An atheist identifies “the central problem with the gay marriage agenda”


What is the central problem? Here’s some analysis from a former Catholic who now describes himself as a “atheistic libertarian” and a “radical humanist”:

The central problem with the gay marriage agenda is not that at some point in the future an unwilling man of the cloth might be strongarmed into giving his blessing to a gay union, but rather that it allows the state to do something that was traditionally considered beyond its purview: to redefine the meaning of marriage and, by extension, the meaning of the marital home, the family, and our most intimate relationships. Some have sought to depict the drive for gay marriage as a continuation of the struggle for civil rights that exploded in the mid-twentieth century; it’s better understood as a continuation, and intensification, of the modern state’s desire to get a foot in the door of our private lives and to assume sovereignty over our relationships.

From the get-go, the depiction of the campaign for gay marriage as a liberty-tinged movement for greater equality was questionable to say the least. For a start, grassroots public protesting for the right of homosexuals to marry was notable by its absence. Instead, this has been a movement led by lawyers and professional activists, backed by the CEOs of hedge-fund corporations and newspapers of record such as The Times, and it has actively sought to insulate itself from engagement with the prejudicial public. …

That was Brendan O’Neill, editor of Spiked!, in a December 2012 essay titled, “The iron fist in the velvet glove of gay marriage”. The piece is worth reading, in part because it’s helpful to see how an atheist approaches the topic, and in part because O’Neill hones in on the issue of raw, political power wielded by elites (who are not just “cultural elites” but also rich and powerful folks who really want to be even more rich and powerful)—a serious and legitimate concern that should be highlighted by Catholics and others as often as possible. As O’Nell states, “The elitist nature of the gay-marriage campaign can also be seen in the way it is treated as something that shouldn’t be publicly debated, an issue on which no dissent can be brooked.”

While some scoff at the notion of “culture wars”, it isn’t a laughing matter at all, especially since it is increasingly becoming a war to the death, in this case, the desired death of marriage. In just a couple paragraphs, O’Neill describes the Big Picture with sharp clarity and, I think, accuracy:

It seems clear that the radical civil rights imagery cynically wheeled out by gay marriage advocates disguises that this is in truth a highly elitist, debate-allergic campaign. That is because, fundamentally, gay marriage speaks to, not any public thirst for the overhaul of marriage, but rather the narrow needs of some of the most elitist strata in our society. The benefit of the gay marriage issue for our rulers and betters is twofold. First, it allows them to pose as enlightened and cosmopolitan, as bravely willing to to enact ‘civilising measures’, in contrast with the bigots who make up the more traditional, religious or lumpen sections of society. As one observer said yesterday, gay marriage has become a ‘red line’ in politics, determining one’s goodness or badness. Supporting gay marriage has become a key cultural signifier, primarily of moral rectitude, among everyone from politicians to the media classes to bankers: that is, members of an elite who have increasingly few opportunities for moral posturing in these relativistic times. And second, and crucially, gay marriage satisfies the instinct of the authorities to meddle in marital and family life; it throws open to state intervention previously no-go zones, including the very meaning of our most intimate relationships. …

What we’re witnessing here is the state determination that the role of marriage that has been carved out by numerous communities over immensely long periods of time, free of state guidance, no longer has any relevance or cultural worth, since now, by state decree, marriage is about ‘love and commitment’ rather than having the ‘distinguishing purpose [of] having and raising children’.

Consider, for example, how in January 2012, Kalen Holmes, Starbucks executive vice president, expressed public support for “same sex marriage” in Washington State, saying, “The “important legislation is core to who we are and what we value as a company.” Not making good espresso. Not roasting quality beans. Not serving customers. No, none of those is as important for a coffee house as supporting the radical re-defining of marriage. The brilliance of the strategy is hard to deny: instead of getting trapped in a debate they simply cannot win on facts, merit, or logic, the supporters of “gay marriage” simply say, “Hey, everyone cool loves and supports it!” It’s just like being in junior high all over again, when the super cool and clueless kids tell the uncool kids and confused kids what to do and when to do it—just because.

