Not the SCOTUS comments you might expect

I’m disappointed at our Supreme Court’s Wednesday decisions, but I’ll not annoy you with my cries de coeur. They’re in my private journal as they occur to me.

The Court ruled that Prop 8 proponents were not the right party to bring the suit. Wherever vague and conflicting standing doctrine points, its application here eviscerated the California referendum process. That process was designed to let citizens pass laws, and amend their constitution, to check and balance government officials. If those same officials can effectively veto provisions of the state constitution by refusing to enforce and then refusing to defend them, the point of the referendum process is defeated.

(The Supreme Court, You and Me, and the Future of Marriage)

Did you get that? It didn’t say “Blah blah blah blah blah.” The California referendum process is their to let California voters overrule their elected officials. It isn’t an easy process. As I recall, the Attorney General gets to edit the referendum question to some extent, and the Attorneys General use that power to skew voting as much as possible in the direction they want.

Now, if the voters repudiate their masters by clearing all those hurdles, it appears that the government can just smirk and play their final trump card: refuse to defend and trust than nobody else has standing. Perhaps there could be voter standing if the party or parties seeking to defend could demonstrate particular and tangible harm, but that’s not likely to be true on most of the day’s vexed social issues.

[E]ven some who cheer the [DOMA] decision have called its reasoning less than coherent or satisfying.


DOMA, [Justice Kennedy] goes on to insist, must have been motivated by a “bare desire to harm,” or “to disparage and to injure.” Its sole purpose and effect is to “impose inequality,” to deny “equal dignity,” to “humiliate.” He infers all this from a few passages in its legislative history about defending traditional morality and the institution of traditional marriage, from its effects, and from the act’s title. Most importantly—and scandalously, given his obligations as a judge—Kennedy does so with nothing more than passing reference to arguments made for DOMA in particular, and conjugal marriage in general. How else could his reasoning leap from the people’s wish to support a certain vision of marriage, to their alleged desire to harm and humiliate those otherwise inclined?

The effect of this refusal to engage counterarguments is the elevation of a rash accusation to the dignity of a legal principle: DOMA’s supporters—including, one supposes, 342 representatives, 85 senators, and President Clinton—must have been motivated by ill will.


In his DOMA dissent, Justice Alito goes out of his way to frame the central issue of both cases: They involve, he writes, a contest between two visions of marriage—what he calls the “conjugal” and “consent-based” views. He cites our book as exemplifying the conjugal view of marriage as (in his summary) a “comprehensive, exclusive, permanent union that is intrinsically ordered to producing children.” He cites others, like Jonathan Rauch, for the idea that marriage is a certain commitment marked by emotional union. And he explains that the Constitution is silent on which of these substantive, morally controversial visions of marriage is correct. So the Court, he says, should decline to decide; it should defer to democratic debate.

The Court is likelier to defer to democratic debate if it believes there’s a genuine debate to defer to.

(Ibid.) The supporters of the traditional (conjugal) view of marriage must not let liars like Justice Kennedy silence them by baseless accusations of ill will. That is a partisan ploy, and has long been a conscious tool of the proponents of SSM. Nobody who respects truth will resort to this accusation.

For the record, I still support the traditional view of marriage and, as a corollary, must oppose same-sex marriage. I support the traditional view for many of the views set forth in What is Marriage? And I say that as one who has esteemed members of my extended family who experience same-sex attraction — one who no doubt will marry as soon as his state allows it (if he hasn’t already traveled to a state that does). My son’s most influential high school mentor was a barely-closeted gay man. He was “barely” closeted only because the smut-mongers wouldn’t leave him alone, to conduct his professional life with integrity, neither affirming that he was gay nor denying it. His sexuality was, properly speaking, not relevant — but some creeps, and more particularly, Church Lady Creepettes, insisted that They Knew, and demanded his brilliant, inspiring head on a platter. Thanks to them, perhaps (he won’t give them the perverse pleasure of confirming that they led him to leave), students now are spared his brilliance, and the program he led shows it.

