rapists only if they are white seems to express a disappointment that hate crime charges are not routinely filed against all rapists. After all, hasn’t Susan Brownmiller taught us that rape has nothing to do with sex and is all about politics, domination, misogyny? Imagine– criticizing feminists for not having a more extensive deposit of faith and syllabus of errors!

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    “The quality of ideas seems to play a minor role in mass movement
    leadership. What counts is the arrogant gesture, the complete disregard
    of the opinion of others, the singlehanded defiance of the world.”

    Eric Hoffer,

    The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements

    • Corlyss

      Gee! That’s the first sensible thing I’ve ever heard out of the old stevedore.

  • qet

    This phenomenon has long been known and can be explained completely by Eduard Bernstein’s apothegm: “the goal is nothing, the movement is everything.” Or we can explain it per Michael Polanyi’s observation that “dissent does not seek to abolish public authority, but to claim it for itself.”

    • Corlyss

      Not to mention the fact that if one goal is inadvertently achieved, especially with the willing cooperation of society, that goal will be immediately replaced with one that’s just a little more out of reach, so that the movement is never satisfied. The ACLU should have gone out of business with the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. But nope. They had to set a new agenda including gay rights and the extinction of religion.

  • Anthony

    From counter culture to cultural orthodoxy gives life to political ideas point to political action as one reflects on both society and movements Peter Berger references. In fact, how means and ends of political change are related ooze through essay’s thrust; which brings to mind dictum that “it is not the victory of party over party but It is a destruction and decomposition of the whole society; which never can be made of right by any faction, however powerful, nor without terrible consequences to all about it, both in the act and in the example.”

    This I think is edge in Berger’s essay: “It is thus with all those, who, attending only to the shell and husk of history, think they are waging war with intolerance, pride, and cruelty, whilst, under color of abhorring the ill principles of antiquated parties, they are authorizing and feeding the same odious vices in differences factions, and perhaps in worse.” (Edmund Burke)

  • Corlyss

    Some famous bimbo named Laurie Penny when into a full fledged meltdown over the misogynist venom spewed by Elliot Rodger. She accused the entire male population of the planet of crimes against women. Reminded me of a couple of things:

    1) Nothing is as cheap as moral outrage to the point that it has become virtually meaningless.

    2) Feminists like Penny are found only in demonstrations in Western nations, complaining about small beer issues, sociologically speaking. For some reason they can’t be found marching and tirading and “speaking Truth to Power” in nations where they might accidently do some good for captive women before they were killed, like Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Sudan, etc. When their grasp of facts is so abysmal, what’s the point in paying any attention to them?

    • Fred

      When their grasp of facts is so abysmal, what’s the point in paying any attention to them?

      Because as Jonathan Swift said, man is not animal rationale, but only rationis capax, and that only occasionally. Most people are not motivated by facts, so a grasp of them is in no way necessary to be a threat to civilization. See, if you read literature, you’d know these things :)

      • Corlyss

        I know that. :-P I keep hoping against hope for a sudden contagious outbreak of rationality. I’m tried of the noise and insanity from representatives of my sex.

  • free_agent

    “they have demonized their critics, polarized public discourse, and
    violated the religious freedom of those who disagree with them.”

    ‘Twould be amusing for a liberal advocate and a conservative advocate to each list the offenses of the other side to see which comes out worst. Mead has started on the list regarding liberals…

  • C_Before_E

    I don’t know. I am a member of the liberal intelligentsia (private education, work in media, live in NYC). My friends and I know and are friendly with plenty of women who stay home with their kids. While we are happy that more states are recognizing gay marriage, we know perfectly well that not everyone is on board. I work with people who are not fans of it — no one gets punished for their views. It seems to me that the author overstates the atmosphere of scorched-earth intolerance and orthodoxy surrounding these issues. Some of us are mature enough to know that the world is full of people with different views than ours.

  • Leon Haller

    An insightful and well-written piece, but oh how useless in defense of the old and true civilization were liberals like Prof. Berger. The old (pre-“progressive”) liberals were civilized, intelligent, humane, tolerant, good company. But it was they who paved the way for the accelerating racial, cultural and moral destruction of America and the West. Prof. Berger is completely wrong (as liberals always are): there was nothing redeeming about these Sixties liberationist movements. The better civilization of white, Christian traditionalists was ruined by its inferiors, to whom it had been so gracious. The only real issue is how do we now get the arch-reaction started? I suspect the only way will be by means of ideo-racial secession. White conservatives, whose ideology is morally, militarily, economically, and reproductively (ie, systemically) viable in the way liberal/leftism is not, need to understand that we will never convince committed leftists of the errors of their ways, as divergent ideologies are the result of underlying (genetic, or deep cultural) factors that are psychologically determinative. Does anyone think we’re going to get the queers to go voluntarily back into their sordid closets?

    The only hope for the survival of America, the West, and the white race, is to secede. White traditionalists must ingather in specific geographic (and preferably sovereign) territories and then secede from the larger, leftist entity. We cannot convince the cultural Marxist enemy to become like us. We can only segregate, and then out-compete them (economically, militarily, and especially, reproductively). After a few generations it will be perfectly clear whose ideology and cultural patterns lead to civic success, and which lead to national ruin.