A month ago, O’Neill (who has written several pieces on the topic) followed up with a piece, “Gay marriage: a case study in conformism” (Apr 11, 2013), in which he pointed out that in his twenty years of writing about and debating politically-charged and controversial topics, “I have never encountered an issue like gay marriage, an issue in which the space for dissent has shrunk so rapidly, and in which the consensus is not only stifling but choking.” He has received death threats. And friends, he writes, have told him: “Stop writing about it. It isn’t worth it.” Is this, O’Neill asks,

a good thing, evidence that we had a heated debate on a new civil right and the civil rightsy side won? I don’t think so. I don’t think we can even call this a ‘consensus’, since that would imply the voluntaristic coming together of different elements in concord. It’s better described as conformism, the slow but sure sacrifice of critical thinking and dissenting opinion under pressure to accept that which has been defined as a good by the upper echelons of society: gay marriage. Indeed, the gay-marriage campaign provides a case study in conformism, a searing insight into how soft authoritarianism and peer pressure are applied in the modern age to sideline and eventually do away with any view considered overly judgmental, outdated, discriminatory, ‘phobic’, or otherwise beyond the pale.

This essay is also worth reading in its entirety, as O’Neill’s analysis is worth chewing on and digesting. For example:

In truth, the extraordinary rise of gay marriage speaks, not to a new spirit of liberty or equality on a par with the civil-rights movements of the 1960s, but rather to the political and moral conformism of our age; to the weirdly judgmental non-judgmentalism of our PC times; to the way in which, in an uncritical era such as ours, ideas can become dogma with alarming ease and speed; to the difficulty of speaking one’s mind or sticking with one’s beliefs at a time when doubt and disagreement are pathologised. Gay marriage brilliantly shows how political narratives are forged these days, and how people are made to accept them. This is a campaign that is elitist in nature, in the sense that, in direct contrast to those civil-rights agitators of old, it came from the top of society down; and it is a campaign which is extremely unforgiving of dissent or disagreement, implicitly, softly demanding acquiescence to its agenda.

So for all the comparisons of the gay-marriage movement to the civil-rights movement, in fact the most striking thing about gay marriage is its origins among the elite. As Caldwell says, ‘never since the Progressive Era has there been a social movement as elite-driven as the one for gay marriage’. In his new book, Michael Klarman describes how judges, not streetfighthers, spearheaded the gay-marriage campaign; he even bizarrely calls judges a ‘distinctive subculture’ of the cultural elite, which ‘tends to be even more liberal than the general public on issues such as gender equality and gay equality’. Another favourable account of the rise of gay marriage notes how it was led by ‘lawyers and professors’, who counselled against engaging with the public since making ‘open demands for gay marriage [could] trigger a backlash’(1).

The gay writer John D’Emilio has critiqued gay campaigners’ reliance on the courts, arguing that this ‘conviction that [the law] is the way to change the world… would have been considered unusual for much of American history’ (2). Yet this is where gay marriage emerged – in courtrooms and later in political committee rooms, among those apparently ‘more liberal than the public’ – and as Caldwell says: ‘When elites rally unanimously to a cause, it can become a kind of common sense.’ This was the first stage in the great conformism over gay marriage: its transformation into common sense through being adopted and promoted by a legal and political class keen to demonstrate its liberal credentials and to assume an historic, MLK-style posture in our otherwise flat, uninspiring and illiberal political era.

Are such arguments and analysis attractive to those who are not Christian and who generally drift in the secular sea? I’m not sure, but my inclination is to sigh, “To some degree, but not much.” If Americans at one time wished to make their own way and “be their own man” (a temptation fraught with its own dangers), they increasingly seem more interested in dutifully chasing after the popular kids, lapping at their heels like puppies seeking a master, especially one with some glitz and flash. Peer pressure is real and fears of losing status, prestige, and opportunities are very real. As O’Neill asks: “How many other people are saying ‘yes’ not because they believe in gay marriage, but because they don’t want, in Caldwell’s words, to be thought of as ‘losers’ who have failed to ‘emulate their betters’?”

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.