Mr. Pence and Mrs. Butterworth

Let me start out at the outset by saying that The Onion’s spoof of the WaPo’s revelation that Mike Pence “never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either” is hilarious: Mike Pence Asks Waiter To Remove Mrs. Butterworth From Table Until Wife Arrives.

Let me add, as a second point, that the issue of unequal treatment of women is very much alive today, and affects many women, especially those working in male-dominated sectors like engineering and computer science. We’ll come back to that at the end.

The mini-debate that has been ongoing on about Pence’s policy has been quite interesting. At least one friend on Facebook compared it to The Great Dress Debacle of 2015: conservatives found Pence’s stance perfectly normal while liberals were split between ridiculing him and accusing him of practicing Sharia. Lest you think I’m joking, here’s one example cadged from The Federalist:

So, here are a couple of thoughts.

First, some folks seem to be missing the primary point of a rule like this. It is not, as the mockers deride, because Mr. Pence’s self-control is so flimsy he is afraid that merely sitting next to a woman in a restaurant without supervision would place him in danger of fornicating right there on the spot.

This isn’t a minor confusion. It’s a fundamental misapprehension of an ancient worldview that Christians still adhere to. In religious language: we’re all weak, vulnerable, and prone to sin. In modern, secular language: we’re irrational and often behave in ways that counter our own best interests and/or confound the values and goals we think we have. Doesn’t matter if you call it “fallen nature” or “cognitive bias”, in this context we’re talking about the same thing.

So how does this play out? The most common way that Christians (or other social conservatives) might try to explain a rule like Pence’s goes something like this: Anyone who goes on a diet will start by throwing out all the tempting food in their house.

The problem is that this analogy is very easy to misunderstand. One interpretation–the wrong one–is that cheating on your wife is the same kind of momentary lapse as cheating on your diet. It’s as though absent-mindedly chomping down on a Krispy Kreme you forgot to throw out is equivalent to absent-mindedly wandering into a hotel room with a woman you’re not married too. Lots of folks get as far as this (silly) interpretation and stop there.

The actual interpretation of the metaphor is quite different. It is saying that good behavior is not just about making the right decisions in the moment. It’s about manipulating your environment to make it conducive to the kind of behavior that you want in your life. Social conservatives understand that because we’re irrational creatures with amazing abilities to rationalize our ways into following short-term desires part of being virtuous isn’t just saying no to temptation in the moment, but avoiding it altogether.

Pence’s rule doesn’t draw the line at the moment when he’s tempted to be sexually unfaithful to his wife. It draws the line much, much earlier and so prevents the first seeds of infidelity from ever having a chance to take root in the first place.

I don’t follow Pence’s rule. I think it’s overkill. I’m not interested in trying to convince anyone that his particular rule should be some kind of universal standard for everyone. But I don’t think it’s ridiculous or absurd either. After all–in addition to the concerns about compromising marital fidelity out of an initially innocent friendship–there’s also legitimate concerns about being taken advantage of. Politicians are powerful and that also makes them vulnerable. Just ask the KGB (the FSB, these days) which has employed agents to try and seduce traveling politicians and officials for decades and decades in order to blackmail their targets into betraying state secrets. This is, by the way, one of the reasons that the CIA, FBI, and many other agencies are fond of hiring Mormons. Not only are we extremely family-focused (I know lots of Mormons who follow Pence’s rules), but we also don’t drink. Taken together, this means observant Mormons are less likely to be compromised in this way than the average population.

In the wake of the Republicans failing to pass the AHCA, there was a nauseating avalanche of cutesy Facebook posts from liberal fans of Hamilton. Here’s one:

If you missed the reference, it’s from Cabinet Battle #1, when Madison and Jefferson taunt Hamilton. Other favorites included “Winning was easy… Governing’s harder” and “Do you know how hard it is to lead?”

The funny thing is, if Alexander Hamilton had followed a rule like Mike Pence’s, he could have avoided his part in America’s first political sex-scandal, saved his family a lot of agony, and spared Lin-Manuel Miranda a song or two.

