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Sunday Night Journal, July 2, 2017

My view of the current political-cultural situation in the U.S. is unquestionably somewhat dark. It always has been. I'm a pessimist by nature; I was born this way. But is it darker than it was ten years ago, as Quite Grumpy said last week? I'm not so sure that it is. But if it is, the reason is that certain tendencies are further along now than they were then, considerably further than I even expected.

I'm thinking in general of the intensity of division in the country. Stu said that it "Doesn't seem like the 'end times' to me, with the blue and red either battling it out, or living in separate states." I disagree--not that I think it's necessarily the end times for the U.S., but I do think that we are in new and dangerous territory, and I see a real possibility of some sort of schism. Not anytime soon, but within, say, the next fifty years. California, as you no doubt have heard, now forbids state-funded travel to several other states, including mine. This amounts to a declaration of political war, and is certainly a step in a very bad direction. And for what it's worth, I'm very, very far from alone in my worry on this score. I've read pundits on both right and left who see it as a possibility, though I think on the left it's viewed as being not necessarily a bad thing, maybe even a desirable one. The right is in general more attached to the whole historical concept and reality of the United States. (Rudy Guiliani got a lot of criticism for saying that he didn't think Obama loves America, but I thought he was at least partly right, in that Obama, presumably owing to his unusual circumstances, never seemed to have that visceral love of country that many or most Americans do, or at least used to.)

And I'm thinking in particular of the divisions created and continually intensified by disagreements about sex which involve fundamental disagreements about the nature of society, of government, and even of what it means to be human. Looking for evidence of what I was thinking about this ten or more years ago, I found a very relevant post from May 2004, less than six months into the life of the site (which was not, strictly speaking, a blog for its first couple of years). It's about the division that would be deepened and made permanent by the creation of same-sex marriage, and it is really prettyaccurate in its prediction of what the effects would be:

If this arrangement is given the force of law throughout the country, it may very well be seen by history as the point where the deep and bitter division in American society which we call the culture war became once and for all irreconcilable. Or perhaps I should say recognized as irreconcilable, for it may already be so. This will be a tragedy, and like all tragedies all the deeper for having been preventable.

Please read the whole thing if you want to discuss it. Things have of course moved far in the direction I predicted there. What I did not foresee, what I don't remember even occurring to me, was that as soon as victory in the marriage campaign seemed assured, the same forces (I'm not sure what to call them) would immediately take up the "transgender" cause with exactly the same fervor, self-righteousness, and intolerance toward disagreement. It certainly didn't cross my mind that the government would ever attempt to coerce schools into opening toilets and locker rooms to members of any and all "genders." 

It would be said by gender activists that my emphasis on this whole complex of issues is a product of "homophobia," "transphobia," etc. That's to be expected. But it might also be said by less extreme voices that I'm unduly concerned with the morality of certain sexual practices. Why should I care? Why pick on this one sin? Why not divorce, or adultery? (Or climate change denial!) The answer is that it is not the morality I'm concerned with.  It's the principle: the legal redefinition of a fundamental institution.

The reason for resisting these things, for me at least, is not to try to prevent people from sinning. Even if you agree with the traditional Christian teachings on sexuality, anyone with a mind in reasonably good working order can see that not everything which is wrong is a matter for the law. Most people, regardless of religion, would agree that in general, it is wrong to lie. This does not mean that we want the state to monitor everything everyone says, rule on its truth or falsity, and prosecute everyone caught in a falsehood. 

But there is a point where lying becomes punishable by law: lying in a legal contract, for instance, or when under oath in a court of law. It is in those situations that lying becomes a matter for the whole commonwealth, and can't be tolerated, because it threatens the very fabric of society, its principles of order.

The objection to same-sex marriage, and all the many demands of the transgender movement, is not that they enable or encourage immoral or simply unwise acts, but that they seek not only to redefine the institution of marriage (which is more fundamental than the state), but to require that everyone participate in a denial of fundamental biological, psychological, and social realities regarding sex.  

