Tag Archives: marriage

Some Standard Wisdom on Ministers’ Wives

After a couple of weeks of more serious excerpts, it is time to return to more lighthearted fare. This offering, entitled “The Minister’s Wife” was intended, almost certainly, as a sarcastic critique of the unrealistic expectation that congregations had for the spouses of their leaders. Still, I can’t help but read it and think that, hovering just beneath the surface, is an genuine wish.

The minister’s wife ought to be selected by a committee of the church. She should be warranted never to have a headache, or neuralgia; she should have nerves of iron; she should never be tired or sleepy, and should be everybody’s cheerful drudge; she should be cheerful, intellectual, pious, domesticated; she should keep her husband’s house, darn his stockings, make his shirts, cook his dinner, light his fire, and copy his sermons; she should keep up the style of a lady on the wages of a day-laborer, and be always at leisure for “good works,” and ready to receive morning calls; she should be secretary to the Band of Hope, Dorcas Society, and the Home Mission; she should conduct Bible classes and mothers’ meetings; should make clothes for the poor and gruel for the sick; and finally she should be pleased with everybody and everything, and desire no reward beyond the satisfaction of having done her own duty and other people’s too.

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The Necessity of Redefining Marriage

Ben Witherington has recently commented on a CNN article which lays out, in my opinion, perhaps the strongest case against gay marriage from a strictly secular standpoint. I mention Witherington rather than going directly to the article because he includes many theological considerations which readers here are likely to find interesting. My main concern, however, is the argument of Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis.

Marriage is far more than your emotional bond with “your Number One person,” to quote same-sex marriage proponent John Corvino. Just as the act that makes marital love also makes new life, so marriage itself is a multilevel — bodily as well as emotional — union that would be fulfilled by procreation and family life. That is what justifies its distinctive norms — monogamy, exclusivity, permanence — and the concept of marital consummation by conjugal intercourse.

…All human beings are equal in dignity and should be equal before the law. But equality only forbids arbitrary distinctions. And there is nothing arbitrary about maximizing the chances that children will know the love of their biological parents in a committed and exclusive bond. A strong marriage culture serves children, families and society by encouraging the ideal of giving kids both a mom and a dad.

Seated Girl in Icelandic Bridal GownThe authors make a compelling observation that, legally, marriage does much more than standardize a primary relationship (e.g. defaulting who ought to be your medical proxy or to whom your possession belong in the event of your death). If this was its sole function, there would be no need for the legal structure which has been built up around marriage, one which institutionalizes matters of monogamy, sexual exclusivity, and permanence. If it were about formalizing a person’s primary affective attachment, it should be as easy to change as a will and open to the possibility of multiple equal levels of attachment. Which it isn’t; at least not legally.

In fact, American culture has largely done away with these pillars of marital theory, particularly permanence. It is not quite as easy to change a spouse as it is to change a beneficiary in your will, but it is done with strikingly more regularity nonetheless. Sexual exclusivity is eroding with a startlingly rapidity, so that primary relationships which have not yet been formalized are rarely assumed to be sexually exclusive and even married persons have a wealth of ways to violate the bounds of sexual exclusivity with impunity. (Someone care to look up statistics about the use of pornography by married men?) Only monogamy remains largely uncontested both legally and culturally, although the authors do point out the swelling phenomenon of polyamory.

The solution seems to me to require a redefinition of marriage rather than a feigned conservative defense of the grand old institution. The heterosexual marriage characterized by monogamy, fidelity, and permanence exists more as a convenient fiction than a staid bulwark against social decay. If we care about a definition of marriage that includes these principles than a cultural redefinition of marriage is in order, one that would accord with and allow for the revitalization of marriage laws. If, however, we recognize the cultural shift behind which the law has lagged, then the legal redefinition of marriage seems to be in order, not only to exclude the heterosexual requirement, but also all laws which are artifacts of a time when marriage was permanent, monogamous, and exclusive.

