Wendell Berry on marriage

01.18.2013, 4:58 PM

If you are a Wendell Berry fan (I am), at First Things several contributors are discussing, and posting excerpts from, Berry’s writing on marriage, in light of his endorsement of gay marriage.  You can jump in here.


15 Responses to “Wendell Berry on marriage”

  1. Billy says:

    I am not a fan of reading anything at FirstThings, but I am a fan of Wendell Berry.

    It may be helpful for people to get an idea of exactly what Berry said recently. I find his remarks refreshing and truly Christian.

    The Associated Baptist Press blog has an article quoting his remarks on gay marriage here.

  2. JHW says:

    I don’t think any of those excerpts from Wendell Berry’s writings are inconsistent with supporting same-sex marriage, and I think it’s telling that the author of that blog post thinks they are. It means that like most social conservatives, he associates same-sex marriage with many other things he does not like (non-marital recreational sex, “expressive individualism” in the context of human relationships) rather than with the practice it actually most closely resembles (different-sex marriage).

    The ritualistic reference to the fact that same-sex couples cannot have biological children together is really beside the point—unless (to repeat the standard counterargument) you read Wendell Berry to be condemning infertile different-sex marriages too. I do not. I think he is saying that sexuality should be tied to marriage and family life. I do not see why that should not go for gays and lesbians as well as for straight people.

  3. Billy says:

    The explosion in the conservative religious blogosphere over Berry’s comments is interesting. He does not say anything that has not been said many times before by gay activists (about Christian hypocrisy, etc.), but the fact that he said it before a meeting of Baptist preachers makes their head spin.

  4. Billy says:

    Here are some of my favorite quotations from Berry’s talk:

    “Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term?”

    “If it can be argued that homosexual marriage is not reproductive and is therefore unnatural and should be forbidden on that account, must we not argue that childless marriages are unnatural and should be annulled?”

    “One may find the sexual practices of homosexuals to be unattractive or displeasing and therefore unnatural, but anything that can be done in that line by homosexuals can be done and is done by heterosexuals. Do we need a legal remedy for this? Would conservative Christians like a small government bureau to inspect, approve and certify their sexual behavior? Would they like a colorful tattoo verifying government approval on the rumps of lawfully copulating parties? We have the technology, after all, to monitor everybody’s sexual behavior, but so far as I can see so eager an interest in other people’s private intimacy is either prurient or totalitarian or both.”

    “The oddest of the strategies to condemn and isolate homosexuals is to propose that homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals. If this is not industrial capitalist paranoia, it at least follows the pattern of industrial capitalist competitiveness. We must destroy the competition. If somebody else wants what you’ve got, from money to marriage, you must not hesitate to use the government–small of course–to keep them from getting it.”

    “Heterosexual marriage does not need defending. It only needs to be practiced, which is pretty hard to do just now.”

    “When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation–as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness–then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”

    “Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness–as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.”

    “Perhaps the most dangerous temptation to Christianity is to get itself officialized in some version by a government, following pretty exactly the pattern the chief priest and his crowd at the trial of Jesus. For want of a Pilate of their own, some Christians would accept a Constantine or whomever might be the current incarnation of Caesar.”

  5. Maggie Gallagher says:

    Hating by category is profoundly wrong. That will not settle the question of what sexual behavior is right, and how we decide it–first as individuals and then secondly in various communities and then thirdly in the national community.

    I’ve never been a Wendell Berry fan particularly—but I do understand the Crunchy Conservative connection out there.

  6. mythago says:

    Hating, period, is profoundly wrong, from the point of view of anyone who claims to follow the teachings of Jesus.

  7. Maggie Gallagher says:

    Hating people is wrong.

  8. Billy says:

    I was not particularly a fan of Wendell Berry, though I have always liked some of his poems and some of his essays. But I am certainly a fan now. What he says is not very different from what gay activists have been saying for a long time, but the difference is that he speaks with a particular authority to conservatives, who have practically anointed him as a saint. Moreover, he gave this talk at a conference of Baptist preachers, so it was a brave thing to do. He speaks truth to power.

  9. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: It means that like most social conservatives, he associates same-sex marriage with many other things he does not like (non-marital recreational sex, “expressive individualism” in the context of human relationships) rather than with the practice it actually most closely resembles (different-sex marriage).