And that brings me to my second point. Just as liberals are happy to take very selective lessons from Hamilton, there’s an awful weird dichotomy in a town where liberals practice all kinds of non-judgmentalism for open marriages but are more than happy to ridicule and deride someone for trying to keep their marriage closed. That’s the point Jonah Goldberg made at the National Review:

Last summer, when Bill Clinton spoke about his wife at the Democratic convention (“In the spring of 1971, I met a girl . . . ”), liberals gushed at the “love story,” and the rule of the day was that marriage is complicated and the Clintons’ ability to stay married (though practically separated) was admirable. Besides, “Who are we to judge?” — no doubt Bill Clinton’s favorite maxim.

It’s a very strange place we’ve found ourselves in when elites say we have no right to judge adultery, but we have every right to judge couples who take steps to avoid it.

He’s not wrong, you know.

I do think there are some legitimate concerns. The most important being that if you’re, say, a business executive who follows these rules, does it mean that you’re creating an environment where you give preferential treatment to men? If a young, up-and-coming male executive could ask you out to lunch to seek your advice, but a young, up-and-coming female executive cannot, then we do have a legitimate problem. It’s also possible to simply take this stance too far. I don’t recall conservatives having a problem with forcing Muslim boys to shake hands with their (female) teachers in Switzerland, for example.

So I’m not saying that it’s impossible to have questions and concerns about a position like Pence’s. But the degree of hostility and deliberate (or at least, lazy) misunderstanding of the rules that the Pences have agreed on for their own marriage are at least as concerning as the rules themselves.

Why Social Conservatives Fight the Culture Wars

875 - Family Portrait

I just read David Brooks’ most recent column: The Next Culture War. In a nutshell, he argues that Christians ought to abandon their decades-long, fighting retreat against the sexual revolution. “Consider putting aside,” he writes, “the culture war oriented around the sexual revolution.” Channeling Disney’s Frozen, he argues that Christians should just let it go. After all, aren’t there enough other problems to tackle? “We live in a society plagued by formlessness and radical flux, in which bonds, social structures and commitments are strained and frayed,” he writes.

I have a lot of respect for David Brooks. He’s one the people I’d most love to have a lunch conversation with. But, he doesn’t seem to understand that his suggestion asks for Christians to bail the water out of a sinking boat while ignoring the hole in the hull.

You see, the sexual revolution is the reason that we live in a society that is “plagued by formlessness and radical flux.” In The Social Animal, Brooks argues against the atomization of society on both the left and on the right, with each side focusing myopically on divisible, separable, self-contained individualism. The left argues that human individuals can construct their own gender and sexual identities free from repercussions and it therefore sees free birth control and elective abortion as fundamental rights. The right views collectivism with a hostile gaze, channeling Ayn Rand at times, and argues for personal responsibility sometimes to the point of callousness. These are twin heads of the same coin, and Brooks is right to focus on it. It is one of the defining philosophical tragedies of our age.

But what he seems to fail to grasp is that this radically individualized view of human nature follows in part directly from the sexual revolution. To the extent that the sexual revolution has been about excising sex from the context of marriage and family, it has been an assault on the biological family unit. And this unit–including the bond of husband and wife to each other and also to their children–comprises the two most essential bonds in human society.

To put it simply, social conservatism is animated in no small part by the conviction that biological families are irreplaceable. And so, to the extent that Brooks’ invitation is for social conservatives to give up and try to replace them, he is asking something of us that we simply cannot provide.

As a brief caveat, it’s not entirely clear that that is what he’s asking. He writes that we ought to “help nurture stable families.” I’m just not sure how he imagines this should be accomplished in practice. At one point, he suggests that conservatives abandon the culture wars while at another point he says that “I don’t expect social conservatives to change their positions on sex.” Which is it? Because conservative positions on sex are their participation in the culture wars. It may be the he merely thinks we should keep those beliefs quiet, but again: how does one practically “help nurture stable families” while abandoning resistance to the sexual revolution? Subjective sexual morality, open relationships, sex before marriage, pornography: these are not incidental things that happen to exist alongside “formlessness and radical flux.” These are the acids in which the stable family–as a normative and aspirational social beacon–dissolves.