This is a big deal. It turns the concept of marriage into something created, rather than recognized, by the state, and in essence, by making sex irrelevant to the concept, makes it meaningless except as a legal construct, seen, from that point of view, primarily as another avenue by which one receives "benefits" (tangible and intangible) from the state. This has enormous, far-reaching consequences, and I don't think they're good. I think the ones I predicted in 2004 are very much with us now, and I was speaking in 2004 only of the divisiveness. It's more than divisive, of course: the question now is to what extent dissent from the new order will be allowed. And that in turn has a great deal to do with the reasons why so many Christians supported the manifestly non-Christian Donald Trump for president. 

It's been pointed out that the times are less troubled than were the 1960s: there are no cities in flame, for instance. And that's true. What's different now is that the country is more evenly and more intensely divided on fundamental principles, and each side believes that the other wants to subjugate it. If more open conflict comes--violence, or a serious attempt to break up the country--part of the tragedy of it will be that most of these people can get along perfectly well with each other at the immediate, personal, and local level. It's the deep religious difference, the difference as to what society is forwhat life itself is for, and the attempt to shape it accordingly, that really fuels the conflict. And makes the situation seem so dark. Or partly, anyway--it's not as if we don't have other serious problems. But the division makes it difficult or impossible to work on them together.

Grim reflections for the Fourth of July, I know. The most hopeful note I can sound is one I've sounded before: that a willingness to allow for more diversity across the nation, to let California be California and Alabama be Alabama--federalism--might yet preserve the republic as something deserving of the name.

Anyway, perpetual crisis is pretty much the human condition.


I'm actually not much more concerned with trying to discourage homosexual activity than I am with trying to discourage any number of other sins, sexual and otherwise. Aside from the fact that discouraging anyone's sin is usually not my responsibility, and I'm more than fully occupied in trying to discourage my own, I tend to assume that by now, forty or fifty years on in the sexual revolution, most of us are knowingly acquainted with homosexuals, male and female, have been on friendly terms with them, and do not want to see them demonized or persecuted. In my case that has included at least one very close friend. And so I tend to assume that the accusation that Christians hate homosexuals--are "homophobic"--is grossly exaggerated at best. It also causes me to feel that there is no particular need for me to say that my objection to same-sex marriage etc. is not malicious and personal. But this post by David Mills at Aleteia reminds me that my view may not be typical, and maybe there is such a need. Though the effort is probably pretty hopeless now: if you aren't supportive of the whole program, you're an evil bigot, and that's that. 


By the way, my view of life, the universe, and everything is in general definitely not darker than it has been in the past. I'm in fact more serene now, or closer to being serene. I think this is mainly the result of age, and an increasing ability to resign the troubles of life to God's care, because there is so little I can do about them. The blog may give a misleading impression in that respect. I tend to comment more on the passing scene, on Vanity Fair rather than the permanent things, and most of that is not edifying. The deeper reflections are going into my book, or into other writings which I will try to place in magazines. 


True love is always bleeding in our mortal life. You simply cannot have love in this life without pain.

--Sr. Ruth Burrows, O.C.D. (quoted in Magnificat)




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I like that little article by David Mills, Mac. It is something that I give a lot of thought to - more with regard to me than gay Catholics. But even removing the Church from the discussion, most Christian denominations are more comfortable with their married (men to women, of course) members than non-married. Nothing against those married people, but that is just a sad thing. It is great if you can marry and remain married, I'm certainly not against that, but this idea of "fault" and of course "sin" is really troubling. Since everyone is a sinner, why are the sins of the unmarried worse than the sins of the married? I've always thought that churches are sort of an uncomfortable place for all of the unmarried, and they shouldn't be. As with so much, there is no good answer. But one can be sure that Jesus would want everyone to be comfortable in his house.

A couple years ago one of Rod Dreher's more insightful blog commenters referred to the idea of the "condensed symbol" in relation to SSM, stating that it served as a sort of shorthand idea/practice for the entire progressive sexual movement. Thus, as you state, the opposition to SSM by traditional Christians isn't about homosexuality per se, but about the greater implications of its acceptance.

What's interesting is that Rod then went on to quote a 1993 Nation piece that shows that the progressive left saw it as exactly the same thing:

"All the crosscurrents of present-day liberation struggles are subsumed in the gay struggle. The gay moment is in some ways similar to the moment that other communities have experienced in the nation’s past, but it is also something more, because sexual identity is in crisis throughout the population, and gay people—at once the most conspicuous subjects and objects of the crisis—have been forced to invent a complete cosmology to grasp it. No one says the changes will come easily. But it’s just possible that a small and despised sexual minority will change America forever."