  • Philassie

    Zionism is one of the only liberation movements, with the US revolution, that I can think of that did not turn into a tyrannical nightmare.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    Berger prescient again:

    Headline: “Obama Releasing ‘Reformed’ Guantanamo Prisoners for Reasons Including Having Taken Up Yoga and Showing a ‘Positive Attitude’” – The Daily Mail Online, June 8, 2014.


    “President Barack Obama is moving ahead with his push to close the Guantanamo Bay prison despite the
    uproar over the exchange of five Taliban prisoners for a captured American soldier, an administration official said Thursday.

    The Periodic Review Board has determined that more former ‘forever prisoners,’ including one who says he has been reformed by practicing yoga and another who was a bodyguard for Bin Laden but now wants to start a ‘milk and honey farm’ are fit for release to their homelands or repatriation.

    Ghaleb Nasser al Bihani, 35, told a parole board in April that he had read the biographies of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Dalai Lama and aspired to live ‘an ordinary life.’

    Intelligence compiled for the board described Bihani, a Yemeni, as a troublemaker in the prison who showed ‘ill intentions to the U.S.’ and was ‘almost certainly’ a trained former member of al-Qaeda whose own brothers were jihadists with the group, reports the Miami Herald.

    His lawyer says that he was only an assistant cook for a group that was affiliated with the Taliban and no longer exists.

    Slated for release: Ghaleb Nasser al Bihani is now a yoga practitioner who aspires to’live a normal life’ upon his release.

    Bihani now practices yoga and reads self-help books, and wants to start a family when he is released, he told the board. He plans to distance himself from family members who are known to be extremists.”

  • ray

    Feminism and political correctness, which have ruled the West for decades, are cowardly, fascistic, self-serving, and despising of the truth. Liberation movements almost always end in scapegoating, moral supremacism, and a tyranny of the mediocre… or worse.
    Want to see the Spirit of your Age, and nation? John Gast’s ‘American Progress’.

  • Peter Jessen

    Of great interest to me are Berger’s essay title, “From
    Counter-Culture to Cultural
Orthodoxy,” and closing line, “Beware of
    movements claiming to embody the spirit of the age.”

    Certainly both feminism and gay rights have their share of
    orthodoxies, past and present, that have become widows.

Berger’s last line
    reminds me of his referencing some years ago of W.R. Inge (Anglican
    theologian), who famously remarked, “he who would marry the spirit of the
    age soon finds himself a bwidower.” Hence Berger’s “beware” in his last
    sentence and his earlier observation that, for us moderns, “the span between
    nuptial bliss and bereavementhas shrunk disconcertingly.”

    Both opening and closing remind of Berger’s use of the
    ancient Roman axiom to at first “make haste slowly,” as these ideational
    evolutions are not like some
organic evolutionary crawling out of some
    ideational antediluvian swamp. 

The centrality of the civil
    rights movement spills over into feminism and gay rights, revealing each
    trying to be moral equivalents to civil rights, despite the increase in
    the number of widows shedding their marital bliss. 

    Before HIV, marriage for the gay community (I’m thinking
    New York and major cities) was a widow. When I was with gay friends gathered in
    an apartment near Christopher and Gay Streets near the gay bar, the
    Stonewall Inn, not long after the 1969 “Stonewall Rebellion” (45th
    anniversary June 22nd) gay marriage was not part of the conversation. They
    celebrated their freedoms and their near “wild west” saloon brawl, “like
    in the movies.” On another
visit, right after the 1972 bank robbery attempt
    depicted in the Al Pacino film, “Dog Day Afternoon,” my friends were
    again celebrating. How, I asked, given that one was killed in a struggle
    with police? Because, they proudly expressed, as if proud Texans holding
    forth on the Alamo, they showed that gays are “real men,” harking back as
    well to the Stonewall Riots. 

    When Mel White, prominent advocate of gay rights, paused in
    a presentation I attended a couple of years ago, to say that although he
    wasn’t asked to discuss same sex marriage, he felt compelled to do so as
    an advocate, as there were over 1,000 reasons supporting it, all
1000 plus
    being in the IRS code. He did not, in this presentation, mention love.

    During World War 2, I had women relatives working in the ship
    yard. Happy to help, they said they couldn’t wait to get back to their
    homes. 3rd generation Israeli Kibutzim women shocked their mothers and
    grandmothers by wanting to stay home and raise their children themselves, and not
    have them raised in a collective. Gloria Steinhem told me in the late 60s
    that she was liberated by her typewriter, as she could do her work from
    wherever her husband would be. The original heads of NOW in our
    discussions in the early 70s in NYC had similar shortened periods of bliss as
    new “understandings” led to new “realities.”

    Again, from a sociological standpoint, are we observing growing
    bliss or pending grieving of widows abd widowers? Are we dealing with
    the inevitable, as advocates suggest, or just another round of ideational
    and cultural comings and going on the Merry-Go-Round of social
    especially when we apply the contestation of analysis using what
Berger has
    elsewhere called the “calculus of pain” and “calculus of meaning”
    evaluating policy both before and after implementation? As Berger has
    eloquently stated, “reality is ‘of course’…until further notice.”

    And now, as we move into the upcoming election cycle at home and
    fiddle with the “realities” of the world’s cascading endings of
    bliss, what will be tomorrows orthodoxies that will grow out of today’s
    counter-realities, leading to what bliss and what bereavement? Beware

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