Gay Marriage, Japanese Smut, and Legalism

By Jeff Mallinson

 eye (1)

Often, a stranger can be our best friend. A stranger can identify our blind spots, because he’s new to the scene. In a famous 1978 speech, delivered at Harvard’s commencement ceremony, the famed Russian author, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, became precisely this sort of candid friend. Having witnessed the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism, he recognized the importance of the rule of law. Nonetheless, he also was able to turn his critical attention to what he saw as a strange American form of legalism. He stated:

I have spent all my life under a Communist regime and I will tell you that a society without any objective legal scale is a terrible one indeed. But a society with no other scale than the legal one is not quite worthy of man either. A society which is based on the letter of the law and never reaches any higher is taking very scarce advantage of the high level of human possibilities. The letter of the law is too cold and formal to have a beneficial influence on society. Whenever the tissue of life is woven of legalistic relations, there is an atmosphere of moral mediocrity, paralyzing man’s noblest impulses. And it will be simply impossible to stand through the trials of this threatening century with only the support of a legalistic structure.

Decades later, his words remain relevant. On this week’s Virtue in the Wasteland Podcast, The Man About Town and I address the recent Supreme Court decision, which, to use Justice Kennedy’s words: “The court now holds that same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry.”

141010_POL_GayMarriageLatino.jpg.CROP.promo-mediumlarge

Our (tentative) perspective will likely alienate some of our friends and allies. We live in conservative Orange County, California, and are members of the conservative Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, which has established a Washington, D.C. lobby, precisely to oppose changes like we’ve just witnessed. Moreover, though I am a weird type of Libertarian (with pro-public-education, pro-environment, pro-racial-justice, pro-poor-elderly-people sentiments), Dan is an unabashed Republican.

It should come as no surprise to you, then, that I was a bit worried when I pushed the “publish” button on our podcast hosting website. I was particularly nervous about Dan’s opening remark regarding the Supreme Court ruling: “It’s about damn time.”  Here’s a general summary of what this sentiment means:

  1. It’s about time that this whole public brouhaha be put to rest in one way or another.
  2. It’s about time that the practical result was what it was. Even though it displeases many, law-abiding American citizens now get to do what they please, so long as they don’t cause direct harm to others. Secular toleration is exactly what many faithful Christians wanted when they contributed to America’s founding principles.
  3. In terms of the precise point of law, we’d have preferred a ruling that makes it clear that the government is to stay out of the matter. To use Justice Thomas’ terms, it would be better for marriage to be a “negative” freedom (freedom from government interference) rather than a “positive” freedom (freedom to get married), which puts things into a more complicated category.
  4. It’s about time that the church lay down its addiction to state power. Granted, it was nice, after the brutal persecution it experienced under Diocletian (245–311), to have empowerment under Constantine (272-337). But it came with a price. Instead of being spiritual revolutionaries, Christians became the man. They forgot about the theology of the cross and lusted after a theology of glory.  We never needed the reigns of the state, in the first place.

2378churchstate_00000001532

So, we’ve got nothing to lose but our illusions: especially our illusion that the state was the arm of the church that would bring about a righteous society. Indeed, legalism can never make a society or individual truly righteous. Laws are important. They allow societies to live peaceably. But in this case, we are, as Dr. Gene Veith notes on his blog, dealing with the first use of the law. The “first” or “civil” use of the law is about curbing evil so we can go about town without getting stabbed and robbed. Once we have that, we can then have rich, and sometimes heated, discussions about matters like sexual ethics.

Note that the role of the civil law is to restrain evil, not to make morally exemplary citizens. The law can’t even do that for Christians without the power and promise of the Gospel, so why would we think it could do anything for those outside the church (Cf. 1 Cor. 5:9-13). Pornography laws in Japan are an excellent illustration of the failure of rules to make people good. Japanese law forbids depictions of human intercourse and female pubic hair. But pornographers concocted a smutty work-around that was more disturbing than what the law was trying to restrict. Today, Japanese “hentai” (from hentai seiyoku, meaning a perverted desire) depict bizarre sexual situations between humans and monsters, sexual assault, and children in sexually suggestive situations. Surely, full frontal nudity far less problematic for a society than these perverted work-arounds. Nonetheless, there you have it; the law once again back fires and intensifies sin.

cross-red

The good news for us in America is that, since the church and its values are no longer holding the reigns, we can now go back to our original calling as people of the cross. We can be the masks of God to a world who is suffering poverty, existential emptiness, disease, displacement, and loneliness. We can stop being Pharisees, by which I mean that we can stop assuming that God will only love us, or our nation, if we can get everyone else to keep kosher. And this reminds me: dear progressives, please stay cool. Please remember that in this land, people have the freedom to disagree with you, and advocate lives of restraint from all things. Muslims are free to avoid bacon. Mormons can push away an espresso. Old-school Wesleyans can leave the beer in my cooler, thank you very much. Orthodox Jews are free to decline a ham and cheese sandwich when offered. We must now add that conservative Christians are free to avoid homosexual activity. They are even free to teach that it is wrong. Moreover, go easy on folks who check the “regrets” on your upcoming wedding announcement. Seriously, be cool. We predict on the podcast that the 14th Amendment will not trump the 1st Amendment. We are well aware that many of our co-religionists think we are naive in so-thinking. Come on America, don’t prove us wrong. Let’s see if we can allow the free exchange of ideas—without the threat of state coercion or vigilante force—to work its American magic once more.

The Wayfaring Stranger

On the sands of Balboa Peninsula, sipping coconut water, between chapters of Roberto Bolaño, 2666.

JaggedWordLogo2