Just before midnight on December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines flight 401 was descending toward Miami International Airport with 176 souls on board. The night was a clear with no moon.
When the pilots attempted to lower the landing gear, the green light indicating that the nose gear was down and locked failed to illuminate. They informed Air Traffic Control that they were aborting the landing, and requested a holding pattern. The controller directed them to climb and circle over the Everglades.
Over the next few minutes, as the pilots sought to trouble-shoot the problem with the landing gear, they didn’t monitor their instruments, and so did not notice that the plane was slowly descending. Over the next several minutes, the crew became so focused on fixing the landing gear problem that they lost situational awareness. They weren’t paying attention to their altitude, and missed warning chimes informing them that the plane was drifting downwards.
A few minutes later, the plane slammed into the Everglades, killing 99 of the passengers and crew on board; all of the survivors sustained injuries, most of them serious enough to require hospitalization.
* * *
The tragedy of Eastern Airlines flight 401 is an apt metaphor for the tragedy of the Religious Right in this election year.
About forty years ago, Christian conservatives discovered that opposition to gay rights could be a winner at the ballot box. As a result, they became more and more focused on that opposition, and seemed to lose situational awareness of the larger problems of the sexual revolution.
The Christian Right has been gradually sinking for a long time.
The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 is usually recognized as their first national victory. Yet Reagan was not only the first divorced and remarried president; as governor of California, he had also signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law.
Another significant milestone for the Religious Right was the passage of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996. The act’s main sponsor was Georgia Representative Bob Barr, who was divorced twice and married three times.
But perhaps the most interesting character in the religious right’s descent to destruction is Newt Gingrich. Gingrich was the Speaker of the House at the time and one of the leading sponsors of the Defense of Marriage act. He was not only divorced and remarried, but was also carrying on an affair with Callista Bisek. Four years later, he would divorce his second wife to marry her.
In 2007, after the affair had became public knowledge, Gingrich went on James Dobson’s radio show to confess, repent, and clear the way for Christian conservatives to support his bid for the Republican nomination. It no doubt also helped him to secure the invitation to be the commencement speaker that year at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
Gingrich played a key role in the 2010 recall campaign against three Iowa Supreme Court justices who ruled that Iowa’s Equal Rights Amendment required the state to recognize same-sex marriage. Ironically, that ruling ratified the interpretation of Phyllis Schlafly, who had claimed as early as 1973 that the ERA “would legalize homosexual marriages and open the door to the adoption of children by legally married homosexual couples.”
After Newt Gingrich won the 2012 South Carolina primary, Brian Brown, President of the National Organization for Marriage said, in a news release congratulating Newt Gingrich on his win that,
It is now clear that the Republican Party will nominate a candidate who is strongly committed to preserving marriage as the union of one man and one woman. We have succeeded in making the preservation of marriage a key issue in this race, and we will continue to do so throughout the primary season, and into the general election against President Obama.
In the debate before the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich angrily denied that his record as an adulterer and divorcee had any relevance to the presidential debate. His victory in the primary suggested that the voters of South Carolina were willing to agree.
Brian Brown’s statement only makes sense if you define the “preservation of marriage” to mean simply and solely opposition to same-sex marriage. Gingrich may have been firmly opposed to same-sex marriage. But he has not been committed to preserving marriage as Christians have always understood it.
This is not just about Newt Gingrich, however. Gingrich is a politician, and we shouldn’t be too surprised if a politician does whatever he can to pander to voters. The point to notice, however, is the way that the Christian Right’s focus on opposing gay rights led them, again and again, to proclaim their commitment to the “sanctity of marriage” while overlooking increasingly obvious heterosexual threats to the sanctity of marriage.
As Flight 401 descended over the Everglades, and the pilots worried about making sure the nose landing gear was locked down for landing, they were in increasing danger, but it would not have been all that difficult for them to notice the problem, pull up, and avoid the crash. They almost noticed in time:
Copilot: We did something to the altitude.
