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.