It pained me more than once to stand in public meetings and oppose what I thought misguided in front of him and other closeted or “out” friends and acquaintances with same-sex attraction.

Justice Alito is right about their being two competing views. One of the things I’ve learned this Spring is that the traditional view is waning partly because young people don’t know about marriage history and falsely assume that the traditional view was invented, a la Justice Kennedy, out of desperate need to disguise the ill will that motivated opposition to SSM. But that’s not true:

Consummation or consummation of a marriage, in many traditions and statutes of civil or religious law, is the first (or first officially credited) act of sexual intercourse between two people, either following their marriage to each other or after a prolonged sexual attraction. Its legal significance arises from theories of marriage as having the purpose of producing legally recognized descendants of the partners, or of providing sanction to their sexual acts together, or both, and amounts to treating a marriage ceremony as falling short of completing the creation of the state of being married.

This is from the notorious right-wing Christianist website, Wikipedia.

Before same-sex anything was at stake, our society was already busy dismantling its own foundation, by innovations like no-fault divorce and by a thousand daily decisions to dishonor the norms of marriage that make it apt for family life. Atomization results from these forms of family breakdown—and from the superficially appealing idea that emotional closeness is all that sets marriage apart, which makes it gauche to seek true companionship and love in non-marital bonds. Part of rebuilding marriage will be responding to that atomization—reaching out to friends and neighbors suffering broken hearts or homes, or loneliness, whatever the cause. That, too, will make the conjugal view of marriage shine more brightly as a viable social option.

(The Supreme Court, You and Me, and the Future of Marriage) True. All true. There are threats besides, and probably greater (if only because they’re pandemic in the 98% that isn’t same-sex attracted), than same -sex marriage. But it’s the most acute at the moment. The others are chronic.

Finally, a collateral reason why I oppose the Tsunami:

This is perhaps the most remarkable thing about this entire debate: how so many who favor gay marriage — including, apparently, five members of the US Supreme Court — see absolutely no reason why anybody could oppose [SSM] in good conscience. We trads are not just wrong, but wicked. We are entering a dangerous world for believers. Expect to see the Law of Merited Impossibility fulfilled a lot more in the years to come. I defined it once as:

The Law Of Merited Impossibility is an epistemological construct governing the paradoxical way overclass opinion makers frame the discourse about the clash between religious liberty and gay civil rights. It is best summed up by the phrase, “It’s a complete absurdity to believe that Christians will suffer a single thing from the expansion of gay rights, and boy, do they deserve what they’re going to get.”

(Frightening the Horses)

This has by no means been a comprehensive overview of the last 34 hours’ commentariat, nor as I indicated, of my own opinion, but I thought it probably was enough out of the mainstream that you might miss it despite the merits.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Makers, fixers, philosophers

Alan Jacobs’ malfunctioning garage door opener, apparently boogered up by a sensor with “no user serviceable parts,” got him to thinking about planned obsolescence, things designed to be thrown away rather than fixed, and some questions someone* suggested should be asked of any new technology:

What are its effects on the health of the planet and of the person?
Does it preserve or destroy biodiversity?
Does it preserve or reduce ecosystem integrity?
What are its effects on the land?
What are its effects on wildlife?
How much, and what kind of waste does it generate?
Does it incorporate the principles of ecological design?
Does it break the bond of renewal between humans and nature?
Does it preserve or reduce cultural diversity?
What is the totality of its effects, its “ecology”?

Does it serve community?
Does it empower community members?
How does it affect our perception of our needs?
Is it consistent with the creation of a communal, human economy?
What are its effects on relationships?
Does it undermine conviviality?
Does it undermine traditional forms of community?
How does it affect our way of seeing and experiencing the world?
Does it foster a diversity of forms of knowledge?
Does it build on, or contribute to, the renewal of traditional forms of knowledge?
Does it serve to commodity knowledge or relationships?
To what extent does it redefine reality?
Does it erase a sense of time and history?
What is its potential to become addictive?