Copilot: We’re still at 2,000 feet, right?
Pilot: Hey—what’s happening here?
But it was too late. Ten seconds later, the left wingtip hit the ground. A fraction of a second later, the plane began to break up, and in less time than it takes you to read this sentence, this sleek and modern airliner
was transformed into the twisted field of debris you saw at the top of this post. And almost two hundred people who, seconds before had been relaxing comfortably, were now dead or fighting for their life.
Until recently, a case might have been made that although the Christian Right had made some embarrassing tactical decisions, their strategy was saving what could be saved in the face of the sexual revolution. Even the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, while a significant setback, did not tear the Christian Right apart, and left them with the project of defending the freedom of Christians and Christian institutions to remain faithful to their convictions about marriage (or at least, remain true to their convictions about same-sex marriage).
Then it became clear that Donald Trump would receive the Republican nomination.
With a few honorable exceptions, the leaders of the Christian Right began to rally around Donald Trump, and in order to do so, they began to rationalize away the seriousness of his sins—his dishonesty, the allegations of financial impropriety, but especially the escalating catalogue of sexual sins.
It would be one thing to vote for Donald Trump as the lesser of two evils. But doing that honestly requires keeping the evil he has been credibly accused of committing squarely before one’s mind. Many Christian leaders have drawn (false) parallels to King David’s sins.
David, however, repented in sackcloth and ashes.
Trump has refused to acknowledge the seriousness of his wrong-doing. Unable to deny that he boasted about groping women without consent, he downplayed it as mere “locker room talk,” empty boasting that he had never acted on. And when numerous women came forward alleging that he had actually engaged in behavior very similar to the behavior he had boasted about, he denounced them as liars.
And Trump’s other surrogates have made things far worse. Rudy Giuliani downplays Trump’s serial infidelity by insisting that everyone commits adultery.
I think it’s safe to say that if the Prophet Nathan came to James Dobson or Franklin Graham during the Clinton impeachment era, and read to them the quotes from Christian leaders defending Trump, they would be horrified, and swiftly condemn any Christian leader who would speak that way. To which Nathan would reply, as he replied to King David, “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12:7).
Nation, state, and family
In the first reading for today’s Mass, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians,
immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. Be sure of this, that no immoral or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. Therefore do not associate with them, for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light. (Ephesians 5:3-8).
It is difficult to escape the conclusion that “Christian” has taken a back seat to “right wing” for many in the Christian Right, including many influential leaders. But what is the alternative?
In contemporary American culture, “politics” tends to mean the process by which we decide who will hold elective office in the state. It also refers to some degree to the process of deal-making involved in the operations of the legislative branch. There is also a distinction between the highest levels of appointed office in the various departments of the executive branch (which are considered political and appointed by the president and confirmed by congress) and the career employees of the executive branch departments, who are supposed to be apolitical and serve as experts who implement the policies of whichever administration happens to be in power. In addition, the legal system is supposed to be apolitical (though it is often accused of being politicized, the accusation itself presumes that the judicial branch ought to be independent of politics).
In this way of thinking about politics, politics is focuses on the operations of the state, and only on a subset of those operations: elections, the legislative process, and who will control the upper levels of the executive branch. The bureaucratic and judicial functions of the state are (at least in theory) independent of political influence.
This is not how Aristotle thought about politics. For Aristotle, political science is the highest science, a kind of architectural science which directs all of the other human arts, sciences, and practices toward the achievement of a flourishing life together.
The primary object of Aristotelian politics is not the state: it is rather the city or the nation—that is, it is concerned with the ends of the community as a whole, rather than the more limited projects of the state. Politics guides all of the subsidiary projects of the community toward the flourishing of the individual members and the flourishing of the whole.
For Aristotelian politics, the central problem is the narrative that is to define the people as a whole: what is the goal we are working toward? What role does each of us play in the story? Why should this be the narrative that defines our nation?