My preference has, traditionally, been for the latter, but only because it divorces what is legal from what is ethical in a way that neatly accords with my view of the world. More to the point, short of a spontaneous, universal, and enduring cultural revolution that recaptures the historic conception of marriage, changing the law to reflect culture seems to be the prudent course.

(None of which, of course, comments at all on the permissibility of homosexuality in Christian ethics.)

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Clean Monday: Straightening Out Alaska

Normally my Clean Monday thoughts tend more toward the devotional side. (I’ve already had some lagana this morning, have you?) But as I was perusing news from the Orthodox world, this little tidbit struck me as too delicious not to share.

US President Barack Obama must have known that his support of gay marriage would bring him trouble. But of all possible repercussions, a demand to roll back Alaska’s 1867 sale to the United States was one he was unlikely to have seen coming.

And yet that was the very claim that an ultraconservative religious group made in a Moscow arbitrage court, citing the need to protect fellow Christians from sin.

Obama’s alleged plans to legalize the “so-called same-sex marriage” threaten the freedom of religion of Alaska’s Orthodox Christians, who “would never accept sin for normal behavior,” the nongovernmental group Pchyolki (“Bees”) said.

“We see it as our duty to protect their right to freely practice their religion, which allows no tolerance to sin,” the group said in a statement on their website.

The groups charges that the contract for the sale of Alaska is null and void because of a technicality about the method of payment. Ironically, this lawsuit is only coming to light now because of the group’s own inability to abide by the legal technicalities of their own system.

Something tells me this isn’t the kind of cleanliness Clean Monday is supposed to be about. It’s a shame that Lent starts so much later for the Orthodox this year than for Catholics and Protestants–my preference would always be to observe them simultaneously–but, if nothing else, let those observing the Western fast season allow today serve as a reminder of the purity you committed yourself to back in February. Your Orthodox brothers and sisters around the world join you today in offering themselves as living sacrifices. If only for two weeks, Christians everywhere will be united in a period of self-reflection, purification, and anticipation of the resurrection.

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The War on Men: A Digest

On Monday, Suzanne Venker published a brief article in which she argues:

I’ve accidentally stumbled upon a subculture of men who’ve told me, in no uncertain terms, that they’re never getting married. When I ask them why, the answer is always the same.

Women aren’t women anymore.

…Fortunately, there is good news: women have the power to turn everything around. All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to theirs.

If they do, marriageable men will come out of the woodwork.

Unsurprisingly, the very women who Venker labels as “angry” and “defensive” were outraged by the suggestion and did not hesitate to express that outrage.

Meghan Casserly for Forbes, in one of the tamer articles, writes:

Women, do you hear Suzanne Venker? It’s all your fault. The women’s sexual revolution has left you too aggressive and too needy at the same time—two things “good men” absolutely abhor. But it’s not so much the changing that’s pissing mankind off, ladies. No, we’re pissing them off by expecting them to change along with us. To help us.

Venker writes that women have changed in recent decades and that men have stayed the same–as there hasn’t been a revolution that demanded it. But it seems that very revolution might be upon us. Modern men have two options: to change—or continue going the way of the buffalo.

Erin Gloria Ryan for Jezebel was predictably more outraged:

Venker’s piece for Fox News, which extrapolated from changing attitudes about marriage that there’s an entire subculture of men who don’t want to get married, and that’s because women are scaring them away by competing with them, was roundly mocked for being stupid, mindless garbage that paints women as testicle eating castrators and men as delicate babies upset that their feelings aren’t being appropriately catered to. Women aren’t letting men “win” in this ongoing battle of the sexes, and in response, men are taking their ball(s) and going home. Marital Lysistrata, if you will.

As was her counterpart, Jessica Wakeman, at Frisky:

2. I’ve … stumbled upon a subculture of men who’ve told me, in no uncertain terms, that they’re never getting married. When I ask them why, the answer is always the same. Women aren’t women anymore.

Also, Mommy makes his favorite Hamburger Helper whenever he asks and does not charge any rent for sleeping on that old couch in her basement. And she has no idea all that porn he’s downloaded is the reason why her computer is running so slow.

6. Now the men have nowhere to go.

Waaahhhhh. Fap fap fap fap fap.

