The Washington Post's culture critic, Philip Kennicott, recently took to the pages of his paper to note the “cognitive dissonance” between ingrained “habits of homophobia” in American culture, on the one hand, and a recognition that “overt bigotry is no longer acceptable in the public square,” on the other.
As an example of those who resolve this dissonance by holding fast to their homophobic prejudices, Kennicott cited Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, who had remarked on the similarities between the Empire State's recent re-definition of marriage and the kind of human engineering attempted by totalitarian states; NRO's Kathryn Jean Lopez and I came into Mr. Kennicott's line of fire for displaying similarly “virulent homophobic rhetoric” in articles defending Archbishop Dolan's suggestion that, in the marriage debate, the totalitarian temptation was very much in play.
Philip Kennicott's line of attack nicely demonstrates the truth of Oscar Wilde's famous observation that the only way to rid oneself of temptation is to yield to it. For crying “homophobia” is a cheap calumny, a crypto-totalitarian bully's smear that impresses no serious person.
But for charity's sake, let's assume here that Mr. Kennicott simply had a bad day and might actually be interested in the arguments of those he and others have dismissed as bigots. Perhaps I can illustrate the point Kennicott's targets were making by reminding all parties to this dispute of what marriage under totalitarianism was like—a subject I happened to be discussing with a Polish couple who were preparing to mark their 47th wedding anniversary when the Kennicott article appeared.
Under Polish Communism, Catholic couples—which is to say, just about everyone—got “married” twice. Because marriages in the Catholic Church were not recognized by the Communist state, believers had two “weddings.” The first was a civil procedure, carried out in a dingy bureaucratic office with a state (i.e., Communist-party) apparatchik presiding. The friends with whom I was discussing this inanity are, today, distinguished academics, a physicist and a musicologist. They remembered with some glee that, a half century before, they had treated the state “wedding” with such unrestrained if blithe contempt that the presiding apparatchik had had to admonish them to take the business at hand seriously—a warning from the über-nanny-state my friends declined to, well, take seriously.
The entire business was a farce, regarded as such by virtually all concerned. Some time later, my friends were married, in every meaningful sense of that term, in Wawel Cathedral by a Polish priest whom the world would later know as John Paul II.
Americans will say, “It can't happen here.” But it can, and it may. Before the ink was dry on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's signature on New York's new marriage law, the New York Times published an editorial decrying the “religious exemptions” that had been written into the marriage law at the last moment. Those exemptions do, in fact, undercut the logic of the entire redefinition of marriage in the New York law—can you imagine any other “exemption for bigotry” being granted, in any other case of what the law declares to be a fundamental right?
Either the recently enacted New York marriage law is nonsense, or its religious opponents are bigots whose prejudices should not be given the protection of law. To use Mr. Kennicott's sociological term of art, it's a matter of cognitive dissonance to try to have it both ways. In any event, pressures like that of the Times and its activist allies will continue, for the logic of their position requires them to try and strip away religious and other exemptions from recognizing “gay marriage.”
Should those pressures succeed, the Catholic Church will be forced to get out of the civil marriage business—as it has been forced in some states to stop providing foster care for children and young people, thanks to the pressures of the really phobic parties in these affairs: the Christophobes. Priests will no longer function as officials of the state when witnessing marriages.
So what will Catholics and other adherents of biblical morality do (for evangelical pastors are just as much at risk from the Christophobes as Catholic priests)? They'll have a civil “wedding” that will be a farce, just like that endured by my Polish friends in 1964. And then they'll really get married in church.
Thus the net effect of the pressures now being mounted by the Times and others—a redefinition of “marriage” that puts Christian communities and their pastors outside the boundaries of the law for purposes of marriage—will be to reduce state-recognized “marriage” to a sad joke. One can even imagine a whole new genre of dark humor, of the sort represented by “Radio Yerevan” and other brilliant exemplars of anti-Communist raillery, emerging. That might be fun, but it's a sad price to pay for this state attempt to redefine reality.
And that brings us to the totalitarian temptation. As analysts running the gamut from Hannah Arendt to Leszek Kolakowski understood, modern totalitarian systems were, at bottom, attempts to remake reality by redefining reality and remaking human beings in the process. Coercive state power was essential to this process, because reality doesn't yield easily to remaking, and neither do people. In the lands Communism tried to remake, the human instinct for justice—justice that is rooted in reality rather than ephemeral opinion—was too strong to change the way tastemakers change fashions in the arts. Men and women had to be coerced into accepting, however sullenly, the Communist New Order, which was a new metaphysical, epistemological, and moral order—a New Order of reality, a new set of “truths,” and a new way of living “in harmony with society,” as late-bureaucratic Communist claptrap had it.
The 21st-century state's attempt to redefine marriage is just such an attempt to redefine reality—in this case, a reality that existed before the state, for marriage as the union of a man and a woman ordered to mutual love and procreation is a human reality that existed before the state. And a just state is obliged to recognize, not redefine, it.
Moreover, marriage and the families that are built around marriage constitute one of the basic elements of civil society, that free space of free associations whose boundaries the just state must respect. If the 21st-century democratic state attempts to redefine something it has neither the capacity nor the authority to refine, it can only do so coercively. That redefinition, and its legal enforcement, is a grave encroachment into civil society.
If the state can redefine marriage and enforce that redefinition, it can do so with the doctor-patient relationship, the lawyer-client relationship, the parent-child relationship, the confessor-penitent relationship, and virtually every other relationship that is woven into the texture of civil society. In doing so, the state does serious damage to the democratic project. Concurrently, it reduces what it tries to substitute for reality to farce.
That's what those whom Mr. Kennicott deplores as virulent bigots were trying to point out.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.
This article was originally published on National Review Online