Naturally, the state plays a role in this: it is one of the most important institutions in the nation. But the state exists for the sake of the nation: it is not an end in itself. And when we think primarily of the nation, we recognize that many other institutions—Churches, families, businesses, various voluntary organizations—play a critical role. The state will have a role to play in an Aristotelian political narrative—at times an important role—but an Aristotelian political narrative will never be overly focused on “politics” in the modern American sense.
Insofar as the Church has a “political” function, it is to tell the world the Good News about the story we really live in, and to call us to live in harmony with that story. There is a place for the state in this kind of political vision, but it is not the only—or even the most important—player in the life of a healthy nation.
The family plays a critical role in the nation; the family is the institution which ensures the survival of the nation through the generations, and it is the institution which has the earliest and most profound impact in shaping men and women into citizens of the nation—into participants in the national narrative.
I agree with conservative Christians that marriage is in a state of crisis, and I agree that we need to work to preserve marriage in the public sphere. I am not a “political quietist” who thinks it is adequate to confine our convictions about the nature of marriage to the private sphere, nor do I treat it as a matter of indifference whether or not marriage is redefined in the public sphere. To think that would be to ignore the critical role that the family plays in the life of the nation.
In an article I wrote for Ethika Politika a few months before the Supreme Court overturned state bans on same-sex marriage, I argued:
Marriage accomplishes many things, but one of its central purposes is to provide children with the stable and nurturing environment they need to flourish. A single mother trying to raise children alone will usually have much more difficulty accomplishing this than a mother who shares the task of raising her children with their father. Thus most human societies in most times and places have sought to discourage out-of-wedlock childbirth and to encourage stable marriages in which both parents share the burden of raising children.
It is no surprise that the advocates of the sexual revolution do not understand the logic behind the traditional human understanding of marriage. What is striking, however, is the confusion behind many traditionalist responses to the sexual revolution.
If we are concerned with children’s welfare, potentially procreative premarital and extra-marital sex are a much bigger concern than sodomy. The vast majority (85 percent) of children who are aborted were conceived out of wedlock. And of those who survive, children born out of wedlock are likely to be worse off on a wide range of measures than children raised by married parents.
Because of the potential to lead to procreative acts, heterosexual sodomy outside marriage is a greater concern than homosexual sodomy. Yet among these issues, traditionalists had until recently put most of their energy into defending laws punishing homosexual sodomy.
Laws that destabilize procreative marriage are much more destructive to children than laws that extend the benefits given to married couples to couples who cannot have children. The political scientist Mark Smith has written, “While many children could not even describe what it means to have an abortion or be gay or lesbian, they readily grasp—either firsthand or through the experiences of friends—the strained parental relationships and complicated custodial arrangements that often accompany divorce.” Yet there has been much more outcry against recognizing same-sex couples than there has been to no-fault divorce, which has separated millions of children from one of their parents, or forced them to shuttle back and forth from one parent to the other.
In late 2009, I was asked to comment on a draft of Sherif Girgis, Robert George, and Ryan Anderson’s What Is Marriage? After pointing out that same-sex marriage occurs in the larger context of the sexual revolution, I wrote:
if I am diagnosed with a cancer in my liver, that is a serious thing. But it makes a great deal of difference whether the tumor is isolated, confined to my liver, or if it is the result of metastasis of a cancer that has long been growing in another part of my body. The approach in What Is Marriage? would be rational if gay marriage were an isolated cancer which threatened marriage. But it is not. It is the fruit of the rejection of the nuptial view of marriage virtually everywhere else in society, including in the law.
And I pointed out just how deeply contemporary marriage law was at odds with the comprehensive union described in What Is Marriage?:
In a state that has no-fault divorce laws, when a man and a woman stand before the altar and pledge to take each other “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part,” their promise has absolutely no legal significance whatsoever. In fact, modern “marriage” law conceives of divorce as a right. It also makes it impossible for a couple to consent to a truly binding legal commitment. To attempt to do so would be as foreign to our legal system as to attempt to consent to contract to become a slave.
