A tragic approach to same-sex marriage

Oliver Kamm

The Times supports same-sex marriage. It’s an editorial stance that I’ve had a role in formulating and a position that I strongly favour. One particular feature of our case ought to appeal to a rational conservative. As argued in our initial leader last year in support of reform, formally acknowledging the validity of homosexual unions “has encouraged gay couples to commit to enduring partnerships, in which many show a devotion, care and disinterested love that do far more to create ordered domesticity than government programmes could ever achieve”.

Not all opposition to gay marriage is prejudiced, but the irrationalism of its supposedly heavyweight critics is hard to miss. I have just noted comments by John Milbank, a prominent British theologian and founder of something called “Radical Orthodoxy”. His argument is summarised in the American religious journal First Things and set out fully here.

Milbank’s prose style is not the crispest, but once you’ve excavated his argument you have to wonder at its paucity. He begins by referring to “the telling squeamishness in much contemporary conversation on homosexuality, which invariably steers away from its physical aspects”.

I don’t think it’s doing violence to his argument to summarise it this way: “Homosexuality? Ugh!” It’s an aesthetic judgment (at least, that’s the politest thing I can say about it) of no relevance to public debate.

Milbank’s principal point appears to be, however, that: “Heterosexual exchange and reproduction has always been the very ‘grammar’ of social relating as such. The abandonment of this grammar would thus imply a society no longer primarily constituted by extended kinship, but rather by state control and merely monetary exchange and reproduction.”

Milbank is obscure but I can recognise something here that is no better reasoned than his claim about “squeamishness”. He thinks sex is about having children, and this is essential to marriage. He maintains that “a gay relationship cannot qualify as a marriage in terms of its orientation to having children, because the link between an interpersonal and a natural act is entirely crucial to the definition and character of marriage”.

Children and a loving domestic environment in which they can grow up are a benefit of marriage. But they are not the only one. No one disputes the richness of married life for heterosexual couples who are unable to have children. Nor does the State have any business in judging that such a marriage is meaningless. Milbank’s standpoint would be risible if it were not tragic. He defines marriage in such a way that it will exclude homosexuals. That’s not an argument but a manoeuvre.

I once debated with Milbank, on BBC Radio 3’s Nightwaves. It was an odd experience. He argued for a religion-based common culture. In opposing him, I mentioned the scarcity rather of public rationalism, as evinced by Milbank himself: he’s a 9/11 conspiracy theorist. Milbank erupted at this, claiming it was a lie, so note his public support for a group called Religious Leaders for 9/11 Truth. Milbank claims to have withdrawn his signature, but it remains in the public domain and he has stated (in an essay entitled Geopolitical Theology: Economy, Religion and Empire after 9/11): “As to the precise causes of 9/11 I remain entirely agnostic.”

Private Eye later reported, completely accurately, that when this live broadcast had ended, Milbank started screaming at me: “You’re going to be dealt with!” He kept this up in the studio, down the corridor, through the lobby and on to the street to our respective waiting cars. But I sleep well.

Can 1,000 Catholic priests be wrong?


Oliver Kamm

The question answers itself, but here’s the context.

More than 1,000 priests have signed a letter to the Telegraph protesting against same-sex marriage. They maintain that the Government’s forthcoming Equal Marriage Bill heralds a return to religious persecution. The Bishop of Portsmouth maintains that “it is quite Orwellian to try to redefine marriage”, and terms the proposed reform “totalitarian”.

It’s tempting to dismiss this as inflammatory nonsense, because that’s what it is. Even so, two points are worth drawing out.  

First, the clerical opponents of gay marriage continually commit the logical fallacy of begging the question (ie, assuming in their premises the truth of what they’re arguing for). They complain that the Government’s proposals “redefine marriage” – a redefinition that they are conscientiously and by Church teaching bound to oppose.

Yet the argument of the proponents of reform, including The Times, is explicitly that we are not redefining marriage. We merely seek to extend marriage rights to couples who are now barred from them on no better ground than that they are of the same sex. Reforming marriage to enable a woman to own property independently of her husband was a change of far greater scope than same-sex marriage will be. It was opposed on similar grounds of its supposedly being contrary to natural law. And it was obviously right and just. Same-sex marriage is a modest reform of similar type.

Second, because of that point, the Church will damage itself by the vitriol and hyperbole of its campaign. That’s a prediction, not a complaint – indeed it’s a scenario that I welcome and look forward to.

Damian Thompson, the prominent Catholic journalist, comments on his Telegraph blog that “David Cameron is at war not just with fundamentalists, but also with middle-of-the-road clergy and lay people from Britain’s largest and, arguably, best-integrated religious minority”.