And this cuts both ways, by the way. To the extent that social conservatives are unwilling to abandon their commitments, their opponents are equally unlikely to let the issue go. Thus, I have to express a deep skepticism of the upside of Brooks’ plan. His idea is that–if we assume for a moment that it is possible to meaningfully nurture families without participating in the culture wars–that suddenly religion will be well-thought of in the world. All of a sudden, we would be known as “the people who converse with us about the transcendent in everyday life.”

This is impossible, because the commitment social conservatives have to their values is mirrored by the commitment social liberals have to their mutually contradictory values. And as long as social liberals dominate the opinion-making sectors of our society their animosity will continue to be expressed in part by ongoing negative characterization of social conservatives as backwards bigots. And, make no mistake, social liberals do dominate the opinion making sectors of our society: academia, the press, the entertainment industry, and the Internet. Even if social conservatives did go quiet on their beliefs, I have very, very little confidence that our image would suddenly be rehabilitated.

Graph from Business Insider article about political makeup of American industries. Click image for link to article.
Graph from Business Insider article about political makeup of American industries. Click image for link to article.

Here is the reality: social conservatives are fighting the sexual revolution–despite it being a losing proposition thus far–because we believe that nothing does more good for children than being raised by their biological parents and that very little does more harm than for little children to be deprived of this natural right. This belief necessitates viewing sex as more than merely a recreational activity or even a question of strictly intrapersonal, subjective meaning to be negotiated between the willing adult participants. The belief that immature human beings have a strong moral claim on their parents for protection logically requires a view of sex as a deeply significant act for which consenting adults–male and female together–ought to be morally, socially, and legally responsible.

There is certainly room for compromise and innovation within this conflict. The idea that social conservatives want to wholesale turn back the clock to an imaginary 1950s is an unfair stereotype. Much of the progress–both for women and for minorities–since the 1950s comes to us as precious treasure, dearly purchased and should be treated with humility, gratitude, and respect. Many of the contentious technologies that have fueled this debate–from the pill to IVF–are morally neutral technologies which can certainly coexist with a thoughtful, robust view of normative sexual ethics. There is room for these views to be better articulated within social conservatism, and for some social conservatives to take them more seriously and moderate their positions.

And so I do not want to meet Brooks’ call with a hardline refusal. It’s worth considering. What I wish to convey is that social conservatism is restricted in its freedom to adapt. That is not a design flaw. The point of having principles at all is that–while they may be interpreted or applied in innovative or flexible ways–there is a limit to that flexibility. There are some things that a person cannot do without abandoning principle. For social conservatives, the central principle is the care and protection of society’s most vulnerable, which means our children (before and after birth). An additional article of faith is that no institution can replace the biological family in filling that role. As a result, social conservatives not only will not abandon their opposition to the sexual revolution, they cannot do so and remain social conservatives. Can we do more without abandoning that opposition? I’m sure we can, and I hope we never stop being motivated by that question.

On the Current Concerns of Social Conservatives

Photo by Loor101 on DeviantArt.
Photo by Loor101 on DeviantArt. (Click for original source.)

My friend Tom Stringham has an excellent post at his blog Virtuous Society in which he outlines a secular argument against same sex marriage. It’s the single best argument I’ve read, not because it’s new or innovative, but because it’s the most concise expression of all the key points that so many of the same-sex marriage opponents have been focusing on. It begins:

If marriage is a real thing, then before we can decide what the rules of eligibility are, we have to know what it is–what marriage is. We want our marriage law to deal with real marriage, in the same way that, say, our criminal law deals with “real” crime, and not just anything the government wants to call crime.

