Ryan T. Anderson is the most dangerous man in America. His new book, “Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom,” is the hottest new thing that you absolutely should not read.
At any rate, this is what you’re meant to believe. Immediately following the book’s release, legions of trolls were unleashed to demolish it with sneering Amazon reviews. Of the first 49 detractors, only one was a verified purchase. (My suggestion to trolls: after offering your opinion of one book you obviously didn’t read, why not head over and review this one as well?)
Allow me to state the obvious. If Anderson were really the prejudiced, hateful crank his critics declare him to be, liberals would not be desperate to bury his book. They would be trotting it out at every opportunity. “Extra, Extra! Fresh installment of crazy from Mr. Marriage!”
We’re not hearing that, because Anderson isn’t a crank. But he is a rarity: someone who has a clear position on what marriage is. Even more unusual, he understands the ramifications of his view, and is still willing to defend it. That’s bad enough, but the real offense? He can make that view appealing.
Most Americans, I believe, feel our culture is coming apart at the seams. We have a vague sense that things used to be better-ordered and more purposeful; somehow they’ve degenerated. Marriage is part of this grim picture. Most everyone nowadays agrees that it’s a good thing, but somehow it’s prohibitively difficult to do. When did ordinary things (marriage, family) get so maddeningly out of reach? How did our shiny scientific age get so broken and confused?
Anderson’s book has that salt-of-the-earth quality that makes the reader feel it’s possible for the world to be sane again. What we need is to recover a clear understanding of what marriage is, and to build our culture around that understanding in a meaningful way. Same-sex marriage has swept through our culture, not because our definition of marriage has “evolved” or “expanded,” but rather because it has degenerated.
Understanding The Velvet Devolution
In a way, the problem is fairly simple: people aren’t sure what marriage is anymore. The cultural trappings remain, but there is no central function to tie them all together. Lacking clear purpose, the institution unsurprisingly loses its integrity. We no longer have a good answer for people who wish to marry their same-sex friend, or two friends, or their sister, or their dog. A surprising number of intelligent people (some of them passionate advocates for “marriage equality”) have told me earnestly that marriage can and should be “whatever the participants wish for it to be.” They don’t seem to have noticed that if the arrangement cannot be defined, it is literally meaningless.
The velvet revolution of same-sex marriage is really more of a “velvet devolution.” Past a certain point of decline, it is no longer possible to maintain the clear lines that once elevated marriage to a unique, purposeful relationship. From the swamps of untamed Eros come querulous demands for relationship-validation, and even those who are properly ashamed of our cultural decay find themselves hard-pressed to refuse. On what grounds can we really distinguish anymore, when divorce and voluntary barrenness have so radically transformed the institution? Who are we to judge?
Thus we find ourselves returning to fundamental questions. Have we truly eviscerated the central purpose that once made marriage meaningful? If so, then marriage as such is lost to us and we should simply retire the word, along with the legal and cultural structures that accompany it. People should be free to love one another in whatever way they choose, deciding for themselves how to fit sex, fidelity, commitment, and children into their personal-relationship picture. Perhaps we could follow Maria Bello’s lead and refer to all important persons in our lives as “partners,” just to avoid any (polite cough) confusion.
That alternative will be absolutely disastrous for children. If it truly is our only option, our culture is doomed. Happily, there is an alternative. We could try to convert this into the kind of “rock bottom” moment that forces introspection, clarity, and change of trajectory. Obergefell could mark the turning-point. For those who are willing to help, Anderson’s book is a great place to start, because he holds the key.
He is a man who knows what marriage is. This is dangerous stuff, indeed.
Ryan T. Anderson Explains Marriage in Simple Terms
I have particular admiration for Anderson because I think he arrived early at an insight that took me years. I signed onto the “Catholic” understanding of marriage the first time I encountered it, which was about 12 years ago, when I first read this book. It’s a wonderful book. It’s rich and wise and laden with philosophical complexity. I was in awe. The downside was that my view of marriage became wrapped up in a rich, wise, philosophically complex set of arguments, and I walked around for the next several years telling people that the “Catholic” view of marriage was wonderful! But also that it was complicated and obscure.