    I’m not sure how same-sex marriage, *within a Christian context*, remotely resembles what you quaintly call ‘different-sex’ marriage. A gay couple is incapable of fulfilling the most basic function for which Christian marriage exists. What they have together might be interesting and beautiful in many ways, but it isn’t, in Christian eyes, a marriage.

    The better argument for same-sex civil marriage is that the definition of marriage in the legal sphere has already been quite watered down, and it should be irrelevant to Christians how the law defines marriage. I think that’s more or less true, but it also means that the arguments about how much gay couples love each other, etc. are all pretty irrelevant to the question.

  10. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: Hating, period, is profoundly wrong,

    Uh, no. As Maggie correctly points out, hating *people* is wrong. Hating immoral *behaviours* and *ideas* is quite right and proper.

  11. JHW says:

    Hector: I have no idea what you mean by marriage “within a Christian context” (as if that were somehow a unified category!). But in any case I don’t mean to say that there is no possible conception of marriage on which same-sex couples and different-sex couples come out looking importantly differently. I actually mean to say something quite different: that in their attempts to demarcate a sharp line between same-sex couples and different-sex couples, social conservatives routinely reveal that they don’t understand very much about gay lives, gay families, or gay marriages.

    There are perhaps ways of drawing the line that don’t involve such lack of understanding. A person could, for example, think that roles in the family ought to be determined by gender, which poses difficulties for marriage where both spouses are men or both spouses are women (and also for different-sex marriages that don’t conform rigidly to gender roles.) But that is not the theory Wendell Berry is advancing in the excerpted passages.

  12. Hector_St_Clare says:

    Re: I actually mean to say something quite different: that in their attempts to demarcate a sharp line between same-sex couples and different-sex couples, social conservatives routinely reveal that they don’t understand very much about gay lives, gay families, or gay marriages.

    Not necessarily, it means they have a very different conception of marriage than you or Wendell Berry (or than our legal system does). As you yourself point out.

  13. Billy says:

    The arrogance of someone thinking that they own something called “Christian marriage” arrogant in precisely the same way Wendell Berry exposes the arrogance of “Christians” who are opposed to same-sex marriage.

    His labeling of those kind of Christians as “perverts” seems precisely right to me: “Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term?”

  14. Matthew Kaal says:

    Thanks for posting an article with the actual Berry quotes Billy.

    I think, as others have noted over in the comments at FirstThings, that Berry comments and earlier writings imply a distinction between marriage per se, and marriage as a social construct of the law. His comments at Georgetown College seem focused on the latter, while the excerpts as First Thing seem to address the former.

    From the article Billy cited:

    “My argument, much abbreviated both times, was the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval, and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples,” Berry said.

    Berry said liberals and conservatives have invented “a politics of sexuality” that establishes marriage as a “right” to be granted or withheld by whichever side prevails. He said both viewpoints contravene principles of democracy that rights are self-evident and inalienable and not determined and granted or withheld by the government.

    I find the above statement to be consistent with what I know of Berry’s writing on politics, and don’t find them contradictory to his earlier writing on the nature of marriage. He is addressing how marriage relates to the law, and advocating for a flexible social construction of marriage that is accommodating in its granting of privileges and protections. I especially appreciate his view that rights are not created, or constructed, but rather they already exist and are recognized by good governments for what they are…but also sets a very high standard for identifying rights as such.

    I think his strong condemnation of how many within the Christian community stigmatize homosexuality is needed (and I welcome that dialogue among more and more Christians, because it is a necessary component of “the new marriage conversation,” but one that likely needs to be organic and internal if it is going to bear fruit), and Berry’s voice as a beloved Protestant gadfly forces many conservatives and traditional/orthodox Christians to give a second look at this issue and how they approach it.

  15. Billy says:

    Matthew, Berry has a very clear idea of what marriage is. Those who find his previous writings inconsistent with support for same-sex marriage have mistakenly assumed that Berry thought homosexuals were not capable of engaging in his idea of marriage. He has unambiguously rejected that assumption and made clear he thinks nothing of the sort.

    Berry endorsed same-sex marriage before the Baptist conference. He did not parse a difference between “gay marriage” and “straight marriage.”

    In his Baptist conference speech, he denounces the stigmatization of homosexuality, and he also denounces the opposition on the part of Christians to same-sex marriage.