This is a deft analogy. We all recognize that, technically, whatever the government decides to make criminal is a crime. But we all generally recognize that this technical definition misses something deeper. To the extent that the criminal code is arbitrary, it loses it’s moral force and we stop seeing it as a “real” crime. And so the question becomes: what lurks behind marriage that makes it something worthy recognizing in the first place? This isn’t a historical question, because there’s no point in the history of the institution of marriage at which a bunch of scholars or lawyers or politicians sat down and decided to hash out marriage law from first principles. Marriage laws are a product of evolution, along with much of our legal code, rather than intentional design. But that doesn’t mean that they are arbitrary.

Please read Tom’s post for the rest of his argument.

In the meantime, here are some more thoughts.

First, I think secular arguments tend to be the best kind of arguments because (1) they appeal to a broader audience and (2) by not relying on the claims of any particular religion, they are more compelling. I don’t have anything against specifically religious arguments, but I find that–even as a religious person myself–if it’s a matter of public policy it’s preferable to state the argument in the broadest terms possible. That’s what I’ve always done when it comes to the abortion issue, and it’s what makes sense with the issue of same-sex marriage as well.

Second, I just thought I’d note some other interesting articles I found on the topic recently.

How Same-Sex Marriage Makes Orphans of Us All – This is an article from The Federalist that digs a little deeper into some of the philosophical ramifications of same-sex marriage: “To obliterate the sexual-difference feature of marriage is a radical repudiation of its character and, ominously, of the character of the human person it acknowledges and protects.” Going on:

So not only does same-sex marriage ideology redefine parent, but also child. For on its account, a child comes into the world not naturally related to anyone, but only transactionally connected to the persons responsible for fetching him through various means. No child in a same-sex household derives from the relationship of the partners in that home; every such child has been torn from at least one parent. Rather than a child’s dissociation from parents being a tragedy, it is a necessity and design feature of the same-sex regime.

I realize this is not going to be a remotely well-received argument because of the conclusions it draws, but the logic is fairly straightforward: either biological relationships are intrinsically valuable, or they are not. I believe that they are. That the mere fact of biological relationship–parent to child and also to siblings, cousins, and other kin–means something. And if it does, then deliberately creating children in a way that deprives them of this connection is morally troubling in a way that, for example, adopting children in need is not.

Is having a loving family an unfair advantage? – We may as well expand outward from gay marriage to the family generally to questions of fairness and privilege. Thus, this article from The Philosopher’s Zone which argues that–along with economic and gender and other forms of systemic inequality–having a loving family is also a source of inequality that society should rectify. On the one hand, I appreciate that the philosophers who tackle the question are shooting for a moderate position, they contrast private school (which they believe cannot be justified because it is unfair) with reading to your children (which they say is unfair, but cannot reasonably be stopped.) OK, so they aren’t saying that you can’t read to your kids because of the unfair advantage it gives, but (1) they still think you should feel bad about what you’re doing and (2) moreover the “right” to read your kids bedtime stories is in their conception contingent. The fact of the matter is that having a serious discussion about whether or not to ban bedtime stories is intrinsically alarming, even if the philosophers decide that (based on their particular criteria), reading to your kids is permissible for now. The implication is clear: the right of parents to provide the best environment they can for their own children within the walls of their own home is not absolute, but rather depends on a particular argument that happened to turn out this way today, but could–in the future, under different analysis–turn out in another way.

The Wild Ideas of Social Conservatives – I’ll wrap up with a pre-emptive response to the points I’ve enumerated thus far. One of the common rejoinders to conservative concerns about marriage, the family, and privilege arguments is that conservatives are hysterical. When have their fears ever, ever turned out to be justified? Well, in this post Douthat tackles that contention head on and points out that, well, conservative fears have been born out many times in the past.