The Church’s objective has to be the preservation of marriage. A plan which focuses all its energy on stopping same-sex marriage is not a plan to preserve marriage. It is a plan that has become so wrapped up in tactical political maneuvers that it loses its grip on the larger problem of vision.
The Wojtyła Option
The easiest way to get to the heart of my political thinking is to list some of the people who shaped it: Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Mohandas Gandhi, Golda Meir, Martin Luther King, Jr., Karol Wojtyła (who was elected Pope John Paul II in 1978), Harvey Milk, Ronald Reagan,Václav Havel, and Lech Walesa (the order is approximately chronological, not based on their degree of influence on my thinking).
Just by looking at the list, it should be obvious that I don’t agree with all of them. For example, Winston Churchill thought that Gandhi’s movement needed to be crushed, and favored allowing him to die if he went on a hunger strike. And I am quite sure that neither Karol Wojtyła nor Ronald Reagan would have seen eye to eye with Harvey Milk on very many things (though Reagan did join Milk in opposing the Briggs Initiative in California in 1978).
What sets each of these leaders apart from most politicians is that (a) their life was defined more by a strong national vision than by a particular practical agenda; (b) their political vision for a long time consigned them to the margins of “politics” narrowly understood, in terms of power and influence in the state; (c) they were more committed to their vision than they were to success in any narrowly “political” sense; and yet (d) their vision ultimately was transformative, and eventually did change the state, having far more profound impact on “politics” narrowly considered than anyone who had focused primarily on cultivating “political” influence in the customary sense.
Consider the case of Wojtyła (along with Walesa, and Havel). During Wojtyła’s time as Archbishop of Krakow, the Vatican’s framework for diplomacy with the Eastern Bloc (Ostpolitik) was driven by the strategy of salvare il salvabile (saving what can be saved). The Vatican’s bureaucrats accepted the existence of the Soviet Union and its control of the Warsaw Pact countries as an essentially immovable historical fact, and the question was: given this, what sort of room for maneuvering can we find?
This was an essentially tactical game. It produced various concrete initiatives which were (sometimes) successful in preserving some degree of religious freedom for Catholics behind the Iron Curtain.
However, Wojtyła, Havel, Walesa, and others refused to take Soviet influence for granted. Their vision was much less practical. They wanted to destroy communism and create a free and democratic culture in nations that were (apparently) irrevocably enslaved to Soviet power. Havel expressed something of the ethos that motivated this kind of activism when he wrote:
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.
At any point prior to 1989, there was a strong case to be made that the Vatican’s pragmatic approach represented the more effective strategy, and that Wojtyła, Havel, and Walesa were romantic dreamers. There was certainly no reason for optimism, no calculation that would show that their approach was more likely to succeed than the more pragmatic approach taken by the Vatican’s Ostpolitik. Nor did Wojtyła, Havel, or Walesa act as they did out of certainty of success: they acted as they did because their vision for their nation was right, the Soviet vision was wrong, and they were not prepared to live the lies that were required to prop up the Communist regime.
The essential difference between these two strategies, I think, is that Wojtyła, Havel, and Walesa thought primarily in terms of freedom, and the Vatican diplomats thought in terms of control. I do not mean by this that Wojtyła, Havel, and Walesa were trying to create a free society (though they were trying to do that). I mean that they recognized that even a totalitarian state cannot completely suppress the possibilities of human freedom. Marxist historical determinism is false. The future is not already determined. And so it is worth pursuing the right vision, because it is right, even when the immediate historical prospects are uncertain. Because one cannot predict the future, one should always pursue the right vision, in so far as it can be pursued.
The Vatican diplomats, on the other hand, wanted to control outcomes. They therefore set much more limited goals, and confined their horizon to the realm of what could reasonably be achieved.
Wojtyła, Havel, and Walesa were able to transform the world because they believed that ideas were ultimately more powerful than pragmatic politics (though each of them was capable of engaging in pragmatic political calculation, as well). Wojtyła, Havel, and Walesa were not driven by a short-term “activist” strategy. They were guided by a very broad political vision. They also, of course, engaged in various tactical conflicts with the Communist regimes, but they acted with a much larger end in mind.