Or the similarly lofty response of Kaili Joy Gray for Daily Kos:

Being a lady writer who writes about how ladies totally suck is such hard work.

It’s especially hard work if you make your living telling other ladies they shouldn’t make a living because of The ChildrenTM and also because it will make men feel bad about themselves. Keeping all the hatred and blame straight can really hurt your ladybrain and make you write things you totally didn’t mean to write.

And Kristin Iversen of The L Magazine:

The opening shot [in the War on Men] was sounded today by Suzanne Venker when she posted an article on Foxnews.com entitled “The war on men.” [sic] What about the war on capitalization, Suzanne? What about that?

Apparently, capitalization of titles is just one of the casualties in this epic struggle. But no matter, we have more important things to focus on. Namely, why don’t men like women anymore? What did women do to fuck up the sweet deal that they’ve had for centuries? You know. The one where women didn’t have the right to vote until less than a hundred years ago. The one where women still don’t make anything like equal pay for doing an equal amount of work. The one where women are expected to take on all of the household chores and childcare responsibilities and look the other way while men have as much freedom as they want. THAT SWEET DEAL.

Emma Gray for the Huffington Post quips:

Meanwhile, we women will quit our jobs, purchase aprons with our last paychecks and bake like it’s 1955. A workforce reduced by nearly half? That’s bound to get this society headed in the right direction.

Meagan Morris for Cosmopolitan chimes in:

We’ve come a long way as a gender since the birth of feminism and—gender pay gap, be damned—have the same rights and opportunities as our dude counterparts.

Oopsies, though: We silly women now have too much equality, according to Suzanne Venker. The Fox News columnist hypothesizes that the reason why so-called “marriageable men” don’t want to get married is because today’s women don’t make them feel like the super manly men women of say, the 1800s, would have…

So, all of us single ladies are destined to be single forever—and its our own fault—because we want to have careers and fulfilling lives.

Then there was Hanna Rosin at Slate:

I knew that women had become more educated. I knew they were steadily earning more money. I knew they had gained a lot of power of late, and sometimes even more money and power than the men around them. But I did not realize they had become so powerful that they could mess with the men’s DNA. How did I miss that? How has J.J. Abrams not made a movie about it?

Unfortunately, Venker is somewhat enigmatic about how to reverse this problem, beyond a few vague clues. Women, she says, “have the power to turn everything around” (Duh, of course, we have ALL the power). “All they have to do is surrender to their nature – their femininity – and let men surrender to theirs.” Surrender to my femininity. Surrender to my femininity. I get the general idea but what does it mean, like, in practice? Not wear pants so much? Let my hair grow. Ask my boss to pay me a little less? Open to ideas.

Are you noticing a trend here? No, it isn’t the generally liberal or openly feminist bent of these publications. It isn’t the condescending attitude that suggests that any challenge to prevailing notions about gender in public discourse is beneath serious reply. It isn’t even the logically fallacious, but nevertheless ubiquitous, guilt-by-association with Phyllis Schlafly (which I did my best to edit out). It’s the fact that all of these commentators are women.

Granted, I didn’t lift up there skirts and check (as if any of them wear skirts…ha), though that surely would have been my prerogative in 1955 or the 1800s or whenever we’re locating that fictionalized era when women were actively, systematically, and universally oppressed by men. Nevertheless, it seems clear that what we have here is a bunch of women sitting around in a closed off group trying to decide whether or not and how men are trying to oppress women and failing as men. Go figure.

Speaking on behalf of the testicled among us, or at least as one male among many, you women are welcome to continue to ascend in the workforce. Most of my colleagues are already women, as are most of my immediate supervisors. Continue to dominate academics. Be ever more consciously aggressive, more coldly rational, more unreservedly sexual, more delightfully vulgar because, after all, men have gotten away with it for years and anything we can do, you can do better. Earn equal pay for equal work, and, for the sake of reparations, reverse the pay gap for a while just to teach us a lesson. You have my permission, which you neither need nor want and which is undoubtedly a mere vestige of a paternalistic cultural heritage passed unconsciously to me by my forefathers (<–term deliberately not gender inclusive).