It’s not that social conservatives are always right about where American society is going…

But there’s still a broad track record that’s worth considering. In the late 1960s and early ’70s, the pro-choice side of the abortion debate frequently predicted that legal abortion would reduce single parenthood and make marriages more stable, while the pro-life side made the allegedly-counterintuitive claim that it would have roughly the opposite effect; overall, it’s fair to say that post-Roe trends were considerably kinder to Roe’s critics than to the “every child a wanted child” conceit. Conservatives (and not only conservatives) also made various “dystopian” predictions about eugenics and the commodification of human life as reproductive science advanced in the ’70s, while many liberals argued that these fears were overblown; today, from “selective reduction” to the culling of Down’s Syndrome fetuses to worldwide trends in sex-selective abortion, from our fertility industry’s “embryo glut” to the global market in paid surrogacy, the dystopian predictions are basically just the status quo. No-fault divorce was pitched as an escape hatch for the miserable and desperate that wouldn’t affect the average marriage, but of course divorce turned out to havesocial-contagion effects as well. Religious fears that population control would turn coercive and tyrannical were scoffed at and then vindicated. Dan Quayle was laughed at until the data suggested that basically he had it right. The fairly-ancient conservative premise that social permissiveness is better for the rich than for the poor persistently bemuses the left; it also persistently describes reality. And if you dropped some of the documentation from today’s college rape crisis through a wormhole into the 1960s-era debates over shifting to coed living arrangements on campuses, I’m pretty sure that even many of the conservatives in that era would assume that someone was pranking them, that even in their worst fears it couldn’t possibly end up like this.

More broadly, over the last few decades social conservatives have frequently offered “both/and” cultural analyses that liberals have found strange or incredible — arguing (as noted above) that a sexually-permissive society can easily end up with a high abortion rate and a high out-of-wedlock birthrate; or that permissive societies can end up with more births to single parents and fewer births (not only fewer than replacement, but fewer than women actually desire) overall; or that expressive individualism could lead to fewer marriages and greater unhappiness for people who do get hitched. Social liberals, on the other hand, have tended to take a view of human nature that’s a little more positivist and consumerist, in which the assumption is that some kind of “perfectly-liberated decision making” is possible and that such liberation leads to optimal outcomes overall. Hence that 1970s-era assumption that unrestricted abortion would be good for children’s family situations, hence the persistent assumption that marriages must be happier when there’s more sexual experimentation beforehand, etc.

I’m not going to tell you that either side has a monopoly on the truth; human nature is much too complicated for that. But I will say, again, that if you look at the post-1960s trend data — whether it’s on family structure and social capital, fertility and marriage rates, patterns of sexual behavior and their links to flourishing relationships, or just trends in marital contentment and personal happiness more generally — the basic social conservative analysis has turned out to have more predictive power than my rigorously empirical liberal friends are inclined to admit.

Not surprisingly, I agree with Douthat. Social liberals tend to see opposition to gay marriage as merely an expression of bigotry. In some cases, it certainly has been. But, even if this list of social conservative fears proves nothing else, the history of widespread paranoia of social conservatives going back to the 1960s and the ensuing data should underscore the fact that concerns about gay marriage and sexual mores are not isolated outbreaks that can only be explained by appeals to fear or animosity. On the contrary, this kind of opposition is part of a consistent concern for social well-being that has, in at least some important and recent cases, proved to be well-founded.

Are Christians Obsessed with Sex? (First Things)

2014-04-10 Jesus Drawing in the Sand

From time to time a member of the Christian left will admonish the Christian right to stop obsessing about sex. This is a clever move because in addition to undercutting traditional sexual morality it also suggests that those who are concerned with the topic are acting on some secret ulterior motive. Voyeurism? Projection? Repression? Whatever the precise cause, it definitely sounds unhealthy.

Thus begins my post on whether or not traditional Christians are really motivated by sex-obsession in their support of traditional sexual morality. (Spoiler alert: they’re not.)

The folks at First Things thought it was interesting enough for their readers, and so that’s where it’s posted. I’m really humbled to have an outlet that I respect so much publish something I’ve written.

Gay Marriage and Levels of Abstraction

2014-02-13 two-men-arguingAdam Greenwood has a pretty insightful look at one of the commonly confused aspects of arguing about gay marriage over at Junior Ganymede.

A lot of time gets wasted in arguments that are really about what the proper unit of analysis is, without any of the participants quite realizing that is what their argument is about.