With this in mind, it should be clear that when I think about how Christians should think about the politics of marriage, I am not primarily thinking about referendum campaigns or who gets elected to the Senate or which political party will offer me more of the world in exchange for my soul. I am talking about how we define a vision of our national life together. In most cases, I think that the state (and thus the “political” system as it is normally conceived) will be more of an obstacle to than an ally in the realization of this vision (and this observation is born out in every case with the figures I identified above).
But when there are fundamental human goods at stake, even if those goods are almost totally ignored by both the national culture and the state, persistently calling attention to those goods can pay off. I am a fundamental believer in the natural law. It is written on the human heart, and though it can be disobeyed, it cannot be fully wiped out.
It’s commonplace for conservative Christians to look at the last 45 years in terms of the narrative of the Decline and Fall of Western Civilization, beginning with the Summer of Love in 1967 and ending, at some unspecified point in the future, with “man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.”
But that’s not what the sexual revolution actually looks like. Those who talk this way have become so focused on the immediate point of conflict (same-sex marriage) that they have lost perspective.
What you actually see is that in the late 1960’s through the 1970’s, there was a very strong sexual liberation movement. In the gay community, this was the heyday of bars and bathhouses. But it was also the heyday of the Playboy Clubs and Playboy Hotel and Casino. Sexual liberation was seen by many (both gay and straight) as a genuine ideal, and (relatively) serious people talked about something they called the “Playboy philosophy.”
Since the late 1970’s, the pendulum has in many ways swung back. I don’t want to be overly simplistic here. The rise of the Internet has made pornography much more readily available than it was before. I believe that there has been a rise in “hookup culture” on college campuses, and apps like Tinder have made casual sex easier than ever. But although there is certainly a lot of sex that falls outside the marital ideal, marriage as an ideal has made a very significant come-back from where it stood in the 1970’s.
In that era, there seemed to be a rising acceptance of the “Playboy philosophy” as an ideal; marriage was dismissed as an outdated and repressive institution by many of the male readers of Playboy, by leading feminist thinkers, and by the leaders of the gay rights movement. Those currents have not disappeared; but there has undoubtedly been a shift in the cultural attitude toward marriage. Many people—including many feminist and gay leaders—are much more respectful of marriage now than they were 30 years ago.
This shift has come about in part due to experience. Free love turned out to have hidden costs. Experience showed that no fault divorce was not necessarily the cure-all that it was supposed to be. Those who stayed together through a rough period often reported that their satisfaction with their marriage increased. Those who divorced often found that their second marriages were even less stable than than their first. Gay liberation proved to be less liberating than its adherents expected.
I think that the reason for this is rooted in human nature. Although human beings do have a strong sex drive, they have a deeper need to be loved and to love. What Pope John Paul II calls the “law of the gift” is written on their hearts. Pleasure is not the highest good, and so lives too focused on pleasure are unfulfilling. People see the need for something more than this, something which requires sacrifice.
If we focus too much on the fact that this pendulum swing back toward the ideal of marriage has included, for many, an openness to same-sex marriage, those of us who hold a traditionally Christian sexual ethic may become too easily discouraged. In The Pilgrim’s Regress, C. S. Lewis, after discussing many of the different desires that we think may bring us ultimate happiness, says:
The sole merit I claim for this book is that it is written by one who has proved them all to be wrong. There is no room for vanity in the claim: I know them to be wrong not by intelligence but by experience, such experience as would not have come my way if my youth had been wiser, more virtuous, and less self-centred than it was. For I have myself been deluded by every one of these false answers in turn, and have contemplated each of them earnestly enough to discover the cheat. To have embraced so many false Florimels is no matter for boasting: it is fools, they say, who learn by experience. But since they do at least learn, let a fool bring his experience into the common stock that wiser men profit by it. (p. 203)
If we believe that there are ways of living that are in accordance to human nature, and will lead to flourishing, and ways of living that are contrary to it, and will lead to frustration, we can also have some confidence that there is no inevitable narrative of decline and fall. It is possible for cultures, as well as individuals, to learn from experience.