Meanwhile, all I ask for is the simple right to find those qualities unattractive. If the idea of my home becoming a staging ground for working out gender equality doesn't comport with the notions of domestic bliss that I developed when I was a little boy playing house and you were a little girl playing sister suffragette, I trust you won't think me too primitive. While you are off pursuing your dreams, I ask only that you don't count among your goals the wholesale destruction of my dream of enjoying a wife who makes me feel like a man, the sort of man Nick Charles was in the 1930s with his young, rich, opinionated, strong-willed wife who adored him. I have never, nor would I ever, force a woman to do anything, but you’ll forgive me if I don’t buy into the newest, shiniest model of woman just because you’re telling me she’s the wave of the future. The old model works just fine, the kind who recognizes that the quests for love and equity are sometimes adversarial.

So you can scoff if you want and hurl petty insults at Suzanne Venker, but–personally, anecdotally–there seems to be more than a little truth in the argument that men aren’t interested in competing all day at work and coming home to find domestic competition hovering just beneath the surface. What do you care? You don’t want men like me anyway, and the men you do want don’t want women like Suzanne Venker or Phyllis Schafly anyway–you know, the publicly outspoken, well-educated, career women that feminists are trying to get rid of.

If we’re lucky, men will go on blaming the demise of marital tranquility on women; women will persistently nag men to change with the times and lament the failures of the brutish sex when empowered women can’t find husbands; and before it’s all over, maybe the world won’t collapse under the wait of its own mushrooming population.

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The Following is Rated M for Mature

Penile mutilation is chief among a collection of topics that I am not interested in discussing, hearing about, or reading about. (And lest a charge of sexism be leveled against me, the details of female circumcision are right there with it.) It certainly was not something I expected to find discussed at great length in Anthony Reid’s Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce. Yet, right in the heart of this Braudelian examination of the “land below the winds,” Reid managed to work in an extensive and graphic discussion of grotesque penis surgeries that were enough to make my…stomach turn. Reid sees these surgeries as evidence of the inverted sexual power dynamic between the sexes in Southeast Asia society, a point which is proved as soon as the reader asks, “Why else would a man do that to his genitals?” In the interest of keeping myself well within the bounds of fair use, I have omitted much of Reid’s account and encourage you to read it (beginning on page 148) if you find your appetite whetted by the following description:

The most draconian surgery was the insertion of a metal pin, complemented by a variety of wheels, spurs, or studs, in the central and southern Philippines and parts of Borneo. Pigafetta was the first of the astonished Europeans to describe the practice:

“The males, large and small, have their penis pierced from one side to the other near the head with a gold or tin bolt as large as a goose quill. In both ends of the same bolt some have what resembles a spur, with points upon the ends; others are like the head of a cart nail. I very often asked many, both old and young, to see their penis, because I could not credit it. In the middle of the bolt is a hole, through which they urinate…They say their women wish it so, and that if they did otherwise they would not have communication with them. When the men wish to have communication with their women, the latter themselves take the penis not in the regular way and commence very gently to introduce it, with the spur on top first, and then the other part. When it is inside it takes the regular position; and thus the penis always stays inside until it gets soft, for otherwise they could not pull it out.”

The same phenomenon is described by many others…who agree that its purpose was always explained as enhancing sexual pleasure, especially for women. Some peoples of northwest Borneo…continued this practice until modern times, and their oral tradition attributes its origins to a legendary woman who found sexual intercourse without such an aid less satisfying than masturbation.

The same result was obtained in other parts of Southeast Asia by the less painful but probably more delicate operation of inserting small balls or bells under the loose skin of the penis…”they open [the penis] up and insert a dozen tin beads inside the skin; they close it up and protect it with medicinal herbs…the beads look like a cluster of grapes…They make a tinkling sound, and this is regarded as beautiful.”

So, gentleman, the next time your wives make some seemingly onerous request regarding their sexual satisfaction, comfort yourself in the knowledge that at least they aren’t asking you to nail a spur into your penis or embed a cluster of grapes under the skin.