What does it make?
Who does it benefit?
What is its purpose?
Where was it produced?
Where is it used?
Where must it go when it’s broken or obsolete?
How expensive is it?
Can it be repaired?
By an ordinary person?

What values does its use foster?
What is gained by its use?
What are its effects beyond its utility to the individual?
What is lost in using it?
What are its effects on the least advantaged in society?

How complicated is it?
What does it allow us to ignore?
To what extent does it distance agent from effect?
Can we assume personal, or communal responsibility for its effects?
Can its effects be directly apprehended?
What ancillary technologies does it require?
What behavior might it make possible in the future?
What other technologies might it make possible?
Does it alter our sense of time and relationships in ways conducive to nihilism?

What is its impact on craft?
Does it reduce, deaden, or enhance human creativity?
Is it the least imposing technology available for the task?
Does it replace, or does it aid human hands and human beings?
Can it be responsive to organic circumstance?
Does it depress or enhance the quality of goods?
Does it depress or enhance the meaning of work?

What aspect of the inner self does it reflect?
Does it express love?
Does it express rage?
What aspect of our past does it reflect?
Does it reflect cyclical or linear thinking?

Does it concentrate or equalize power?
Does it require, or institute a knowledge elite?
It is totalitarian?
Does it require a bureaucracy for its perpetuation?
What legal empowerments does it require?
Does it undermine traditional moral authority?
Does it require military defense?
Does it enhance, or serve military purposes?
How does it affect warfare?
Is it massifying?
Is it consistent with the creation of a global economy?
Does it empower transnational corporations?
What kind of capital does it require?

Is it ugly?
Does it cause ugliness?
What noise does it make?
What pace does it set?
How does it affect the quality of life (as distinct from the standard of living)?

I’m too old to memorize them, but certainly wanted to further memorialize them.

(* I share Jacobs’ skepticism that “someone” was Jacques Ellul. The language it too contemporary, some allusions too pointedly contemporary as well.)

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

Striking a balance

Perhaps the eager/anxious anticipation of the Supreme Court decisions on California’s Proposition Eight and the Defense of Marriage Act moved Elizabeth Scalia to write about why, confronted with an accusation of hypocrisy by an unknown internet scold, she nevertheless would neither condemn a gay friend’s decision to “marry” his partner nor offer him her felicitations:

First, I will not be held hostage to an ascendant social mood toward compulsory conformity; I will not give up my own (imperfect but free) thought and reason, whether it be to anonymous e-mailers who want me to prove my faith, or to an over-emotive era that demands that I prove my love. To the former I offer the words of Christ Jesus: “Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy.’”

To the latter I offer a simple truth: Real love models God. God loves us unconditionally, and accepts all we are, but not all we do.

Secondly, I do not wish to surrender to the twin tyrannies of sentimentalism and relativism that overwhelm our society; within them resides neither justice nor truth …

Thirdly, I did not offer my friend public felicitations because I do not wish to be misunderstood, or to further add to the diminution of the concept of agape—the God-rooted depth of friendship that we have undervalued and left under-explored. Our pop culture portrays every first kiss as leading to a sexual tumble, and our society has largely adopted that mindset and practice. To us, it seems inconceivable that any love goes unconsummated or unconditionally approved. This makes it difficult for us to believe, or even to imagine, that sometimes God has other plans for love …

There follows a remarkable illustration of her third point. Do read her wonderful column, and don’t miss her self-referential link to an inspired bit of madness, “Jesus Never Said I Couldn’t Paint the Baby,” from April 9. (During the day, after I started writing this but hadn’t finished, Rod Dreher weighed in.)

What Scalia calls the “diminution of the concept of agape” others, like Robert P. George et al, see as threatening a drought of deep friendship, as here:

Misunderstandings about marriage will also speed our society’s drought of deep friendship, with special harm to the unmarried. The state will have defined marriage mainly by degree or intensity — as offering the most of what makes any relationship valuable: shared emotion and experience. It will thus become less acceptable to seek (and harder to find) emotional and spiritual intimacy in nonmarital friendships.