This sounds very much like your 2004 quote except from the other side.

Very interesting. I've seen suggestions of that view before. "Complete cosmology" indeed. Aka religion. I guess there is some disagreement within the gay/progressive camp as to where the revolution is supposed to end up. I often think of something that made a big impression on me back in the 1970s, a timeline for the progressive future in Shulamith Firestone's Dialectic of Sex. It involved (as I recall) complete elimination of all consciousness of physical gender, and reproduction by technological means.

"Since everyone is a sinner, why are the sins of the unmarried worse than the sins of the married?"

They aren't, of course, and it's wrong of us (whoever "us" is) to give that impression. But of course it's always more pleasant to focus on the sins we don't happen to be committing. The point has been made many times that the whole same-sex marriage thing could never have been taken seriously if the institution had not already been so badly damaged by divorce and by the separation of sex from reproduction.

"I've always thought that churches are sort of an uncomfortable place for all of the unmarried, and they shouldn't be."

I've heard that complaint many times over the years, and I'm sure it's justified. Some congregations (Catholic and other) have implemented "singles ministries." I don't know how much they help.

On California's "soft secession.

I've always thought that churches are sort of an uncomfortable place for all of the unmarried, and they shouldn't be.

I've been reading Flannery O'Connor's letters again (The Habit of Being), and they show that she was very much, lame and sick as she was, involved in the life of her church. I think she'd have laughed her head off at the very notion that singles were made to feel uncomfortable.

why are the sins of the unmarried worse than the sins of the married?

I'd have thought the opposite. Surely adultery is much worse than fornication?

Surely. I'm not sure what Stu meant but in my reply I was thinking of sins of equal gravity being given unequal attention. Offhand no specifics come to mind, though.

Re Flannery O'Connor and single people in parishes: I wonder if maybe parish life has changed, and/or people's expectations of what it should be are different now. Personally I've never looked to parishes for social life but then I don't look anywhere. :-)

My mother was very active in the altar society -- they looked after vestments, provided flowers, etc. -- in our parish when I was growing up, and several of the women who belonged to it were single, either never married or widowed, and I think at least one was divorced. Not sure, but I don't think many churches have altar societies now. Anyway, membership did have some social aspects, but that wasn't the societies' main purpose.

We have an altar society at the church where I work. All the members are married, but we have another group that runs a thrift store, and gives away boxes of food is made up almost completely of widows. Of course, they were married when they started the organization. We do have a good number of singles of both sexes who are active in the parish.

The fact that you didn't grown up Catholic may have something to do with not having any social life in the parish--and the fact that you homeschooled. My grandparents, and aunt and uncle and cousins were in our parish growing up, and so the family overlapped with the parish. Also, when kids are in Catholic schools, the parents are involved in a lot of school activities that create a community.


I gather you're talking to me? On that assumption: yes, not having Catholic family made a big difference in many ways. And home schooling did while we were doing it. But even after we started sending our children to Catholic schools it didn't change all that much. Just us to some extent.

I thought I put your name in there.


I avoid political discussions as much as possible, both online and in real life. Good for the sanity.


I've witnessed and slightly participated in a couple over the past week or so that left me thinking there's really no hope of reconciliation in this country.

There are some moments of dark comedy for slight compensation. People who in one breath say Trump can't divide us and in the next say "I hate those people."

In case anyone's interested, Patrick Deneen's recent book of themed cultural and political essays/talks Conserving America? is the best book of its sort that I've read in a very long time.

If you don't know Deneen, he's a political science prof at Notre Dame, practicing Catholic, and critic of liberalism in both its right and left varieties, coming from a Burke/Tocqueville perspective. He's also a good writer -- very readable for an academic.

Deneen is good. I expect that would be worth reading.


Has anyone read The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt? He is a moral psychologist. He is seeking to find a way to bridge the chasm. I just started it. I'll let you know what his conclusions are. In the mean time here is a cartoon that summarizes some of Haidt's ideas and here is an explanation of the cartoon.

I've been hearing good things about his work for a while now but haven't read anything beyond a few bits quoted by others. I'll definitely be interested in hearing what you think.

Me too.


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