America’s Golden Calf Moment

Led by the murky metaphysics of Judge Anthony Kennedy, the U.S. plunges ever deeper into the dictatorship of relativism

(Photos: | tunedin & davidevison)

(Photos: | tunedin & davidevison)

“There is no true liberty except the liberty of the happy who cleave to the eternal law.” — St. Augustine, On Freewill

“Conservative commentator, and Blaze contributor, S.E. Cupp broke down on-air Friday after the Supreme Court decided in favor of same-sex marriage. Cupp was overjoyed, and said Republicans have to accept gay marriage or risk becoming ‘relics.’” — The Blaze, June 26, 2015


The great division in modern politics, argued Russell Kirk in The Politics of Prudence, “is not between totalitarians on the one hand and liberals (or libertarians) on the other; instead, it lies between all those who believe in a transcendent moral order, on the one side, and on the other side all those who mistake our ephemeral existence as individuals for the be-all and end-all.”

There is, however, a third possibility—although it is, in fact, just a devilish riff on the latter, liberal stance: the belief that the language of the transcendent moral order can be conveniently applied, like a sort of cheap and convenient paint, over the relativistic “order” that now, in so many ways, dominates the United States. It is a sort of metaphysics, but without any cohesive understanding of first things or vision of the transcendent order, something like an arrogant man awkwardly holding a hammer and saw and claiming to be “a carpenter,” but with little or no idea how to build—or even why to build.

Justice Anthony Kennedy is one such carpenter, having written the now infamous and risible line (in 1992, in “Planned Parenthood vs. Casey”): “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” In “Obergefell v. Hodges”, sent down yesterday from the enlightened mountaintops of the same blind but liberty-loving universe, Kennedy deigned to explain to us somnolent citizens the ways of the cosmos and, secondarily, the court:

It is demeaning to lock same-sex couples out of a central institution of the Nation’s society, for they too may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage. The limitation of marriage to opposite-sex couples may long have seemed natural and just, but its inconsistency with the central meaning of the fundamental right to marry is now manifest.

This aspiration to transcendence via marriage is apparently important to Kennedy, for he repeats it: “Same-sex couples, too, may aspire to the transcendent purposes of marriage and seek fulfillment in its highest meaning.” This builds on his earlier assertion that “the annals of human history reveal the transcendent importance of marriage. … Marriage is sacred to those who live by their religions and offers unique fulfillment to those who find meaning in the secular realm. Its dynamic allows two people to find a life that could not be found alone, for a marriage becomes greater than just the two persons. Rising from the most basic human needs, marriage is essential to our most profound hopes and aspirations.”

And what are those hopes and aspirations? It’s not entirely clear, although it apparently involves being loved and having companionship. However, it is clear Kennedy has discovered how mankind, for countless centuries and in numerous and varied cultures, has failed to understand how nasty and narrow-minded it has been, and continues to be. But, now, in the fullness of time (as I suppose the Gospel of Gay might put it), The Enlightened above us have “new insight” and vision:

The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all of its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning. When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.

At times, it is difficult to tell if Kennedy is a judge or a contender for Oprah’s empty throne in the land of therapeutic television:

The right to marry thus dignifies couples who “wish to define themselves by their commitment to each other.” … 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.

It brings to mind advice I was given in my teens by my father: “Don’t date a girl just because you want to be with someone, and don’t get married just because you are lonely.” Of course, neither of my parents have law degrees or black robes; they have, however, been married for fifty years, for what that might be worth.


Many Americans are probably familiar, in some way, with the story of the Golden Calf; a few may have even read the actual text in the Bible (Exodus 32, which is near the front of the Bible, for those keeping score at home). As strange as it might seem, there is a direct and important connection between that story and the SCOTUS extension of the Reign of Gay.

A bit of context is necessary: while the Hebrews had been liberated so they could go back to the promised land, they were specifically freed in order to render true worship to God. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger noted in The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius, 2000), that second goal is found in God’s command, delivered to Pharoah by Moses: “Let my people go to serve me in the wilderness”—a command repeated several more times (Ex 7:16; 8:1; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 25). The Israelite’s sacrifices to their God—the one true God—were to be offered outside of Egypt, in the wilderness. Thus the essential goal of the Exodus, says Ratzinger, “is shown to be worship, which can only take place according to God’s measure…”

Thus, the chapters leading up to the dramatic account of the worship of the Golden Calf contain an account of the giving of the Law (Ex 19-23), including the command, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex 20:3); the ratification of the covenant, which was essentially a marital vow between God and the people (Ex 24); then detailed instructions for the building of the Tabernacle, which would contain a sanctuary where God would dwell (Ex 25:8) so he could be with the people in a unique way.

In short, the chosen people were to demonstrate their identity through worship, and they were to be guided, molded, and directed through the Law, while holding fast to the sacred vow they had declared in the covenantal ceremony: “All the words which the LORD has spoken we will do!” (Ex 24:3). But once Moses was up Mount Sinai for some time, the people became restless and demanded that Aaron, the brother of Moses and the high priest, construct for them “a god who will go before us…” (Ex 32:1). Aaron, who was the pleasing type and a sort of Justice Kennedy of his time, agreed. He gathered together gold jewelry from the people and fashioned “a molten calf” and the people declared: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” And Aaron built an altar and then stated: “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the LORD.”