On the same day as Scalia’s “On the Square” column, Daniel Mattson adds there an installment to a slow-motion discussion of the appropriate vocabulary for discussion same-sex attraction (and its overt symptoms). “The danger [of adopting the language of our fallen experience] lies in getting mired in faulty narratives created by fallen man, which lead men and women to be at cross purposes with their divinely created nature.” “Hard teachings” can nevertheless be part of the Good News.

Mattson is opposed, he acknowledges, by “gay but chaste” voices like that of Eve Tushnet:

Eve Tushnet, for example, shows great disdain for the Church’s language when she writes, “the ‘intrinsically disordered’ language sucks and is a mark of privilege, the kind of thing you only say if you don’t feel it yourself or don’t care about the other people who feel it” and believes that part of her mission, and of others who think like her, is to work to “come up with a vastly broader and better set of vocabularies than the ridiculously, painfully limited set the Church is working with right now.”

It really does seem to be an important discussion, which is being carried on with commendable civility among people, most of whom have a very strong personal interest in the topic because they experience same-sex attraction.

The goal, I think, is not a compromise or via media – unless by via media is meant a course that is neither reflexively homophobic nor homophilic. The goal is truth, perceived in a way that can be taken in as pastoral by those who are willing to entertain the possibility that they, like every other sinner in the world, have their own mix of besetting sins and temptations, and that it’s not forbidden for a physician of souls to call your temptation a “temptation” instead of a “gift.”

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

A Joe Sobran Story

In Glen Arbor, Michigan Thursday, I saw Sobran Gallery, and indulged my curiosity, engaging the man who appeared to be the owner:

Me: I have to ask this. I’m a great admirer of the late Joseph Sobran, and I know he was from Michigan. Do you know if you’re related to him?

Artist (rising from his sofa): He was my brother.

Greg Sobran and I then engaged in some pleasantries, and I recounted when I met Joe, when he shared the dais with Attorney General C. Everett Koop in the early 1980s. Koop bantered that he was trying to get Joe to give up his cigars – which in my book captured a lot about both Koop and Sobran.

I knew that Joe was an amateur Shakespeare scholar, but I wasn’t ready for this:

When we were in high school, he’d hand me his volume of the complete plays, and tell me to open it randomly and read a line. Then he’d quote the next line.

“I think I’ve got it memorized,” he said, a little sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to, but I think it’s happened.”

He’d started seriously reading Shakespeare at age 9. Greg says that more and more scholars seem to be adopting Joe’s “Oxfordian theory that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the plays generally attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon.” (Wikipedia)

The rest of our conversation tip-toed around the issue of Joe’s alleged anti-semitism, and Greg’s perception of Joe’s world-weariness, following his banishment from the increasingly neo-con pages of National Review, preceding his death at age 64.

Joe lived too late for one to shrug off any anti-semitism by attributing it to the spirit of the age – since philo-semitism was the spirit of his age. I like to attribute it more to contentiousness accompanied by a sort of Aspie cluelessness about how much trouble contentiousness on that subject can land one in.

I lamented his death at the time and I lament it still.

* * * * *

“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

What would induce me to revert?

My cyberfriend John, a Texan who blogs occasionally (and interestingly) and apparently is half a decade or so younger than I, embraced Orthodoxy at about the same age that I did. Ten years having passed, he published on Tuesday a “revisit [to] my initial exposure to Orthodoxy – the thing that attracted me to the Faith in the first place.

Most Texas converts seem to come from Baptist or Church of Christ backgrounds. John was one of the latter:

For many people, the Churches of Christ are just another entrée in the broad smorgasbord of American evangelical Protestantism.  Those readers who hail from Texas or Tennessee know differently, however.  Like the Mormons, they are Restorationists and retain a unique self-perception.  Churches of Christ believe in a pristine First-Century-New-Testament-Christianity that quickly apostatized after the death of the Apostle John.  They neither identify with the Reformation nor believe they are connected with that movement in any way.  The Reformers were moving in the right direction, mind you, but according to Churches of Christ did not go nearly far enough.