Let’s take gay marriage, for example. Defenders of the traditional definition of marriage believe that marriage is fundamentally tied to procreation. Proponents of gay marriage pooh-pooh the suggestion. The defenders, they point out, do not try to prevent old or infertile couples from getting married, nor do they try to prevent couples who have decided not to have children from getting married.

Read the rest for his resolution of this problem, which is really helpful in bringing some clarity to the debate.

Beyond Bigotry: The Real Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage

2013-06-25 Gay Marriage Protest

A lot of things are disconcerting about the same-sex marriage debate. One of them–which I’ve already discussed–is the way that social conservatives were silent for too long in pairing a principled stand for traditional marriage (one Christian virtue) with sincere interest in the welfare of homosexuals as brothers and sisters (an even more important Christian virtue). But another comes from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Eric Teetsel explains it harshly but clearly in a post for the Witherspoon Institute:

Sherif Girgis, Ryan Anderson, and Robert George recently wrote a masterful defense of what marriage is and why it matters. It is no exaggeration to say that their argument is the intellectual foundation for marriage advocates, used by the National Organization for Marriage, the Heritage Foundation, and others (including my own Manhattan Declaration).

What did the same-sex marriage movement do with this seminal book? They ignored it.

They don’t have answers to the authors’ claims; they don’t need them. Advocates of same-sex marriage aren’t concerned about the logic of their arguments or the precedents they establish. Forget facts; theirs is a more powerful weapon in the era of amusement: fad.

As I said: harsh. But I think Teetsel is largely right, even if it could have been expressed with more sensitivity. In almost all cases the “debate” goes something like this: support gay marriage or be tarred a bigot. With some exceptions that seems to be about it. It’s as though Americans who support gay marriage think that the Westboro Baptists genuinely represent the traditional marriage constituency.

They don’t.

With the upcoming Supreme Court decision, this debate may be winding down or moving on. Then again, maybe not. But in either case, I think it would be incredibly beneficial for those who support marriage equality to read the paper Teetsel referenced. It’s called “What Is Marriage?” and it appeared in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. It’s not exactly short or light reading, but as Teetsel points out, it’s the actual expression of what defenders of traditional marriage actually believe. No matter how this debate plays out, I think that’s something worth understanding. Primarily, I might add, because I think while it may not be what gay marriage supporters want to hear (obviously), it’s notably free of what bigotry, animosity, or intolerance as a motivation. Vocal minority of fearful idiots notwithstanding, that’s not what the traditional marriage movement is really about.

So go ahead: give it a read.

Exodus Closure Shows Progress in Social Conservatism

2013-06-21 exodus internationalAlthough I am a social conservative, I believe that social liberals have played and continue to play a vital and important role in challenging the reasons for socially conservative positions. Quite frequently the position you take is less important than the reason you have for holding that position, but this fact has often been lost to both sides of controversial political issues. I feel it acutely because I’m often annoyed or ashamed by the rhetoric or actions of people who are (technically) on the same side of issues as I am. For example, I am pro-life but I cannot abide those who aggressively promote the idea that abortion is equivalent to murder.

I am also deeply skeptical of the arguments for same-sex marriage, but I cannot contest that the argument over the issue has exposed deep, ugly, and un-Christian attitudes within the community of social conservatives. Much of the reaction against the gay rights movement has been born out of fear, pure and simple. I heard once as a kid that there are ultimately only two human motivations: fear and love. Either we act for something we desire, or we react against something we fear. There’s room for caution and prudence in this paradigm, but fear is almost invariably a symptom that something is wrong. In acting out of fear, social conservatives have been too slow to denounce indefensible treatment of homosexuals or–in the worst cases–have even employed bigotry as a political weapon. They have failed to live up to the example and teachings of Christ and, in the long run, nothing has done more to damage their cause then this alliance with hatred.

And so I’m extremely impressed with what I have read coming from Exodus International today.

Read moreExodus Closure Shows Progress in Social Conservatism