And, indeed, they worshiped the Golden Calf the following day, which is why the Apostle Paul described them as “idolaters” (1 Cor 10:7). In our day, of course, there are no idolaters: just people who want the courts and everyone else to promote and celebrate their desires, passions, and “loves”, no matter the damage to truth, language, and a host of interwoven private and public relationships. The United States, which was founded in large part because of a desire for religious liberty, has turned liberty into a religion. But it is not the liberty found in the eternal law, for it is a faux liberty based on what St. John Paul II calls “a false concept of the autonomy of earthly realities” which “produces particularly baneful effects…” (Veritatis Spendor, 39).


Pope Francis, in Lumen Fidei, refers to the famous account of the Golden Calf, noting that one reason idols are attractive is because they are “the work of our hands” and that before an idol “there is no risk that we will be called to abandon our security”. And:

Idols exist, we begin to see, as a pretext for setting ourselves at the centre of reality and worshiping the work of our own hands. Once man has lost the fundamental orientation which unifies his existence, he breaks down into the multiplicity of his desires; in refusing to await the time of promise, his life-story disintegrates into a myriad of unconnected instants. Idolatry, then, is always polytheism, an aimless passing from one lord to another. Idolatry does not offer a journey but rather a plethora of paths leading nowhere and forming a vast labyrinth. Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: “Put your trust in me!”

Among the idols of our age are false autonomy, disordered liberty, and false freedom. The rotten fruits are all around us: greed and lust, contraception and abortion, fornication and adultery, pride and homosexuality. These reflect a multiplicity of desires, each promising freedom while never delivering on the promise, for our deepest desire can only be satisfied by and in God. And so satisfaction is sought in consumption, in having, in possessing, and in even trying to remake ourselves and our natures into something they are not and cannot be.

“When people become self-centred and self-enclosed,” says Francis in his new encyclical, “their greed increases. The emptier a person’s heart is, the more he or she needs things to buy, own and consume. It becomes almost impossible to accept the limits imposed by reality.” This comes in the context of physical goods, but also applies to personal relationships. Once a disordered desire—for a thing, for a person, for an act—becomes the center of our lives, we must make everything else stand behind it and bow before it. When something or someone in God’s creation becomes the center of our life and the focus of our passions, we must turn against God himself; in short, we become insane. Even though we can, by reason, recognize God’s “eternal power and deity”, as the Apostle Paul told the Roman Christians, those who pursue lusts and impurity refuse to honor or worship him. “Claiming to be wise,” he states, “they became fools…”

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed for ever! Amen. For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural, and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in their own persons the due penalty for their error. (Rom 1:24-27)

Because, as I’ve noted before, the ultimate issue here is not “marriage”—as vital as it is—but the identity of actions and relationships contrary to nature and to the ordered created by God out of love and goodness.


“What is the purpose of our life in this world?” asks Pope Francis in Laudato Si’, “Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts?”

Americans, on a whole, don’t care for these sorts of questions; the answers, if they are attempted at all, are subjective and private in nature. After all, we shouldn’t force our beliefs on others! That is unAmerican! Unless, of course, it is the belief that we create our own meaning and purpose. Then it can be foisted on the country by Supreme Court Justices who assure us that we are going to evolve, even if we have qualms about where such a murky process will lead. “History and tradition guide and discipline the inquiry but do not set its outer boundaries,” insists Justice Kennedy, “When new insight reveals discord between the Constitution’s central protections and a received legal stricture, a claim to liberty must be addressed.”

Of course, not all of the Justices were taken in by the thrill of juridical tyranny. “Five lawyers have closed the debate and enacted their own vision of marriage as a matter of constitutional law,” lamented Justice Scalia, who was joined by Justices Roberts, Thomas, and Alito. “Stealing this issue from the people will for many cast a cloud over same-sex marriage, making a dramatic social change that much more difficult to accept.”

Alito, in particular, offered an eloquent defense of marriage, which read, in part:

For millennia, marriage was inextricably linked to the one thing that only an opposite-sex couple can do: procreate. Adherents to different schools of philosophy use different terms to explain why society should formalize marriage and attach special benefits and obligations to persons who marry. Their basic argument is that States formalize and promote marriage, unlike other fulfilling human relationships, in order to encourage potentially procreative conduct to take place within a lasting unit that has long been thought to provide the best atmosphere for raising children. … By imposing its own views on the entire country, the majority facilitates the marginalization of the many Americans who have traditional ideas. Recalling the harsh treatment of gays and lesbians in the past, some may think that turnabout is fair play. But if that sentiment prevails, the Nation will experience bitter and lasting wounds… Even enthusiastic supporters of same-sex marriage should worry about the scope of the power that today’s majority claims. Today’s decision shows that decades of attempts to restrain this Court’s abuse of its authority have failed.

I doubt Justice Kennedy is concerned about his abuse of power. After all, he long ago went from delivering opinions of the court to uttering proclamations of the cultus—the religion and rites of the Sexual Revolution, which are now focused, at least for a time, in the Reign of Gay. He is the high priest of what David Schindler calls “instrumentalist metaphysics,” the dynamism of which is rooted in the dictatorship of relativism. One might also call it a form of gnosticism, in which only a few have the rarefied knowledge enabling them to say: “Trust us. Or else.”

But we also shouldn’t forget that when Aaron built the Golden Calf, he did so at the behest of a faithless, restless people. “Modern man,” observed Abp. Fulton Sheen many decades ago, “has so long preached a doctrine of false tolerance; he has so long believed that right and wrong were only differences in a point of view, that now when evil works itself out in practice he is paralyzed to do anything against it.” While many are paralyzed, we must be prayerful, aware that the transcendent moral order endures, for God and truth are not relics.

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About Carl E. Olson 1200 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.

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