Their particular history began in early 19th century frontier America during the religious ferment of the Second Great Awakening.  Alexander Campbell (and others) urged a return to New Testament simplicity, arguing that a sincere student of the Bible could know what God required by reading the “blueprint” of Scripture.  One simply had to free their minds of all preconceived religious prejudices and look at the Scriptures objectively and rationally.  Campbell believed he had done that very thing, and  he and his followers concluded that they were the first to ever really and truly do that, hence the “restored” church.  Other religionists who looked at Scripture and arrived at different conclusions were dismissed as insincere, still holding to the “traditions of men.”  These early Restorers were eager to debate this point with others, though their self-serving and circular reasoning was a bit like arguing with Calvinists about predestination.

These “New Testament Christians” proudly claim to be neither Protestant nor Catholic, but simply “the church.” In fact, they are perhaps the most Protestant of any group, taking sola scriptura to all new levels ….

It’s surprising how tenacious this idea of “restoration” is in American Protestant religion (or at least in the Evangelicalism in which I was steeped from 1963 to roughly 1970 – high school and halfway through college – which largely exonerates my parents of anything more serious than naïvete about the religious ambience of the boarding school we collectively chose). What’s unique about the Churches of Christ is their denial that they’re Protestant and their extraordinary indifference to any history:

Two areas, however, continued  to frustrate me.  These days I can truly call myself a historian—I have the degree, I teach the classes, etc.  But historical research has always been my passion.  I studied our particular religious history in great detail.  Where I now have a wall of Orthodox books, I once had a wall of Church of Christ volumes.  I still have the complete works of Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone and Walter Scott (the evangelist, not the Scottish novelist.)  I knew our history inside and out.  I wrote my master’s thesis on the “Stoneite” wing of the Church of Christ in Texas, 1824-1865.   But outside of an occasional professor at our Texas, Tennessee or Alabama colleges, there was absolutely no interest in our history—or really anyone else’s for that matter.  I gave talks on the subject from time to time, and my congregation was polite, but uninterested.  The attitude bordered on active disinterest.  The reason is not hard to fathom.  The Bible is the “blueprint” and the Church of Christ is the “restored” church built on that plan.  This rendered history and the normal historical forces to be irrelevant, as at any time an individual could open their Bible and “restore” the church, regardless of their historical perspective (provided of course, they concluded as Campbell and his successors.)  I always knew this to be inane.  Writing these words makes this belief sound almost childish, but that was indeed the attitude.  History was unnecessary to the church.   I always knew better.

Churches of Christ imagines a 1st-Century church much along their own lines:  small autonomous congregations, each ruled by a plurality of elders, under the guidance of Scripture.  They hold that soon after 100 AD, the church started to apostatize in a big way–bishops, sacramental view of the Supper, infant baptism, etc.  Churches of Christ do not hold that the church began to go astray with the decrees of Constantine.  Rather, they believe that the rot had set long before, the Byzantine emperor’s actions only confirmed what was already in place.   This is a pleasant enough story, but no more based in reality or real history than the fantasy of the [tribes invented by Joseph Smith in the Book of Mormon] created by their contemporary Restorationists.

To be deep in history is to cease being Protestant. The Churches of Christ, disdaining history entirely, fairly deserve John’s “the most Protestant” label. But while their disdain may be unexcelled, the Evangelicalism I was steeped in tried to excel it, and shared the notion that no later than the Emperor Constantine’s decree that Christianity be tolerated, things went down hill rapidly.

But history is not what drew John (or me, for that matter) to Orthodoxy initially. He loves travel, and traveled Bulgaria ten years ago:

Five hundred years of severe Ottoman domination precluded development of the castles and palaces that dot other parts of Europe.  What Bulgaria does have, however, is monasteries–destroyed and re-built time and again over the centuries.  Unless you are going to the Black Sea beaches, monastery hopping is what one does in Bulgaria.  And so, that was our plan.