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In Other News

When I went to bed last night, Barack Obama was president, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, and Democrats controlled the Senate. When I woke up this morning, Barack Obama was president, Republicans controlled the House of Representatives, and Democrats controlled the Senate. More than a year of persistent hue and cry, an anticlimax, and now, with any luck, a swift denouement. Meanwhile, to the disinterested surprise of Americans, the rest of the world has continued to turn while they beat their heads against a political brick wall.

Copts have just selected a new pope at one of the most critical junctures in modern Coptic history. The new leader, Pope Theodoros II, has rejected the political activism of his predecessor and is encouraging the church to follow his lead:

“The most important thing is for the church to go back and live consistently within the spiritual boundaries because this is its main work, spiritual work,” the bishop said, and he promised to begin a process of “rearranging the house from the inside” and “pushing new blood” after his installation later this month as Pope Tawadros II. Interviewed on Coptic television recently, he struck a new tone by including as his priorities “living with our brothers, the Muslims” and “the responsibility of preserving our shared life.”

“Integrating in the society is a fundamental scriptural Christian trait,” Bishop Tawadros said then. “This integration is a must — moderate constructive integration,” he added. “All of us, as Egyptians, have to participate.”

This seems to be fine by the ruling Muslim Brotherhood who have encouraged the new primate “to “support the Islamic Shariaa,” to “let go of the seculars”, and to “revoke the Church’s political role.””

In other parts of the Muslim world, Christians are facing more direct challenges from the government. Christians in Malaysia are being “converted” to Islam without their consent on government roles simply because of their names.

Bumiputra Christians in Sabah continue to be “converted to Islam” by the National Registration Department (NRD) simply because they have “bin” and “binti” in their names. Sabah churches are seeking urgent solutions to the crisis but none seems to be in sight, Bob Teoh writes in My Sinchew.

The NRD has made it clear it would continue to list Bumiputera Christians in Sabah as Muslims as long as they are known by bin or binti. It would also not rectify past entry errors by way of changing the religion listing back to Christianity in the identity cards (MyKad) of those affected. The NRD would only act upon an order by a Syariah High Court to determine whether those Bumiputera Christians whom it had listed as Muslims are not Muslims indeed.

The implications of this are far ranging–not least because these “Muslims” are not legally allowed to marry the Christians in their own community–and the hurdles the government has thrown up to rectify the error are numerous. What makes this more serious than a minor bureaucratic foul-up, however, is that perennial problem of apostasy in Islam. There is no permissible way to cease to be a Muslim, a conundrum which has found itself institutionalized in the racial-religious identity cards of Malaysia.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, sitting on the supposed burial site of Jesus, is the site of yet more controversy, this time over the more mundane matter of an unpaid water bill. The hub for Christian pilgrimage insists that it has never paid water bills as part of an unstated agreement with the utility company. Hagihon, the water company, is no longer content to receive nothing for something and has frozen the church’s assests until the $2.3 million in back bills is paid.

“We trust God and hope that people will help us,” [the General Secretary of the Patriarchate, Archbishop of Constantina Aristarchos] said, adding that the Patriarchate has sent letters to Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Tension in the Christian world comes home with still more revelations from the Orthodox Church in America. After much publicity and dutiful investigation, church officials have released their findings about the suspended bishop accused of sexual misconduct:

Text messages and emails sent by the bishop of the Orthodox Church in America’s Diocese of the Midwest did constitute sexual misconduct, according to a letter posted to the church’s website Sunday…

“I wish that I could convince all of you what I am certain of in my heart — that conscious motives behind my interaction with this woman were not impure,” [the accused bishop] Matthias wrote. “But, I know that only active, demonstrated repentance — confession of my sins, pursuit of the means of changing, and a resulting change in conduct — will be convincing.”