I see no reason to doubt this, but draw the opposite inference. The war has been declared by the Church. Religious liberty is an axiom of a free society; but on public policy, the Church is a lobby like any other. It is not a repository of wisdom about the right and the true. Numerous Catholics implicitly acknowledge this by ignoring Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, proscribing artificial contraception.  

The history of civilisation is to a large extent bound up with separating religious from civic authority. By its obduracy, the Catholic Church is hastening the process.

A prominent pacifist

Oliver Kamm

We publish today a letter from Canon Paul Oestreicher criticising a leading article on the Falklands War. Oestreicher insists that, in the political controversy about the Thanksgiving Service at St Paul’s, the clerics who criticised Margaret Thatcher were motivated not by pacifism but by a wish for an “expression of compassion for the victims on both sides”.

In fact, we didn’t accuse the Church leadership of pacifism, though we did cite the judgment of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant ethicist, on that issue. We observed that the politicians had a surer sense than the bishops of what the nation was giving thanks for: victory in a just war against aggression. But Oestreicher’s intervention gives me an opportunity to relate the background of this prominent clerical campaigner.

Oestreicher is a pacifist. His position illustrates Niebuhr’s point that pacifism ends up either making no judgments at all or having an undue preference for tyranny. Some years ago he wrote a letter to The Guardian comparing the US/UK occupation of Iraq, mandated under UN Security Council Resolution 1483, to the Nazi occupation of France.

In the 1960s Oestreicher was a leading figure in a bizarre exercise of Christian-Marxist dialogue. In the Catholic Herald he recounted the contributions of the “intellectual giant” and French Communist ideologue Roger Garaudy, who later became an indefatigable Holocaust denier, and a “charming and pretty young sociologist from Prague”, who predictably urged Christians to combat “blind and irrational anti-Communism”.

The Marxism in this “dialogue” was unlike the contemporary and creative New Left. It was rank Stalinism. A volume of essays by the participants was co-edited by Oestreicher and James Klugmann, a leading British Communist who had worked clandestinely for Soviet intelligence in the 1930s and tailored his own convictions to whatever happened to be the Soviet line of the time. In his own essay, Oestreicher made the pitiful claim that it took as much courage to be a Communist in the US as it did to be a Christian in the USSR.

Oestreicher’s longstanding politics, in short, appear to be not anti-war so much as anti-American and anti-British. 

The new Archbishop should have no special say

Oliver Kamm

The Times’s top leader today welcomes the appointment of Justin Welby, Bishop of Durham, to succeed Rowan Williams as Archbishop of Canterbury. From what I hear of Welby, he is a thoughtful man who is likely to be an effective Church leader. Where I differ from our argument is the notion that Welby’s ecclesiastical leadership entitles him to any special say in public affairs.

The Church of England is entitled to express a collective view on any civic issue, but even its historic role entitles it to no special say in policy, let alone a formal constitutional role. Why should it? Our argument as a newspaper is that Welby represents the claims of faith in a secular and pluralist culture. But we don’t argue why faith should have an inherent virtue. I don’t believe it has any: there is too much faith and not enough reasoning in public affairs. Reason has its limits, but the sceptical and scientific method – by which no one has a special say, and empirical claims are always subject to scrutiny and revision – is the most reliable course we have to knowledge.

I’m concerned that the Church is enjoying an intellectual deference even though religious observance has declined over the past 50 years or so. When William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942-44, wrote his immensely influential book Christianity and Social Order, which affected the thinking of postwar policymakers on the welfare state, he felt the need to justify his “interference” in the secular realm. Now, as religious belief has become increasingly untenable, the role of the Church appears to be little other than theatre, ritual and declaratory pronouncement.

There is a value to society in the views of the Archbishop of Canterbury if, and only if, they adhere to the canons of evidence that any thinking person should follow. The Jeffersonian principle of the separation of civic and religious authority is an essential principle of a free society. The Church is entitled to religious liberty and freedom of speech, but it is not entitled to a privileged hearing, nor is faith a source of strength.

Gay marriage does not lead to polygamy, Lord Carey

Oliver Kamm

In a fringe meeting at the Conservative Conference yesterday, Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, extraordinarily compared the position of those who oppose gay marriage to the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany. His comment is ignorant and grotesque, but he does raise one issue that merits a response. According to our report:

Speaking after the event, Lord Carey also warned that gay marriage was a step on the ‘slippery slope’ to the polygamous relationships of traditional Mormons.

The Times supports gay marriage. I’ve held that view myself since the mid-1990s, when it became clear to me that the issue was of central importance to civil rights and the ability to lead a worthwhile life, and not merely a worthwhile reform that should one day take place. I’m proud to have had a role in forming this newspaper’s arguments on the subject.

