Sexual orthodoxies have always been pronounced in solemn tones, with not even a hint of frivolity allowed—perhaps because sexuality suggests raucous laughter, a debunking spirit, and the temptation of irony. Think of the formula spoken by the officiating priest, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” voice quivering with the enormity of it all, to be followed by the granting of an official license, “you may now kiss the bride”—perhaps with a bit of a wink, at least if the ceremony was performed in French, where baiser implies a considerably more raucous interaction than a gentle touching of lips.
I was struck by how often the word “sacramental” is used about marriages conducted in a Catholic church, clearly considered sacraments and therefore indissoluble—like in the old good days when judges were still allowed to pronounce death sentences (no frivolity, please!) by intoning “and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
Another word is used to declare that the now-legitimate same-sex union is as solemn as those between pious Protestants in the past. The same-sex couple, we are told, share a “covenantal” relationship, as definitely indissoluble as that between God and the people of Israel. But the Mormons certainly get first prize for raising matrimonial anxiety: A marriage solemnized in a Mormon ceremony is “sealed,” not only for however many lifetimes, but forever!
Rod Dreher, a conservative writer, has recently come out with a book titled The Benedict Option. Dreher means by this a position held by many Christian conservatives, but of which he is critical: that Christian conservatism has essentially lost the culture war. Secularism has won against the effort to defend some areas in society that still operate on Christian principles. Especially in the area of sexual behavior has the Christian defeat been total. The situation then is supposedly similar to what it was in 6th-century Europe: Christians could no longer fight to regain cultural territory, and must be satisfied with retreat into a subculture of Christian institutions provided by the network of monasteries, notably those founded and maintained by the Benedictine order. A Christian worldview could survive in this subculture and from there might eventually conduct a campaign of reconquest.
What Dreher is saying is essentially this: Don’t exaggerate. Are Christians being persecuted in America? Not really. Yes, there are regrettable power plays—as when the Obama Administration wanted to force Catholic hospitals to cover contraception in the health plans offered their employees, or to threaten the livelihood of Evangelical photographers or caterers unless they are willing to serve same-sex weddings. There are even more egregious cases: In Texas (of all places) some secularist district attorneys wanted to subpoena sermons that deplored homosexual activities—in order to prosecute the offending clergy for “hate speech”! But a comparison with real persecution of Christians—massacres, enslavement, forced conversion, or prosecutions for “blasphemy” by Islamist forces in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, or West Africa—shows that there is really no comparison at all.
Dreher originally came from a Methodist background. He was received into the Catholic Church, then was greatly shocked by the child abuse crisis in the Church and the way in which the hierarchy responded to it. Eventually Dreher became Eastern Orthodox (the direction taken by a number of ex-Protestants, who first, as the saying goes, went “to swim in the Tiber” before ending up “swimming in the Bosphorus”). (I should add that I have no problem with this kind of ecclesial migration—it is the natural consequence of the coincidence of pluralism and religious freedom, both to be regarded positively.)
It is interesting that the option formulated by Dreher resembles the political option made visible by the rise of populism—on the one hand an openness to engagement with a rapidly changing modern culture, and on the other hand seeking refuge in a closed Christian subculture. The direction one decides to follow can only be decided on theological grounds, but I would say that Dreher is closer to the empirical facts. It is much too early to give up on the strong religious forces in American society—a still-intact and influential Evangelical community, also an intact and vital presence of the Catholic Church (now invigorated by the growing influence of Latinos), also the less-visible but nevertheless powerful presence of religious themes from South and East Asian traditions. It is, I think, too early to assess the significance of the Islamic presence.
It is also easy to exaggerate the importance of secularism in America. This is not Europe, though a sector of the American intelligentsia has been “Europeanized.” The values of sexual life have certainly been secularized, once one moves outside the relatively closed worlds of conservative religion (including its Jewish sector). The trend of sexual mores has clearly been in the direction of ever-increasing liberality. Especially young people strongly resent any “authoritarian” claims to put limits, any limits, on the ethics of autonomous “consenting adults.” This is unlikely to change any time soon. I have previously written about my “gift-certificate theory” of post-1960s sexual change in America. There has indeed been a sexual revolution (in Europe as well as in America). This has been enormously gratifying for large numbers of young to middle-aged individuals. It is as if society has given out a generous gift certificate for unlimited purchases in a candy store to anyone ready to receive a driver’s license. Any threat (real or imagined) to this entitlement will be fiercely resented. Don’t figure on a neo-Puritan sexual revolution!
The Catholic Church offers a largely sacramental ministry (which, by the way, protects Catholic hospital chaplaincy from being secularized and legitimated medically as “spiritual”—supposedly good for health!). The Lutheran Reformation reduced the number of sacraments from seven to two (perhaps in the wake of the debate over indulgences suspected to be ecclesial interferences in the afterlife). The small number of Protestant sacraments was explained by the alleged fact that Jesus only instituted those two: baptism in Matthew 28—go and baptize all nations in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and the Lord’s Supper in Matthew 26, to eat and drink to celebrate the new covenant initiated by Jesus. Did Jesus in his life on earth already possess the mind of the omniscient Father in Heaven—or was he limited to the mind of a moderately educated Jew of his time and place? Far be it from me to voice an opinion here about this intriguing Christological issue. But the issue is strategically important if one is to assess the empirical probability that Jesus said what Matthew reported him as saying on those occasions! No moderately educated Jew of that age could have told his followers to go out and baptize all nations in the name of the Holy Trinity—or to eat his body and drink his blood in a celebration of a new covenant during, as is very clear from the context, the ritual of the Passover meal! Put simply, the empirical probability must be close to nil.
Be this as it may, the Wittenberg Reformers were very serious about marriage not being a sacrament. Nor was it constituted by an action performed by clergy. A man and a woman created the marriage by themselves by the act of moving to live with each other and setting up a joint household. After they had done those things, along with friends and relatives they would assemble outside the church, whose doors were locked, and ask God to bless what they had begun. No clergy were needed. I’m not a church historian and I cannot reconstruct what happened later. As Lutheran churches were established in central and northern Europe, there were many reasons why the state wanted reliable individuals to be in charge of the official records of descent and property rights. The clergy, so to speak, happened to be available. I can also imagine that, after centuries of matrimonial romanticism, men and women about to start a family wanted the traditional rituals. And so, “you may kiss the bride,” and may nobody think ill of this.
However, this doesn’t mean that marriage was not taken seriously in terms of commitment and fidelity. By all accounts Martin Luther and his ex-nun Katherina von Bora were a very devoted couple. For centuries the Protestant parsonage served as an exemplar of what a good family was meant to be. To this day it is possible to admire a couple remaining together in bad times and good, raising children and grandchildren across generations. But this does not preclude less-committed, even frivolous, arrangements from having moral worth. It is possible for an individual to enjoy both Bach and Country Western, though presumably not at the same time.