The last 45 years have seen many mistakes, but have also seen many lessons learned. Human nature does not change, and experience often reveals in hindsight what, in our arrogance, we missed in foresight.
I believe that the traditional Christian sexual ethic is rooted in human nature, and I have made significant efforts to defend that view. But I think that those of us who believe this should be able to take some comfort from the history of the last 40 years, and look toward the future with hope that experience is ultimately on the side of truth, even if that truth is only glimpsed in fits and starts.
This vision does not emerge out of the political process narrowly conceived. It emerges out of culture. But culture emerges, first of all, in the daily decisions of the people. The Solidarity movement in Poland did not begin with massive demonstrations; it began with Poles who saw the lies of the regime for what they were, and began to create seemingly insignificant spaces (like parish choirs) where it was possible to speak the truth and remember the Polish spirit, even when the Polish nation was enslaved to an alien state.
Dreaming Impossible Dreams
I am not optimistic about the future of Christianity in this country. I think that the embrace of Donald Trump by so many Christian leaders has mangled our public moral witness. I don’t just mean that Christians are more vulnerable to accusations of hypocrisy now than we were before, though that is certainly true. I also mean that when prominent Christian leaders defend the indefensible, they blind themselves and confuse those who follow them.
We also face significant legal obstacles. I expect that government funding for Christian colleges and universities, social service agencies, and health care facilities will come with more and more restrictions. Campus ministries will come under greater pressure to accept affirming positions.
But though I think a certain amount of pessimism is justified, there is also reason for hope.
I’ll start with what may seem like a surprising example: Harvey Milk.
Obviously, I do not share Harvey Milk’s view of what it means to live a flourishing life as a gay man. However, I think it’s worth recogning that the “odds of success” for gay rights in the late 1960’s were almost non-existent. Gay sex was still a felony in California, and even in San Francisco the police regularly raided gay bars, beat up gay men on the street, and prosecuted them for sodomy. The idea that, less than 50 years later, gays and lesbians would be legally married at City Hall would have been nearly unimaginable at that time. Anyone who confidently predicted such an outcome in the late 60’s would have been considered at best a radically impractical dreamer.
Christians can look back to the conversion of the Roman Empire, and many dramatic reforms and revivals throughout Church history. We believe that our actions are not our own, but are part of the plan of the Lord of history: and yet we are often much more timid in our vision than a secular activist like Harvey Milk. Milk imagined a world in which gays and lesbians were equal citizens and, in ways almost unimaginable at the time he conceived his vision, that world has come into being.
The Christian vision of love is more deeply attractive than the vision offered by the sexual revolution, because it is the vision rooted in the human nature that God created. His law is written on our hearts and cannot be completely effaced.
But the path to national transformation requires individual Christians to embrace that vision in our own lives. Our fidelity to the vision will help to make the Christian understanding of marriage and celibacy more plausible and more attractive to a culture that is descending into more and more frustrating confusion, where sex becomes more and more available but love becomes more elusive.
If we think in terms of freedom, we will continue to invite others to hear and embrace the Good News of the Christian story, even though we know many will reject it. Indeed, even if we fail—and fail repeatedly—to live out the vision given to us in that story, we will always remember that we are free to repent and return. Neither others’ rejection nor our own failure is inevitable—both they and we are always free to return to God.
I have no confidence that the work I’ve done at Spiritual Friendship will have any widespread effect on society as a whole. I do it because, despite obstacles, despite frustrations, it makes sense to me and I believe it makes sense for the world, whether the world sees that or not.
This post is part of a larger series of posts loosely organized around the question, “What hope can the Church offer lesbian, gay, and bisexual Christians?” To see other posts in the series, click here.
Image of the crash site of flight 401 taken from This Day in Aviation and presumed to be in the public domain.