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Gay Marriage and the Heresy of Liberty

gay marriage protest – en

© Jewel SAMAD / AFP

Daniel McInerny - published on 03/27/13

What a visit to the barbershop shows about cultural attitudes to marriage

I got a haircut yesterday, you will be pleased to note, and in so doing advanced my education into the current state of our cultural attitudes toward marriage. 

As I entered the establishment–what sadly passes today for a neighborhood barber shop–the television was blasting a talk show featuring a male celebrity host whom I recognized but could not name. He was interviewing a woman (not a celebrity) about her relationship with her live-in boyfriend. Apparently the live-in boyfriend had been less than forthcoming with a marriage proposal, and the woman was upset about it. So next, playing the counselor, the celebrity host brought on the live-in boyfriend (a man who could well have been in his forties). The boyfriend waxed poetical about what a wonderful woman his girlfriend was, how she supported him in everything, how she nourished his soul. So the host asked him: “Why, then, don’t you marry this woman?” There were shouts of approval from the audience and the boyfriend stuttered in embarrassment before finally admitting he was too scared to commit.

What I found most interesting, however, were the reactions of the other people in the barber shop to this sad display on the television. The twenty-something woman cutting hair felt she needed to proclaim to the shop how she tells her girlfriends that there’s no way she’s getting trapped in a marriage. The thirty-something male whose hair she was cutting then told the story of how he and his live-in girlfriend find it more convenient simply to tell the people in their neighborhood that they are married. The sixty-something man in the chair next to him then expressed a collection of incoherent opinions that did not speak well for his baby-boomer generation. 

This small society of the barber shop may or may not have even been aware of the critical cases being heard this week not very far from them at the U.S. Supreme Court, cases which will decide whether the federal government will recognize homosexual unions as marriages. But they did reveal why the prospect of homosexual marriage has become such a burning issue for our culture. True, the barber shop talk was focused on cohabitation versus traditional marriage, but the attitudes of my fellow patrons exposed the mistake shared by all of those who cannot see why traditional marriage should receive any legal or moral privilege. That shared mistake is the heresy of liberty.

“Why, then, don’t you marry this woman?” Everyone in that television studio knew why the live-in boyfriend hadn’t proposed to his girlfriend. He hadn’t proposed because he was getting all the companionship and sexual benefits he wanted without having to make a lifetime commitment. More important to the live-in boyfriend, more important, apparently, to my fellow patrons in the barber shop, is their liberty, their ability to conduct their lives however they see fit, the ability to walk away whenever they want.

I call this conception of liberty a heresy in the sense that, as all heresies do, it chooses one part of a truth while neglecting all the others. Heresy comes from a Greek verb meaning “to choose,” and the heretic chooses only what he likes, not all that is there. For too many in our culture liberty means doing whatever one likes insofar as it doesn’t manifestly obstruct the same liberty in others. But that’s only part of the truth about liberty. It neglects the paradox that we can only become free by binding ourselves to our natural and supernatural ends, ends gifted to us by our providential God.

Imagine someone trying to live out the heresy of liberty, and proclaiming that she also wants to live without knowledge of any sort. Practical know-how, moral wisdom, scientific expertise, spiritual insight–this woman eschews all of it. “Give me liberty,” she says, “but no knowledge!” What an absurd proposition, is it not? Who would even want liberty without knowledge? Thus we detect the ligatures that bind liberty to the ends of our nature. We are made for liberty, surely, yet we are made to live liberty in the light of truth. And this is not something up to our choice.

The reason why the question of same-sex marriage roils our culture is because we’ve lost sight of the ligature between liberty and the natural end of human sexuality. Because so many feel that liberty is not bound by anything outside of the sovereign self, except by rules protecting the obstruction of others’ liberty, they bridle at the thought of their liberty being constricted in apparently arbitrary ways. Consequently those adults who would like to exercise their liberty in a union freely consented-to with another adult of the same sex cry foul when state or federal authorities say they cannot. They evoke the Fourteenth Amendment. They declare the equal protection of their rights. They demand to know why they are being discriminated against.

And if the battle over marriage is to be fought on these grounds, then proponents of same-sex marriage are sure to win it. For without a deeper understanding of liberty’s connection to the ends of nature there is no rational defense against any number of exercises of it. During oral arguments this week in the case involving California’s Proposition 8, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked the lawyers making the case for same-sex marriage: if same-sex marriage were legally permissible, what would prevent other people interested in other forms of marriage (polygamous unions, say) from seeking legal recourse? Given our current notions of liberty and rights, the answer is simply, nothing.

It may take awhile, of course, for the culture to catch up to even stranger expressions of the heresy of liberty. For a time, the legal battle over same-sex marriage may successfully leave the decisions in the hands of voters, a majority of whom will hopefully continue to support the traditional view. But we must never forget that culture is in a significant sense prior to politics. Unless we recapture at the level of family life and childhood education the sense of how the “unalienable rights” of U.S. citizens are “endowed by their Creator” and inscribed in the nature that God has given us, we will not be able to stop the further erosion of the institution of marriage. The small society in my barber shop will become more and more the norm, while my family and I will seem like barbarians.

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