I was able to catch Andrew Sullivan (well-known beard aficionado) and Pastor Doug Wilson (also bearded) Wednesday at the University of Idaho for a debate about gay marriage: “Is Civil Marriage for Gay Couples Good for Society?” (Gotta say I’m a big fan of Sullivan, despite his occasional buh-cackings and wrong-headed-type opinions.) The event was moderated by Peter Hitchens, Christopher Hitchens’ brother; the latter Hitchens had debated Wilson in the past, in re: God, comma, What the Hell’s Up With That?

The most interesting things that happened at the event (as is often the case in life) were not exactly the purported topic of the evening. But let me address that first to get it out of the way.

Via Rod Dreher, Peter Leithart has a Christian-right evaluation of the debate:

The claim that legalizing gay marriage will make the legalization of polygamy easier, as Wilson repeatedly argued, is coherent, but doesn’t have much purchase. Nobody seems to be much worried about a polygamous future for America, and making polygamy the centerpiece of opposition to gay marriage looks too much like fear-mongering.

That leaves Christians with the option of making theologically rich, biblically founded arguments against gay marriage. But do we have the vocabulary ready to hand? And even if we do, does the vocabulary we have make any sense to the public at large?

Basically, Leithart’s saying current fundamentalist (although not necessarily evangelical or mainline) Christian arguments against gay marriage, or at least the ones voiced Wednesday, aren’t convincing to non-fundamentalists.

And as a non-fundamentalist mostly-secular Catholic, I agree with this assessment.

Wilson’s arguments, as Leithart outlined above, were: 1) “slippery slope” (specifically with regards to polygamy), and 2) “from authority” (or, “because God”).

The polygamy argument is weak because: a) it echoes crazy-person talk of the recent past; b) polygamy in specific has so many other things involved with it — inheritance, custody, dependent eligibility for health care, joint property ownership, geez, I don’t know what all else — that it’s hard to see a straight line there; and c) who cares?

The “from authority” dog just don’t hunt, right out the gate. The USA is a pluralistic society: for atheists and agnostics “because God says” is basically “because (insert a context-appropriate religious mucky-muck here) says” or just plain old “because”. Other religious folks may think God’s plenty-fine with the gays — or will turn around and ask you “which God?” And, you know (God, I hate feeling like I have to point this out, *again*), separation of church and state, also too.

Etc. and so forth; as Sully pointed out several times, in a secular society an argument from religious authority amounts to a tautology: “gay marriage is bad because it is bad”. This argument fell flatest at the end when an audience member asked Wilson what he would do if his son came out. He responded with the old “hate the sin/love the sinner” line. For a non-fundamentalist, or at least for me, “sin” is a nebulous religious concept, more poetry than thing, determined or assigned by folks asserting to be God’s interlocutors — ie, some dudes say something’s a sin, so therefore….

There was a young man in the Q&A session in the second half of the event that summed the whole event up nicely in a question for Wilson; very much paraphrased, he asked: “Everything you said tonight against gay marriage was said before regarding miscegenation and similar civil rights issues. Rights were expanded for those issues and the sky did not fall; why should we believe you that this issue is in any way different than the others?”

(Aside: sychronicity.)

So when it comes down to it, the fundamentalist side of things was so weak it wasn’t really a debate — it was mostly Sullivan taking the opportunity to demonstrate to a mostly-anti-gay-marriage audience (I guesstimate about 75% based on what I saw of the show-of-hands vote at the end) the reality of a non-demonized gay dude saying calm and reasonable things, and to perhaps get folks thinking in ways they never thought of about words they never hear.

An avalanche starts with a snowflake, and all that.

Anyway, on to the interesting things:

1) I thought Sullivan was a much better preacher than Wilson. Which is odd, because Wilson is a pastor at a church in Moscow. Maybe it was just an off day, or the pressure of the situation; who knows. What I do know is that Sullivan’s opening speech, and several other times when he hit his stride, sounded just like a priest on Sunday, in cadence and tone and purpose. (“Purpose” here meaning advancing the cause of love and caring for others, not the, y’know, gay thing.) And he can really rock an anecdote; view the following from about 3:15 to 6:05 for a version of the coming-out story he related Wednesday:

Wilson’s style smacked of…I guess “pseudo-intellectualism”? He peppered his talk with words like “demos,” and “semiotic,” and continuously fell back on the mantra “changing the object changes the verb” — but instead of giving him the smarty-pants cred that I’m guessing he was after (ie, another form of arguing from authority) these tics gave the impression he was reciting incantations rather than explaning anything.

2. Some of the positions I consider American fundamentalism’s fellow-travellers came in late, but did make an appearance: Wilson mentioned he’d like to do away with social safety-net programs (I can’t remember in what context); he illustrated his polygamy point by referring to “Abdul” by name and later ye olde bugaboo “Sharia Law”; he used the derogatory phrase (if I’m reading my own scrawly notes correctly) “diversity tolerance mantra”.

3. Quotable quotes for $200, Alex (again from my notes, but hopefully accurate-ish):

Sullivan: “Why do people have so much ejaculate before marriage?”

Sullivan, in reply to Wilson stating that specific reasons “why gay marriage is bad” was missing from his initial speech but would be including in his closing statement: “When the missing piece is that which is to be debated…”

Wilson: “A free society existed before gay marriage.”
Sullivan: “It wasn’t free for me.”

Again, these are from my notes, so I await the video of the debate to be up on the interwebs to doublecheck.

4. What’s it all about, anyway? I don’t think this event was about what it purported to be about. Gay marriage was just a vaneer, a reason to get out of an evening. Rather, behind it all is I think some folks’ inability to live with uncertainty. Therein lies the source of the constant call to authority: the need to have morality arise from an outside entity (the father of our childhood; the narrator in what we see as the novel of our lives) rather than accept it can come from ourselves. If it’s from the outside, it can be perfect — a circle, perhaps; if it arises from ourselves we’ll have to settle for an asymptote, with ever-closer approximations of good or truth but never quite getting there.

I’m ok with the asymptote, myself; other folks seem not so much. (Not to be blunt about it, but at one point some of my audience-mates were muttering stuff along the lines of “Theocracy? I likes the sound of that!” I am not kidding.)

Take it away, Chief:

  1. Metavirus says:

    it’s too bad there’s not a pulitzer, webby, grammy, oscar or nobel prize for contrarianism. sully would have swept the category for the last, what, 15+ years?

  2. Lev says:

    That was terrific. Not surprising that Sullivan dominated the argument as he’s a tremendous debater, nevertheless, a very enjoyable read.

    I definitely remember the churches I went to growing up having debates on evolution and such. Probably had some effect in getting me to question the immutable (as if) truths…

  3. Matmos says:

    Thanks, Lev. Also which, I really did get a brief clench from Sully’s big huggin’ hands. I kinda plotzed.

  4. Bob says:

    I’m not a faithful reader but I do enjoy the site. However, I’m familiar enough to know that pop music, now and again, is a topic. So, may I offer a Kink’s tune brought to mind by Sullivan recounting his mom’s reaction to his coming out? Cheers.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iUT1iOsQiGg

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