Yesterday the President spoke in favor of the Constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. “An amendment to the Constitution is necessary because activist courts have left our Nation with no other choice. The constitutional amendment that the Senate will consider next week would fully protect marriage from being redefined, while leaving state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage.” Virtually every commentator agrees that the President, who relied upon this strategy in 2004, wants to rally his base in the face of declining poll numbers. Undoubtedly he does, but the resonance of the issue in the heartland indicates that something significant is at stake here—in my opinion, a basic difference of opinion about human nature.
To varying degrees, all three of the great Middle Eastern monotheistic religions agree upon the essential depravity of mankind. Their basic texts portray a god who is quick to punish and often slow to forgive—one never more than provisionally satisfied with the human race he created. Sex, probably the most powerful of human instincts, is a particular target of these religions, which they have sought to tame and to control for much of their history. A devout Christian, an observant Jew, or a believing Muslim must all commit to confining their sexual behavior to certain specific channels, and all of them exclude homosexuality.
The fundamentalist Christians to whom the President is trying to appeal, however, seem to me to have taken matters a step further, perhaps because of their more general attitude towards sin. Satan, many of them believe, is nearly as omnipresent as God himself, and even the most devout Christians must face terrible temptations. Their attitude towards alcohol, drugs, and sex—particularly gay sex—implies that all of us, really, desperately want to drug ourselves senseless and commit homosexual acts. Only Christians have the strength to resist these impulses, and even they need the sanction of the law to keep them on the straight and narrow. To allow gay people to express their preferences openly and to claim the same sacred sanction for them as straights, it seems, would open the floodgates—few if any of us would voluntarily choose heterosexual marriage. That seems rather extraordinary to a lifelong, hopeless heterosexual like myself, but the implication of what they are saying seems to me inescapable. Satan doesn’t get that much attention in popular discussion nowadays, and I do not know what role he plays in Islam (he is barely present, if at all, in Judaism), but he may be a very important player indeed in our current religious controversies.
To believe that we are all constantly prey to sinful impulses is to condemn our essential natures. It lays a tremendous burden upon a believer to justify his or her existence and prove that he or she is worthy of god’s love. Unfortunately, that kind of terror can be a tremendous source of energy, and this may, in fact, explain why Judaism, Christianity and Islam have shown such an extraordinary propensity to expand their reach. The need to escape one’s impulses is the source of many addictions, and not merely those like drugs, or gambling, which society punishes, but also the addiction to achievement, to distinction, or to conquest. The creation and maintenance of an orthodox Islamic society is an enormous undertaking, but as I speak tens or hundreds of thousands are working hard to do just that all over the
The rebirth and spread of Islamic fundamentalism is a serious setback to humanity, but I believe it will lead to an even greater setback if we decide that we must reverse the trend by force. That has already led to a disregard for international law and, to a certain extent, to a disregard for human life. In the same way that we can promote justice by accepting gay civil rights at home, we can promote human rights by respecting the rights of others to choose how they shall live. We may believe that rationalism and democracy are best, but we have no right to impose that idea on others. We have only the right to prove they are the best through our own use of them—and lately, we have not been doing too well.
Instead, our government has officially defined democracy and free markets as absolute good—and history teaches that that is a dangerous step. This was the theme of one of my favorite books, Albert Camus’ The Rebel, which I had not looked at for many years until I sat down to take up these issues today. It is a polemic against utopias, written in the wake of the Second World War. It has other lessons as well, I think, but those will have to wait until another day. Meanwhile, while I know few if any elected officials are willing to speak on behalf of gay marriage, I hope that the amendment will fail until such time as more serious problems divert our attention and we must once again seek our salvation here on earth.