Bad Religion

Gays Can Practice Fidelity, Too
New books dissected over email.
April 18 2012 12:40 PM

Bad Religion

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Why can’t gays practice fidelity, chastity, and continence?

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Barbara Tremblay (L) and Stacey Minondo wait to get married on July 24, 2011 in New York City, the first day of gay marriage in the state

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Ross,

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

You’ve put your finger on the central truth. It’s in that quote from the future Pope Benedict: “We cannot resolve great moral problems simply with techniques, with chemistry, but must solve them morally, with a life-style.” But what does that mean?

Look at the case you’ve made against contraception. It isn’t a case against contraception. It’s a case against trends and problems you associate with contraception: abortion, illegitimacy, declining marriage rates, de facto polygamy, and embryo research. What you’re really arguing for is, in your words, “encouraging people to be more morally discerning about whom they sleep with, and when, rather than focusing on technologies that promise … to make such moral discernment unnecessary.”

I’m with you there. No technology will make moral discernment unnecessary. But technology can be part of the package. Contraception can be part of a discerning, moral lifestyle. If Pope Benedict won’t explore that synthesis, I hope you will.

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And I hope you’ll do the same with homosexuality. Here we’re talking about science, not technology. Any reader of Bad Religion will see that you’re struggling with this issue. You’ve been handed scriptures and a faith tradition that treat homosexuality as a kind of hedonism or corruption. But homosexuality doesn’t belong on that spectrum. It isn’t a vice or a lifestyle. It’s an orientation, to which the same teachings about sexual virtue can apply.

At times, you speak with the voice of someone who knows people trapped between their homosexuality and their church. At other times, you fall back on an outsider’s view of homosexuality, depicting it as part of a landscape of libertinism, along with cohabitation, divorce, abortion, and sexual abuse. You worry that if we “snip a single thread” from the traditional Christian view of sexuality, the whole tapestry will unravel. But the threads that truly hold the tapestry together are the ones you articulate in the book: chastity, fidelity, continence. Isn’t that the fabric of a moral sexual lifestyle? Can’t that lifestyle be preached by a faithful Christian to people of both orientations?

That leaves the problem of marriage and procreation. One thing an attentive liberal reader will absorb from your book is that the case against gay marriage runs deeper than the case against gay sex, based on the principle that children, not romance, should be the focus of marriage. As a fellow parent, I appreciate this perspective. Jews may have trouble relating to the Christian concept of self-sacrifice, but we’re very familiar with the Jewish-mother version. (“That’s all right, I’ll sit in the dark.”) So the idea of marriage as a gateway to parenthood rather than self-fulfillment resonates with me. But again, it isn’t clear that you’d have to give up that idea in order to extend marriage to same-sex couples. You could simply accept homosexuality as a kind of infertility.

I won’t bore you with statistics on how many gay couples are raising children. And we don’t have enough space here to debate whether that’s bad for kids, though I think any honest examination of the data will show that kids benefit from having two attentive parents and from having role models of both sexes, even when the parents can’t do all the role modeling. All I want to suggest here is that the essential barrier same-sex couples face—inability to produce children from both their gametes—is shared by infertile straight couples. And while you can argue under natural law that infertile straight couples could produce children in theory, that answer feels kind of lame, doesn’t it? We encourage marriage anyway, because we believe in the ideal. As an exponent of that ideal, I hope you’ll help Christians think about how their understanding of marriage can incorporate homosexuality.

Will

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