He was responding to two tendencies, I think: 1) that of some conservatives to retreat into analysis, and particularly historical genealogy, when faced with a cultural and political challenge; and 2) that of some of them to find the problem in a force that can’t be resisted, like the Enlightenment roots of the American founding, which justifies disengagement from a battle we can’t win. He calls this defeatism.
I’m not so hopeful as Robby. He has greater faith than I do in the American people and the force of public reason.
He may, for example, think the natural law arguments for marriage as it has been understood to be more publically compelling than I do. We have an instinctive sense of the natural law, as St. Paul noted, but our recognition of what is natural can be neutralized. You may see that men and women are made for union with each other, but if you understand marriage as primarily an affective relation, as most Americans do, you’ll have no strong reason to oppose same-sex marriage. If your society has for decades separated sexual intimacy from the creation of children, you’ll find it easier to accept intrinsically sterile marriages, especially as children can be provided in other ways.
I hope Robby’s right about the possibilities for success, though I don’t think he is. I still agree with him that we must stand up and bear witness. For one thing, genealogy isn’t destiny. Even if the trajectory was set when it was fired, a missile can change course, or have its course changed. The believer in an active God can hope even when things seem darkest.
For another, we must play the game until the clock expires. As an American, this is the game you’re given to play. It’s our giving to Caesar what belongs to him. It’s also giving to others, especially those most likely to be harmed by social disorder, what belongs to them.
For a third, even if you think there’s no possibility of winning, we can at least lose less badly than we would if we all gave up. Political and legal struggles are not winner take all battles, but wars in which the losing side can keep some territory it would have lost if it had surrendered and negotiate better terms than it would have gotten.
And for a fourth, we can prepare the retreat at the same time we play for the win. Preparing the retreat is mainly doing what we ought to be doing already, but doing it better, pushed into action by the threat that we might not be able to do it at all. Each of us praying more, giving more, moving deeper into the Tradition, strengthening our parishes, making our families and our parishes into communities that draw the wounded, marginalized, and lost — this we can do while writing letters to congressmen, supporting the good guys running for office, marching in protests, posting Facebook messages, and speaking in public and with our friends for the unborn child and for marriage, and for all in need.
David Mills, former executive editor of First Things, is a senior editor of The Stream, editorial director for Ethika Politika, and columnist for several Catholic publications. His latest book is Discovering Mary.Follow him @DavidMillsWrtng.