The Ultimate Protestant: Wendell Berry, Same-Sex Marriage, and the New State Religion

It is unjust to grant natural families public recognition while denying the same to gay couples, argued agrarian writer Wendell Berry in a 2013 speech he gave at Georgetown College in Kentucky. He went on to characterize those who would see law condone marriage—but not sodomy—as trying to get Christianity “officialized in some version by a government” and as recreating “pretty exactly the pattern of the chief priest and his crowd at the trial of Jesus. For want of a Pilate of their own, some Christians would accept a Constantine or whomever might be the current incarnation of Caesar.” Berry dismisses the belief that homosexuality is a sterile and deviant behavior. For him, homophobia is a more pressing problem for communities than homosexual activism: “Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term?”  (“Wendell Berry Expounds On Gay Marriage,” Associated Baptist Press)

Should we be startled by such declarations, or shouldn’t we? Yes—and no. On one hand there is the rather unexpected sight of a tobacco farmer born in 1930s Kentucky pondering aloud how he might feel were he “one of a homosexual couple.” On the other, we recall that Berry’s work invokes the ideals of the 1960s at least as much as it does those of the Bible Belt, and that he has connections to a Democratic Party which today cares far more for the gospel of sexologist Albert Kinsey than for its historical voter base of country folk and factory workers. In other words, Berry’s Georgetown College speech highlights a deep contradiction within the man’s rural mystique. The Georgetown speech calls for a serious and honest re-evaluation of the thought that led up to it, and we might begin such a re-examination by considering Jayber Crow, Berry’s widely celebrated millennial novel.

A subjective sacrament

A first-person meditation on the devastation wrought in 20th-century Kentucky via war and agribusiness, Jayber Crow depicts the title character’s adventures as an orphan, then as Baptist seminarian, then as resident barber for the fictional community of Port William. As many of its readers have noted, the narrative is partially patterned after that of the Divine Comedy, with a charming and vivacious farmer’s daughter named Mattie Keith playing Beatrice to Jayber’s Dante.

Mattie unfortunately winds up married to the self-centered and adulterous Troy Chatham, and Jayber is left to suffer vicariously as she patiently endures wrong after wrong. At last Jayber can take no more: one night, outraged by an especially egregious example of Troy’s infidelity, he makes a private resolution to become the man Mattie needs but has never had.

“You’re proposing,” he asks himself, “to be the faithful husband of a woman who is already married to an unfaithful husband?”

“Yes. That’s why,” he replies. “If she has an unfaithful husband, then she needs a faithful one.”

The dialogue’s inner logic unfolds to a surprising conclusion:

“A woman already married who must never know that you are her husband? Think. And who will never be your wife?”


“Have you foreseen how this may end? Can you?”


“Are you ready for this? Think, now.”

“Yes. I am ready.”

“Do you, then, in love’s mystery and fear, give yourself to this woman to be her faithful husband from this day forward, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death?”

“I do. Yes! That is my vow.”  (Jayber Crow, 242-243)

So Jayber spends the rest of his days as a selfless celibate, never divulging his promise to anyone, but always ready to provide Mattie with the help and support she fails to receive from Troy. As time passes, he comes to see in his vow some striking implications: “I was married to Mattie Chatham but she was not married to me, which pretty fairly balanced her marriage to Troy, who became always less married to her, though legally (and varyingly in appearance) he remained her husband.”

To be clear, Jayber’s chaste and secret love for Mattie is not necessarily objectionable in itself. Is there anything inherently wrong with a bachelor heroically devoting himself to a woman unhappily married? No. The problem is hardly love per se, but rather a subtle falsehood about the sacrament that lies at the heart of the family. Far from glorifying marriage vows, Berry’s narrative trivializes them, insofar as it denies their irrevocable and objective character. However noble Jayber’s devotion to Mattie may be, no power in the entire cosmos—not even the eloquent words of an accomplished poet—can make one man the husband of another man’s wife. Emotion does not prevail over sacred mystery, nor personal merit over metaphysical bonds established by our Lord: the two are made one flesh, period. A spouse is a spouse, much as parents are parents and offspring offspring, regardless of whether the person occupying the role in question lives up to it.

Old-time religion? No thanks

Given Jayber’s view of marriage, it is unsurprising that he views the country church as largely superfluous. While he appreciates Sunday services as an occasion for some charming old-time hymns, Jayber has little use for the various gloomy, killjoy preachers who have “learned to have a very high opinion of God and a very low opinion of his works.” In contrast to such preachers, Jayber proclaims Port William’s “true religion”: Delight in God’s Creation and in the pleasures of good eating, family, and natural beauty.

Jayber has a point. We do owe gratitude for “the beauty and goodness of this world.” Feasting, liturgy, art, and architecture are good, both in themselves and as a means of drawing finite beings closer to God. Furthermore, wanton immorality and the anti-material Puritanical streak too common to American Christianity are merely two sides of the same coin: if we teach people that nature is utterly depraved they will, quite naturally, be prone to utterly depraved deeds.