Unlike the Catholic stereotype of furtive reshuffling, the OCA has embraced a more public but no less Christian program of rehabilitation and penance. Matthias will ask forgiveness from the victim directly, be admitted to a residential therapeutic program, and submit to a “focused period of time under the guidance of a peer bishop to examine, articulate and provide concrete direction in managing the expectations and accompanying spiritual, emotional and interpersonal challenges of exercising the office of the bishop.”

And more besides. If only we had directed that one billion dollars to affecting actual change in the world. But, as always, where our treasure is indicates where our heart is. Money is always hard to find except when it comes to war and politics. If that doesn’t indicate their affinity, perhaps nothing will.

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Breaking News: Text About Jesus’ Wife Prompts Zero Controversy

There is breaking news coming out of Boston:

A Harvard professor has identified what appears to be a scrap of fourth century Egyptian papyrus that contains the first known explicit reference to Jesus as married, a discovery that could fuel the millennia-old debate about priestly celibacy in the Catholic church.

Of course, journalistic pot-stirring aside, this discovery will actually generate no controversy and will likely go entirely unnoticed in the debate about priestly celibacy. Why? It’s not because the document is already facing serious scholarly doubts about its authenticity. It’s also not because even the professor in question admits that the content of the papyrus in no way constitutes evidence that Jesus was actually married. This discovery, even if it is authentic, will mean absolutely nothing to the question of clerical celibacy because it isn’t news to the Catholics. They, like everyone else remotely versed in the issues, already knows that numerous late antique heterodox sects believed that Jesus was married. They, probably rightly, lump them in with the people who thought Christ was a phantom and the people who thought, as a boy, he turned clay into pigeons.

If the Catholic Church can find a way to cope with the fact that Peter, ostensibly the first pope, was married, they can certainly ignore the fact that some fourth century fringe groups speculated that Jesus was too. And they will ignore it. And so should you.

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Sexy Amendments to the Constitution

We have all heard the ultimately impotent advocacy for an amendment to the Constitution that would restrict marriage to heterosexual monogamy. We have also all heard the formulaic justification: protect the family, protect marriage. The main problem here is that if I am really interested in protecting the family and traditional marriage, if I toast my Pop Tart every morning in the warm glow of my righteous cause, then a Constitutional ban on same-sex marriage is not where I’m going to start.

You won’t hear Mitt Romney or Sean Hannity say it (though you might keep an eye on Newt Gingrich), but what this country really needs to protect families is an Amendment that criminalizes premarital sex. Out of wedlock births are the problem. That is what’s destroying the family. The Brookings Institution reports:

In 1965, 24 percent of black infants and 3.1 percent of white infants were born to single mothers. By 1990 the rates had risen to 64 percent for black infants, 18 percent for whites. Every year about one million more children are born into fatherless families.

As of 1990, more than one in four children are born out of wedlock. Meanwhile, The National Gay and Lesbian Task force estimates that only 3-8% of the population are homosexuals, a number significantly higher than equally partisan Christian groups’ estimates and higher even than Kinsey’s statistic of 4% exclusively homosexual males. Even if we accept that high number thought, children born out of wedlock are a significantly higher percentage of children than homosexuals are of the general population. Even if suddenly same sex marriage were legal and immediately the entire homosexual population of America were to marry at the same rate the heterosexual population does, roughly half, the 12.5 million newly married homosexuals would still not match the roughly 20 million children under eighteen who were born out of wedlock. If we want to promote healthy families centered on heterosexual parents, the first step is to criminalize sex outside of marriage with an amendment to the Constitution.

Even if, oh were that it so, we could get that magical clause tacked on to the Constitution, gay marriage wouldn’t be my next stop. After criminalizing pre-marital sex, the next greatest threat to traditional marriage is divorce. The oft quoted statistic that half of all marriages end in divorce, probably more scientifically stated as 40-50% of marriage will be disrupted by permanent separation or divorce, ought to be enough to prove that conclusively. In addition to destroying half of all traditional, heterosexual marriages, divorce leaves an estimated 1.1 million new children in broken homes every year. That is only slightly lower than the 1.2 million children born out of wedlock every year. The family is suffering.

