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.