One day, in the midst of my thousandth effort to break down all this philosophical richness for a skeptical friend, I had an insight. I must stop presenting a natural-law understanding of marriage as strange and obscure. (Also “Catholic.”) It is none of those things. It is absolutely commonsensical. Only the bizarre counter-conditioning of our broken culture makes us think otherwise.
As Anderson tells us in his book, marriage is a “permanent, exclusive union of husband and wife.” It exists, “to bring a man and a woman together as husband and wife, as well as to be father and mother to any children their union produces. Marriage is based on the anthropological truth that men and woman are distinct and complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the social reality that children deserve a mother and a father.”
Marriage exists because a man and woman can forge a unique kind of relationship that no other assortment of people can duplicate. Human love takes many forms, each with its own rewards and attendant obligations, but this is the only kind of love that gives rise to new life. That is why we distinguish and elevate it, and also why we use legal and cultural structures to impose a substantial body of rules and expectations on the married. Disordered procreative relationships beget social chaos, which affects a great many people who were never given the opportunity to “consent.”
It’s really not so tricky, and it’s somewhat shameful that I and my fancy philosophy degree walked around for years agreeing that it was. There are, to be sure, a few objections that regularly arise. (“What about the infertile? Don’t married couples do a lot of things together that aren’t obviously related to babies?”) All of these can be addressed with fairly basic distinctions such as one would cover in an introductory philosophy course. This is the epitome of a case in which “the wise” have stepped in to massively complicate something “the simple” had understood without difficulty for time out of mind.
Could This Be a Rock-Bottom Moment?
Over the course of reading Anderson’s book, the reader is in serious danger of recognizing this terrible truth: knowing what things are is good. It helps a lot in keeping the world sane.
We’ve already seen what happens when people forget what marriage is. We get heartbreak and dysfunction, which first ravages adult lives, then gets obligingly passed on to the next generation. That’s been happening for some time.
Now we’re in a new phase: government-mandated confusion. The people who haven’t yet forgotten what marriage is must be coerced into conceding the point. Naturally, these holdouts tend to be religious people. (Religious traditions have a way of preserving nuggets of sanity when the mainstream culture is going off the rails.) So now we talk a lot about “religious freedom,” although what we really need is just the freedom to remain sane in a culture that increasingly is not. We’re still debating how much leeway to give to religious dissenters, but things clearly aren’t going well when we have to fight this hard for permission to be the crazy ones.
It’s a bleak picture. But before we despair and start building our monasteries, we should reflect on how much these failures go together: loss of understanding of marriage, loss of meaning in marriage, loss of cultural integrity, loss of personal integrity. This is the pattern of cultural decline, and it’s demoralizing, but we shouldn’t despair. Vicious cycles come with this silver lining: they can be broken at many points. And, given a choice, most people still prefer sanity to insanity. Breaking the Left’s stranglehold on public opinion may largely be a matter of offering that choice, and persuading people that it’s still on the table.
“Truth Overruled” presents that choice. It deftly connects the dots between philosophy, sociology, law, and culture, but that’s just the beginning. Anderson is not merely interested in describing the water as the ship goes down. “Some people seem to think the debate is over,” he tells us in the opening pages. “They’re wrong. I have visited more than a hundred college campuses in the last few years, and my experience suggests that there is hope.” He has seen firsthand how much the truth can inspire people. (Even the young! Even the unsympathetic!) It’s exciting to be presented with the possibility that marriage and family can be meaningful and ordered, even in our seemingly-benighted age.
So Anderson makes suggestions for how we can rebuild a culture that recognizes things for what they are, and protects the dignity of men, women, and, especially, of children. Just watching him make the case for marriage, intelligently and without shame, is heartening, and reminds us that cultures can be revived so long as the truth is not wholly lost. “We will decide,” he assures us, “which side of history we are on.”
You can see why Ryan T. Anderson is on the LGBT Most Wanted list. But if you’re thinking of turning him in, read his book first. Don’t you want to know what’s behind the curtain before settling down in Oz?