If we follow our statistical path from the tentatively titled “No Milk Until You Buy the Cow Amendment,” allowing same sex marriage would only see about a 2-4% increase in marriages, or roughly 100,000. Meanwhile, the legality of divorce allows for the destruction every year of well over one million marriages. The disparity is clear. Divorce poses roughly ten times the danger to marriage and the family that same sex marriage does. It must be criminalized, and it must be done at the Constitutional level.

It is a tragedy, really, that the “consistent conservatives” in this country have had so much trouble appropriately identifying and combating the real threats to traditional marriage. Perhaps if we made it an issues of America’s standing in the world. Maybe if we point out that socialist Sweden has managed a significantly lower divorce rate than America. Or that in the sensuous Mediterranean climes of Spain, the out of wedlock birthrate is about 75% of what it is in the States. Canada is beating us in every category, which ought to be enough to infuriate every conservative. For single-parent households as a percentage of total households with children, America ranks below Canada, Japan, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the UK. We’re dead last.

So let’s get with it, defenders of traditional marriage. If you genuinely care about the state of marriage in this country, then it is time to stand up and make the hard decisions necessary to protect it. That, or maybe it is time to be honest with yourself and the public about what motivates your politics. Honesty in politics: God help us if we ever get it.

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The Politics of Gun Control

I read Blake Zeff’s recent article on gun control and found myself unexpectedly impressed. The piece begins with this simple premise:

There’s a reason that nothing’s happening to improve gun safety in America despite the mass shootings that now occur so regularly: No one in power is scared of the gun control movement.

And he proceeds from there to discuss not so much the “why” of gun control, which becomes so immediately repetitive in the wake of so many recent shootings, but the “how.” Taking his cues from the movement to legalize same-sex marriage, he explores how gun control advocates need to be willing to invest financially in the cause and to take control of how the debate is framed. Both are pragmatic suggestions and both have worked very well for the same-sex marriage movement. It is an interesting exploration of the technology of politics.

Zeff also attempts to locate the major obstacle that gun control will face that same-sex marriage will not. For him, this is the established opposition represented symbolically (and fiscally) by the NRA. Now, I am skeptical that opposition movements to same-sex marriage can really be described as “relatively weak and poorly organized,” except in places where it likely would have made no difference to begin with, but the political might of the NRA does make for a substantial hurdle to overcome.

Zeff does not, however, note a more crucial difference between the two movements. The press for same-sex marriage was, fundamentally, an attempt to expand a set of rights (as we conceive of them). Gun control, for whatever its merits may be, is an attempt to narrow a set of rights. It is critical to note that I am not saying that owning an assault weapon ought to be a right. For that matter, I am not saying getting married should be either. In simple pragmatic terms, however, where same-sex marriage has been permitted, people have been allowed to do something legally that they could not previously. Were gun control enacted, something that people could once do legally would no longer be licit.

You can frame the position as a libertarian one, as Zeff does. You can cite statistics about gun violence. You can appeal to examples of European nations with little to no gun crimes. You can reframe the parameters of the debate, restructure the narrative as much as you want. At the end of the day, Americans have a deeply ingrained cultural aversion to abridging rights. One need only look at Prohibition, that most dramatic of all prohibitive laws, and note that it took nearly one hundred years of temperance movements to see Prohibition amended to the Constitution and only thirteen years of spotty or non-existent enforcement to see it repealed. Once Americans have a taste of something or even the knowledge of the potential to taste of something, telling them they can’t have it violates a spirit that permeates our society.

Zeff notes that the statistical data which shows a small majority of Americans in favor of at least some form of gun control is rendered pragmatically meaningless when the question of who will be motivated to translate those positions into votes. it is my suspicion that many people who will never own an assault rifle, even people who will never own a gun, when the time comes to decide whether or not to restrict a activity they have no intention of participating in, they will react viscerally and decisively. The Enlightenment sense of entitlement, of rights, is more essential to American culture even than Christian morality. To overturn it will require a more herculean effort even than the marginal gains that have been made toward legalizing same-sex marriage.