The pity is that Jayber avoids one mistake only to fall into another. Certainly, beauty and pleasure are important elements of the Faith, yet it is crucial to remember that they are still parts and not the whole. The Bible not only celebrates the joys of God’s Creation but also cautions in no uncertain terms against making that Creation—or any part of it—into an idol.  For that matter, even Aristotle warned that pleasure, though indeed a good, is something that must be treated very carefully and cautiously: “And in everything we must beware above all of pleasure and its sources; for we are already biased in its favor when we come to judge it.” So just as it is an error to turn the wondrous blessing of food into unnaturally utilitarian McFuel, for aesthetes there is at least as great a danger of making an overcultivated god of the belly.

In any case, Jayber’s antipathy toward churches has even more fundamental causes, and the Port William ministers he rejects may at least be consoled by the fact that they are in good company. The reason Jayber never completed his training at seminary is because of a stumbling-block he encountered in Scripture itself:

I saw the Bible as pretty much slanting upward until it got to Jesus, who forgave even the ones who were killing him while they were killing him, and then slanting down again when it got to St. Paul. I was truly moved by the stories of Jesus in the Gospels. I could imagine them. The Nativity in the Gospel of Luke and the Resurrection in the Gospel of John I could just shut my eyes and see. I could imagine everything until I got to the letters of Paul.  (50)

There is “a big difference,” Jayber tells the reader, between “Jesus’ unqualified command, ‘Love your enemies [Mt 5:44],’ and Paul the Apostle’s ‘If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men [Rom 12:18],’ which amounts to permission not to live peaceably with all men.” In other words, it is Jayber’s conviction that the apostolate of Paul represents a watered-down, compromised Gospel. This conviction eventually leads Jayber to his true faith:

I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the fields and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here.  (320-321)

To be sure, connecting Jayber’s Protestantism and anti-Pauline sentiments with Berry’s speech at Georgetown College may seem somewhat unfair to Protestants. After all, the overwhelming majority of conservative Protestants recognize St. Paul as a genuine apostle of our Lord, as someone by whose words we may judge our private opinions rather than vice versa. In this day and age, some Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Baptists adhere to Catholic principles regarding sexuality more closely than do many Catholics themselves. Yet insofar as a Protestant reverently preserves intact whatever fragment of the Faith he has received, he is not acting as a Protestant; that is, in him the mutagenic spirit of Protestantism remains dormant and suppressed by a remnant of catholicity. One needn’t be especially disposed to ecumenism or soft on Protestantism to see the relevant distinction here: There are Protestants who think of the Reformation as a justifiable, necessary evil carried out in response to abuses, and then there is the “ultimate Protestant” who sees as desirable in itself the disembodiment and disintegration of the Catholic Church.

The new state religion

Berry’s anxieties about a state religion are ironic, given that the spirit of egalitarian inclusiveness to which he appealed in his Georgetown College speech has itself functioned for quite some time as a state religion.  Moreover, this state religion shows every sign of becoming more militant in its dealings with those who reject it. It is worth noting that not long after Berry’s speech and a mere half-hour’s drive from where he gave it, the city council of Frankfort, Kentucky passed the hotly debated Fairness Ordinance, which empowers a seven-member human rights commission to investigate, identify, and punish “homophobic” business owners.  Similar measures have been imposed throughout the Commonwealth—with considerable support from members of the localist movement.

Even if society were not already laboring under the constraints of a stifling political correctness that treats any transgression of language or belief as grave matter worthy of censure, Berry’s insistence upon a wall of separation between church and state reveals a profound confusion inherent to liberalism itself. How can any church possibly be relevant to the world we live in without in some sense being “political”? How can the religion which is abandoned every time one enters a voting booth or assumes the lawmaker’s chair or dons the magistrate’s robes be anything other than a hobby? For that matter, how can any piece of legislation avoid being rooted in some fundamental idea of man and his destiny? Are public officials who hold nothing sacred really what we want?

A great part of loving one’s enemies consists of treating them fairly, of keeping in mind their humanity and giving them credit wherever credit is due. So none of these observations deny Berry’s literary talent, or the fact that he has made some penetrating observations about modern life. If materialistic atheists like Karl Marx and postmodern neopagans like Nietzsche have insights to offer—and they certainly do—so too does Berry. At the same time, “love your enemies” does not mean “pretend you haven’t any.” The peculiar danger in this case is that we are more likely to mistake for a kindred spirit a writer who quotes Genesis and Gerard Manley Hopkins than we might Marx and Nietzsche.

Such a mistake is one we cannot afford to make, however, for there are fundamental truths which a radical anti-authoritarian like Berry cannot accept and which we must never forget. Without the rock of authority to build upon, there is neither family nor community nor any form of membership whatsoever. The ultimate Protestant ethos advocated in Wendell Berry’s work is not a remedy for our increasingly dehumanized mass-society; it is, rather, very much a part of the problem.

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About Jerry Salyer 56 Articles
Catholic convert Jerry Salyer is a philosophy instructor and freelance writer.