In various monasteries, he saw “something completely new – real, observable reverence,” “a truly Holy place,” “[s]imple and genuine hospitality” (from someone deterred neither by work needing done nor by a language barrier) and “a real community of Christians.”

I returned home to my life and routine.  And while I did not forget these experiences, I was not yet launched off onto any new path.  The trigger for that would come in a couple of months.  And when it did, I had the context of my experience in Bulgarian Orthodoxy, characterized by reverence, holiness, hospitality and community.

Recently, I stumbled across an online survey for ex-members of the Churches of Christ.  The pollsters were analyzing the reasons why this fellowship is failing to keep their own.  (And in fairness, I have no doubt that there is a similar survey somewhere that addresses the former Orthodox.)  Just for kicks, I took the survey.  I remember one question in particular.  The pollster asked what would induce me to return to the Churches of Christ.  The question took me aback, and I realized that I was probably coming from a much different perspective than the average disgruntled ex-CoCer.  I concluded then that the poll was pointless and the pollsters did not grasp the real problem.  They were searching for ways to tweak or reform the church, to make it less objectionable to the dissatisfied.  But they did not consider that the basic premise itself was misguided.  For the Church of Christ did not do sola scriptura wrong.  If anything, they carried it to at least one of its logical conclusions.  I do not recall exactly how I answered the question, but I believe I said something about the Pearl of Great Price.

(Emphasis added) His blog has some beautiful pictures of places his visited. Don’t just take my word for his story.

Were I to stumble onto an online survey for former members of the Christian Reformed Church, in which I was an Elder before my conversion to Orthodoxy, the question “what would induce you to return” would be well-nigh unanswerable. It probably wouldn’t occur to me to say “The Pearl of Great Price,” but I might tauntingly play my conversion backward:

  1. Persuade me that Christ didn’t build one Church (or that the one He built was the CRC, or that the one Church is divided by design so that everyone can have a church that “suits them” even if it disagrees fundamentally with other churches that suit other folks).
  2. Persuading me that sola scriptura works just fine, and that those who conclude something other than Calvinism from scripture are insincere, tradition-bound or stupid.

I’m not holding my breath. I really cannot begin to imagine any reversion.

The only further Big Religious Change I can even imagine is that of  a “little light going on” some day, illumining a path to Rome that I cannot (and really care not) to see now. I’m not holding my breath for that, either, but epiphanies are unpredictable.

For now, it seems to me that Orthodoxy, Rome and relativism are the three choices.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

“God terms”

Having yesterday expressed my bafflement at a genre of article after an instantiation thereof appeared at First Things, let me commend R. R. Reno’s “God Terms in Public Life.” It’s not what I thought. It’s better than that.

Every culture thrills to its favored words or concepts. In The Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver dubbed them “god terms.” They’re the argument-ending, conclusive words that we find intrinsically persuasive because they express our deep prejudices about what’s good and true and beautiful.

Weaver wrote The Ethics of Rhetoric after World War II. The god terms in his day were “progressive,” “democratic,” “scientific,” and so forth. If a local school board was unsure about changes introduced by the recently hired district head, he could reassure them with these god terms. “Our goal with this new plan is to provide the children of Muscatine with a progressive, scientifically-designed curriculum that draws on the very best of our democratic traditions.”

Changed god terms signal changes in culture. For example, the value of “scientific” has declined. Today’s brand managers are far more likely to describe a new toothpaste or shaving cream as “organic” than “scientifically proven.” Agricultural scientists and developmental economists can make excellent arguments about the virtues of genetically modified seeds. They allow increase yields while reducing the use of fertilizers, pesticides, etc. But the god term sweeps all these considerations away. Organic is good; its opposite is bad. Therefore genetically modified foods must be prohibited. QED.

Among todays God terms are “equality,” as in:


If you find that offensive, blame me for the example, not Reno, and go enjoy a thought-provoking angle on a chronic human condition.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.