The American traditionalist blogosphere has been alive with alarm and despondency at the recent decision (by five to four votes) of the Supreme Court to mandate gay ‘marriage’ in all the States of the Union. Terms like ‘apostasy’ and ‘idolatry’ have been bandied about. Why this decision – foolish as it clearly is – should have come as a shock to people who have lived all their lives in a republic so clearly based on the superstitions of the European Enlightenment is something of a mystery.
Two Enlightenment principles seem to be operative here. The first is the inviolable autonomy of the individual. The second is the Enlightenment’s preferential option for the future over the past. Both are amply illustrated by Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Judgement.
The preferential option for the future is explained by Anthony Pagden in a recent book (‘The Enlightenment and Why it Still Matters’):
Unlike either the Renaissance or the Reformation, the Enlightenment had begun not as an attempt to rescue some hallowed past, but as an assault on the past in the name of the future. ‘If a century could be described as “philosophical” merely because it rejected the wisdom of past centuries’, wrote the mathematician and philosopher Jean D’Alembert ‘…then the eighteenth would have to be called the “century of Philosophy par excellence” ‘. It was a period which sought to overturn every intellectual assumption, every dogma, every ‘prejudice’ (a favourite term) that had previously exercised any hold over the minds of men.
So Kennedy blithely admits that homosexuality was regarded, by the medical profession until very recent times, as an illness or a disorder:
When the American Psychiatric Association published the first Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in 1952, homosexuality was classified as a mental disorder, a position adhered to until 1973. Only in more recent years have psychiatrists and others recognized that sexual orientation is both a normal expression of human sexuality and immutable.
But for him even the recent past is a dead letter beside the enlightenment of the present and the widening horizons of freedom which the future holds.
He has no doubt that present opinions are to be preferred to past ‘prejudices’; but because he is a lawyer, he needs to cite precedent (and indeed the Constitution) in defence of his position. The preferential option for the future allows him to assume that the provisions of the Constitution enshrine rights and freedoms of which its authors were ignorant and to which, in all historical probability, they were firmly opposed.
The inviolable autonomy of the individual is famously the theme of the gay torch song which briefly became an anthem of the movement:
I am what I am, I am my own special creation
So come take a look, give me the hook or the ovation…
I am what I am, and what I am needs no excuses
I deal my own deck, sometimes the ace, sometimes the deuces.
There’s one life and there’s no return and no deposit;
One life so it’s time to open up your closet.
Life’s not worth a damn till you can say, hey world, I am what I am.
Justice Kennedy puts the matter more prosaically:
Same-sex couples seek in marriage the same legal treatment as opposite-sex couples, and it would disparage their choices and diminish their personhood to deny them this right.
What both statements clearly assert is a person’s right to be judged and evaluated on their own terms without external or historical referents. So marriage must be redefined relationally rather than procreationally, and language previously thought to refer to procreation (‘family’, ‘parent’, ‘son’, ‘daughter’, etc.) must be realigned to new circumstances.
Justice Kennedy is moving in his account of this relational view of marriage:
Marriage responds to the universal fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there. It offers the hope of companionship and understanding and assurance that while both still live there will be someone to care for the other.
But, as all past usage demonstrates, it is too circumscribed and too narrow.
Critics are right to suppose that the Judgement is unchristian (and probably anti-Christian) since, logically pursued, its premises radically undermine the basis of Christian believing. Christianity is a revealed religion. It is tied to past events and things given. Its language is that of grace rather than rights. The radical assertion of autonomy in Ms Gaynor’s torch song, with its provocative use of the Tetragrammaton, will always seem blasphemous to them.