The notion that enabling same-sex couples to marry is a step towards polygamous marriage is a fantastic misconception. Polygamy (or polyandry, the marriage of one woman to several husbands, which is far rarer in history) would be genuinely a transformation in the nature of the institution of marriage. Same-sex marriage is not: it is merely the extension of an existing right. The advocates of that reform are not asking that homosexuals be able to marry anyone and everyone they like, only that they be able to marry someone.

That’s equivalent to the legal right that heterosexuals have. As Jonathan Rauch, the American columnist, writes in his excellent book Gay Marriage: “Heterosexuals, of course, cannot marry anyone or everyone they love. They cannot marry their sister or a group of two or three people. But they can all marry one person they love, and the pool of potential mates is very large….”

Enabling same-sex couples to marry is a reform more like enabling a married woman to own property (something that was once, too, considered to be contrary to the natural order). It’s a matter of equity.


Read the editorial from earlier this year where The Times comes out in favour of gay marriage

Why has no Muslim leader in my experience ever, ever, ever mentioned how the British and Americans saved Muslims in Kosovo from genocide?

We now risk global Muslim anger every time a bongo-brain in a Moosejaw shed uploads an idiocy involving something Islamic, David Aaronovitch writes

Everywhere in the world there are people whose instinct on being upset is to smash or burn whatever or whoever it is that has upset them. Political maturity tempers their influence in two ways, first by creating a surrounding awareness that other strategies of opposition (such as campaigning, law or simply not caring) might be more effective and second by creating a fairly high threshold for the sorts of sins people have to have committed for smashing or burning to feel like a proportional response.

After the riots sparked by controversial film The Innocence of Muslims, Hugo Rifkind ponders the political maturity of Muslims in the Middle East

There are far harder tests of the conflict between freedom of expression and private offence than a pap snap of the Duchess of Cambridge’s breasts. The film Innocence of Muslims, which fuelled the attack on the US mission in Benghazi in which the American ambassador was killed, is also easy to find online. Innocence of Muslims would be hilarious if its consequences were not so grave. This crudely provocative depiction of the life of Mohammed resembles a bad sequence in Game of Thrones. If only the entire Islamic world could turn around, grip its sides and laugh at the idiocy of the boot-polish make-up, the clumsily super-imposed desert backdrops, rather than gulp down this fat-ball of bait.

The Holy War between the Christian Right and Jihadist Islam rages on over the heads of a horrified world and neither cares about those caught in the crossfire, says Janice Turner

I took off my clerical collar and cut it up in an interview on The Andrew Marr Show on Sunday December 9, 2007. I said I would not wear it again until Robert Mugabe ceased to be in power in Zimbabwe. I made this prophetic statement as Mr Mugabe had slowly but surely cut the identity of the Zimbabwean people into tiny pieces. I did not expect still to be collarless five years on.

John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, prays for free and fair elections to topple Robert Mugabe

Tom Cruise on Scientology:

We’re here to help.

See Hugo Rifkind’s earlier post, Scientologists: perhaps it’s time to hire a public relations guru.

Ansar Dine and desecrating the shrines of saints | David Aaronovitch

The warriors of the fundamentalist Muslim group Ansar Dine know exactly why it’s necessary for them to destroy the beautiful 15th century tombs in the Malian city of Timbuktu. It has to be done, said a chap called Oumar Ould Hamaha, so that “future generations don’t get confused, and start venerating the saints as if they are God”.

We’ve had our own Ansar Dine in Britain. On May 2, 1643, a group of Puritans pulled down the Cheapside Cross, a richly carved 13th century memorial to the recently dead Queen Eleanor. Apparently the statues of saints might have drawn the impressionable back to papism.

There are no “heritage” or “art” categories in totalitarianism – be it total religion or total politics. The difference between Ansar Dine and us is 300 years of recognition.

Twitter: @DAaronovitch

Read more: Islamists destroy ancient monuments in Timbuktu to defy Unesco

Magazine Rack | paedophilia crusade, Anonymous, placebos & LinkedIn’s strategy

Ariel Sabar on why John Wojnowski has stood outside the Vatican embassy nearly every day for 14 years, on Washingtonian

Quinn Norton on how Anonymous picks targets, in Wired

George Anders on LinkedIn’s strategy, in Forbes

On Discover Magazine, Howard Brody asks when it’s ethical for doctors to take advantage of the placebo effect

Compiled by @TomasRuta

Violence continues in Sittwe, Burma, where at least 29 people have been killed, 2,600 homes burned and more than 30,000 people displaced since clashes between ethnic Buddhist Rakhine and Muslim Rohingya groups began on June 8.


Read: Burmese cities under curfew as rioting threatens new ethnic conflict

Columns - Wednesday June 13, 2012

Loading posts...