Ryan T. Anderson is an activist who fights the culture’s rush toward legal recognition of same-sex marriage. As it happens, he’s wrong to do that—mostly because he does not understand the logic by which the culture has arrived at same-sex marriage. He thinks it’s a national argument about sociological benefits and debits, a metaphysical discussion of human biological difference, and a political-theory debate about the state’s interest in the sexual behavior of its citizens. It’s not.
The origins of same-sex marriage are not found in what seemed at the time a hallucination the writer and activist Andrew Sullivan had one drug-fueled night back in the late 1980s, however often people say so. Nor, for that matter, do they lie in the Victorian use of marriage as a solution to cultural dilemma (enshrined by the novel as the fundamental art form of the era)—a Victorianism that has fed both sides in the battles over same-sex marriage: opponents (convinced that to give up on marriage is to give up on everything) and supporters (convinced that marriage is a vital institution that has been denied them).
Why Same-Sex Marriage Is a Done Deal
No, same-sex marriage is a done deal in the United States, regardless of what the Supreme Court decides after hearing arguments on April 28. The reason dates all the way back to the first moments of modernity—the disenchantment, as Max Weber dubbed it—whereby legal equality was gradually substituted for metaphysical value. We get same-sex marriage, in other words, because (once heterosexual, single-pair marriage has been brought into question) there is literally no principled argument against it that doesn’t also undo the whole of the Enlightenment.
Think of it this way: Either we have equality, or we don’t. If that is the sole moral question of any weight, then it doesn’t matter if same-sex parenting proves socially better or worse than heterosexual parenting. It doesn’t matter if once-fixed categories of human nature are systematically erased. It doesn’t matter if the state must increasingly accept that sexual desire and sexual activity are, for the most part, unique moral objects that lie outside the realm of what can be judged right or wrong.
Arguing all that, Ryan T. Anderson is like a Polish cavalry officer, sword and lance in hand, come to defend the western border after the German tanks have already reached Warsaw: yesterday’s weapons, on yesterday’s battlefield, in yesterday’s war.
Argument Doesn’t Matter—Symbols Do
And thank God for him. In a saner time, the questions Ryan wants to raise are exactly the ones we should be debating. I think the answers would still come out against him, but Enlightenment reason has as only one of its themes the corrosive destruction of enchanted medievalisms. Isn’t it another theme of Enlightenment reason, the positive one, that we need deep concern for our policy choices, deep research about sociological impacts, and profound thought about the effects on political foundation?
In a world where an Indiana pizza parlor can be shut down—then receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations—for what was in essence not even a crime of wrong action but wrong thought, we have moved into a world of metonymy, where an argument is judged not by its argumentation but by its symbolic place.
You could trace all this through the sadly hilarious video of Ryan’s having his microphone cut off on an MSNBC program this March. An even more recent spat shows the pattern, as well. On April 15, a not-bad profile of Ryan appeared in the Washington Post. The writer’s voice was mostly one of bemusement that someone not obviously insane could oppose same-sex marriage, but within the confines of that voice, the piece was respectful and interested. As schools are wont to do, his old high school, the Friends School of Baltimore, put on its Facebook page a link to this profile of one of its increasingly famous graduates—only to replace it quickly with a message from the headmaster groveling over this failure to grasp the true inwardness of the bigotry and evil manifest in his school’s former student.
The most ironic part may be this: Opposition to same-sex marriage is commonly caricatured as a religious prejudice, and against such prejudice stand the forces of reason, rational argument, and thoughtful debate. But on the ground, where Ryan has taken his stand, it’s far too often the supporters of same-sex marriage who are reacting religiously—symbolically and metonymically, in horror at the evil-mindedness of their opponents. And Ryan who has quixotically, naively, and old-fashionedly assumed that this is all a debate about public reason, rational choice, and political theory.
Ryan Anderson: A Rational Man in an Emotive Age
I should make a full disclosure. Ryan worked for me, ten years ago, and clearly had springs in his heels even then. I’ve found money for some of his earlier projects and written in support of him for grants from others. More recently, I’ve written for Public Discourse, the webzine he edits, about my opposition to the death penalty and other topics. When I proposed my support for same-sex marriage two summers ago, the reaction in the conservative world was swift: In poured accusations of cashing in for money and being a closeted gay who was writing from self-interest—all from what I thought were old friends and professional colleagues, not one of whom bothered to reach out to me personally.
Not one of whom, that is to say, except Anderson, who wanted me to come participate in a debate with him on the topic. Because, you know, debate is rational. And Ryan is a rational man.
If we cannot even mention the doubts of say, Plato in the “Symposium,” about the ethical and political consequences of male penetration, then part of the spectrum of human thought is opaque to us. If we cannot discuss sociological outcomes, then a section of Max Weber’s modernity is closed. If we cannot even raise the question of what the human body is for, then the erosion has carried away a portion of the beach. Our lives and our discourse are narrowed to only a trickle of intellectual light if we encounter someone like the intelligent and serious Ryan T. Anderson—and simply close our eyes in holy dread.
No matter what MSNBC and the Friends School of Baltimore want, we shouldn’t let that happen even if we support same-sex marriage. Scream, shout, bang the bass drum—anything to make them open their eyes, open their ears, and listen. After that, they can reject Ryan’s conclusions if they want. If they can. Enlightenment reason demands no more, no less, than to listen.