Kentucky and the confusion over “rights” and “beliefs”

The word “belief” is not the appropriate word for marriage; marriage is a fact, not a “belief”.

The September 2nd edition of the Wall Street Journal discussed the case of Kim Davis, the Kentucky clerk who will not issue a marriage license to two gays who armed with newly-found “constitutional rights” (Davis has since been jailed.) At the end of this piece, a gay man sums up his position thusly: “You (the clerk) have a ‘right’ to your ‘beliefs’. You don’t have the ‘right’ to take our (gay men’s) ‘rights’ based on your ‘beliefs’”

One could hardly find a sentence oozing more slippery criteria than this one. I have put quotation marks around the words “beliefs” and “rights”. The word “rights” appears three times, “beliefs” twice in a sentence of twenty words. The word “reason” does not appear at all. Nor does the word “law” occur, let alone the word “marriage” or “liberty.

Let’s begin with the word “marriage”. This word means the union of a man and a woman for the purpose of begetting, raising, and educating their children in a home.  If an “arrangement” between two human beings cannot instigate or beget a human child, it is not a marriage. If we insist on calling it a “marriage”, we speak equivocally. That is, we lie to ourselves about what is. [Editor’s note: See "Four Responses to the ‘What About Infertility?’ Argument” by Ryan T. Anderson.]

The word “belief” is not the appropriate word for marriage. Marriage is a fact, not a “belief”. To imply that it is a “belief” means, in modern context, that it has no grounding in reality. It is improper to call marriage a “belief”.

The state, the Leviathan, is the result of the combined “power” of individuals. In this capacity, it can enforce whatever it wants on citizens to keep peace. “Rights” mean, and only mean, in this understanding, what the state imposes. It has no natural limits; it denies that there are any. It is the ultimate and only authority with final “power”. Those who resist are either forced to capitulate or are effectively eliminated.

The German sociologist Max Weber is responsible for the next step. Human beings have no “natural” ends, or “values”. Whatever they want has no other criterion other than what they want. Social science is the discipline that best advises us on how to achieve these ends, whatever they are. It has nothing to say about whether ends (values) are worthy or not. There is no end to determine any difference. “Rights” become, as in Hobbes, whatever means we need to achieve our “values”, which have no basis in the objective world—because there is no objective world. The expertise of the scientist, doctor, politician, or other expert enables us best to achieve whatever we want.

In the light of these reflections, let’s “translate” into English the WSJ-cited sentence of the gay gentleman to the Kentucky clerk: “Your (the clerk’s) arbitrary ‘beliefs’ (values, rights) were once in power. My equally arbitrary ‘beliefs’ (values, rights) are now in power. Until you regain ‘power’, my ‘beliefs’ (rights, values) rule. Your ‘beliefs’ will be forced to yield to my ‘beliefs.’” That should clarify things a bit.

The issue created by so-called gay “marriage” is that it is not an issue of “belief”. It is an issue of reason. If one’s beliefs also confirm the precepts of reason, the issue does not become a “belief”. It remains what it is, again, an issue of reason. Religious believers and their leaders have made a major tactical mistake in discussing this issue under the rubric of “freedom of religion”. The real concern is whether we can be free if we deny what is reasonable.

The word “belief” has two meanings. One is that the content of revelation is totally arbitrary and unintelligible. In this understanding, the differing religions are all equally unrelated to reason. No way exists to critique them. So “religious freedom” means basically something that is utterly irrational. The sooner such wild “beliefs” are controlled, the better for society.

The second meaning, the Catholic one, maintains there exists no contradiction between reason and faith. If something in Christian belief were really “unreasonable”, no one could or should hold it. The elements of revelation that are said to belong to faith are not on that score “unreasonable”. No one can hold them unless there are solid reasons for doing so. This is what we mean when we say that revelation is Logos (Word).

It is true that in Scripture homosexual acts are said to be unnatural (cf Rom 1:18-32). This is an affirmation addressed to reason which also can present solid reasons why it is unnatural. To tell someone what is true is not a “discrimination”, but a favor—even a duty. These reasons, as I mentioned in the beginning, have to do with what marriage is.

The main “modern” way to deal with this issue is to deny that there is such a thing as an objective order existing in things, one that indicates what they are. The defense of gay “marriage”, an arrangement impossible to beget children, involves the denial of this order in things. But this is merely a side issue to a philosophy that replaces reason with will or arbitrariness as the justification for all that we do.

Ideas have consequences. Deeds have consequences. Once put into effect in the public order, the “beliefs” turned “rights” will work their way out in societal living in terms of children, families, population, education, economics, and moral standards. This is the path upon which we are now embarked. Some people call it “glory land”, others the “decline of civilization”, while others don’t much care.

In all of this discussion, the central issue is hardly ever faced squarely. Phrased in terms of what used to be called “reason” it is this: We do not begin thinking of these things from the vantage point of “beliefs” and “rights”. We begin with what nature evidently intended from the beginning. That is, we begin with the begotten child and the conditions of his beginning. If we think that it is all right to kill the baby before he is born, we either have to deny science as to what it is or to affirm that no human life has intrinsic dignity, no matter at what stage of its life from conception to natural death.

When we begin with the child and what he needs, namely his own father and mother in a stable family, we arrive back at why any other alternative is an injustice to the child. In short, no one’s so-called “beliefs” or “rights”, however justified or enforced, replace what is due to the child “by nature”.

What was at stake in Kentucky is not a clerk’s “beliefs” or a gay couple’s “rights”. What is at stake is a living child and the conditions of its well-being. In the end, I suspect, this is the issue the brave clerk in Kentucky was trying to explain to a nation that rejects the most basic standard of reason in these matters.

So, the final formulation might be phrased in this way: “You have reasons. I have reasons. Neither your reason nor my reason can deprive a child of what is due to it in reason for its, not yours or my, good.” What is not intrinsically related to this principle is not and cannot be a “marriage”. What the Kentucky clerk instinctively defends in this case is reason, not “beliefs” and not “rights”.


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About James V. Schall, S.J. 177 Articles
James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University for many years until retiring in 2012. He was the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. One of his last books was On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018 (Ignatius Press, 2018). He died at the age of 91 on April 17, 2019. Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.