That is not to say it can’t be done. It obviously can be. Americans have, from time to time and with varying degrees of permanence, broached new frontiers of government restriction of behavior. It is not typical, but it is possible. What’s more, it is not even my intention to argue against trying to achieve gun control. While I recognize that pressing gun restrictions, even to the point that we already have, is antithetical to the spirit of those founders who drafted and supported the Bill of Rights, I also don’t owe them any particular loyalty. I’d be happier in an America with fewer guns. Or no guns, since in my experience they exist primarily for sport hunting and violence directed at people–aggressive and defensive, licit and illicit.

All of that is beside the point. The point is that Zeff, while making an interesting and likely constructive argument for the mechanics of achieving gun control, fails to accurately grasp the problem of his parallel to same-sex marriage. This is not like knowing how to grow cucumbers and using that to learn how to grow squash. This is like knowing how to grow cucumbers and trying to use that to learn how to ungrow them. It’s a whole different ball game.

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Mennonite on Trial for Kidnapping and Conscience

In case this story has been flying under your radar, here is what’s happening:

Eleven women and three men were impaneled [Tuesday] to hear the case against Mennonite Pastor Kenneth Miller, accused of helping a woman flee the United States with her daughter rather than share custody of the child with her former lesbian partner.

Miller, 46, of Stuarts Draft, Va., is charged with aiding in international kidnapping. A conviction carries a maximum prison term of three years…

The judge said jurors will have to set aside their opinions and deal with the facts and the law in the case.

‘‘What is at issue here is whether Mr. Miller committed a crime,’’ U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions said.

The trial is expected to last six days.

Lisa Miller, no relation to the defendant, and Janet Jenkins of Fair Haven entered a civil union in Vermont in 2000. Lisa Miller gave birth to her daughter, Isabella, in 2002. The couple later broke up, and Lisa Miller returned to her native Virginia.

Kenneth Miller is accused of helping Lisa Miller and her daughter travel from Virginia to Canada, then to Nicaragua in September 2009 where they lived among Mennonites. The current whereabouts of the mother and her now-10-year-old child are unknown.

Now, I am typically a person of decided opinions, but I confess that I don’t know what to do with this case. As a matter of navigating everyday life, I reject the judge’s mindset that one must prioritize what is legal to what is moral. As the state has no legitimate authority, it has no power to coerce Christians to do violate their consciences regardless of the law. The instructions to the jury are appropriate, however, for the context in which they were given. They are in a courtroom and not an ethics seminar.

The beauty of the American legal system rests on the rule of law, single code for everyone, evenly applied. At the same time, the counterbalance to this potentially inhuman system is the court’s dependence on the weighty roll given to a jury of peers to decide whether or not actions warrant penalty.

I do not think that the courts should be deciding issues of custody based on the sexuality of the parents. I also sympathize, to put it mildly, with the Christian convert who, following Biblical commandments, insists on raising up the child in the way it should go.

As I struggle with these tensions, I try to put myself into the pastor’s shoes. We share, at least in theory, a common outlook on civil disobedience. Were I in his place, I might have done exactly what he did. I might even try to avoid legal penalty as he seems to be doing, although here I think this may not be the most Christian course. The biblical examples of civil disobedience, as well as those incidences of resistance which are lauded in modern times, have not tried to circumvent the law with impunity. When the time comes for a confrontation with the state, no excuses are made and no legal wrangling is attempted. Miller’s attorney is claiming innocence via technicality, but when Peter confronts the state, his attitude is closer to, “I am innocent before God, even as I am guilty before you. What does that say about you?” Early Christians were imprisoned, flogged, and executed without resistance, a fact which has richly colored Mennonite history as well. Perhaps the truer course would have been to spirit the woman away and, when she was safely among the church, to accept whatever civil penalty the state imposes for right behavior.

But what do I know? Miller has already shown more courage than most of us will ever be called to show, made a more difficult decision than any of us will have to face. My purpose is not to judge him, but to take his extreme situation and use it to animate our common, extreme ethos. Whatever happens or should happen, my hope is that he will allow God to enrich him through the consequences of his actions.

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