I am Larry David: Gay Marriage and “Julia” Ad edition

I am so tired of talking about gay marriage.  Maybe it’s the crowds I surf, maybe I am a pretentious elitist with the luxury of thinking about such issues critically, maybe it’s the denominational identity I have chosen, maybe it’s the denominational heritage I have been forced out of and later abandoned myself.  But I’m so tired of the conversation.  So here I go again on it.

I was in Washington, DC, at the Children, Youth, and a New Kind of Christianity conference when President Obama announced his safe and disengenuous endorsement of gay marriage as a response to the North Carolina amendment passed just hours before.  There was an air of excitement around the conference, who were getting texts and tweets trickling in about the news on their $300 iPhones, and a few talks in the conference were on such radical ideas as acknowledging that gay people are in your community, and if they dare to show up in your church for some reason, you should welcome their children, etc.  Instead of peeing myself with excitement or sweating on the upper lip as these Reformed mainlers and wannabe hipster emergents were doing at the conference, I do what I always do, which is listen to the crazy people who host right-wing radio to hear what the Other Side is thinking, and the immediate response was “President Obama is making a non-issue an issue.  President Obama is using this issue as a smokescreen to avoid talking about his record.”  Is this really the best conservatives can come up with, to claim that the President keeps bringing the issue up while celebrating their own legislation being passed in North Carolina?

In the last couple of months I have been in some fairly involved conversations with church based or faith based groups about gay marriage.  People don’t believe me when I say that I am honestly tired of talking about it.  Folks think I have something to hide about it by just being tired of talking about it.  Yet here I am, to repeat, talking about it more.

While I was on vacation last week–one night in Ohio, five in Chicago, and one more in Pittsburgh, and I went back to work this morning–I began to reflect on the nonsense of the entire conversation of the last two weeks on gay marriage:  Can one really “evolve” on an issue, and when does this make one a flip-flopper?  Did it really happen that the African delegation leader at the United Methodist General Conference compare gay people to those who practice beastiality?  Does Fox News still really interview “authoritative” people who advocate a direct and uncomplicated cause-and-effect relationship between homosexuality and suicide (yes; click here)?  Do progressives really think that this issue is all that important in the long scheme of everything else going on in the world–are liberals really looking this hard to have a “deal-breaker” issue like conservatives have with abortion?  And if so, don’t liberals see how ineffective the right’s anti-abortion campaign has really worked out, with fools like Rick Santorum talking a good game but essentially hiding from the issue when he is employed in a capacity which requires him to wear a tie to work (that is, the U.S. Senate)?  Why doesn’t the right-leaning Tea Party folks understand that it’s entirely inconsistent to believe that government intrusion into gun use is a violation of civil rights, on one hand, and on the other, to advocate further legislation to define what is always said to be a “religious institution,” that is, marriage?

Why can’t we just de-regulate all marriage?  If right-leaning folks or self-avowed and practicing heterosexual homophobes want to advocate that gay marriage is not a civil right–and I agree that it’s not a civil right–then why don’t we just do the right think and take away all immediate and assumed legal and financial privileges that are awarded by the government for heterosexual marriage?

The obvious problem with this is, obviously, that the legal arrangements when a couple divorces may become an issue here:  but would it really be any less messy?

On the whole drive home from Chicago to Pennsylvania, every single religious radio broadcast I could find on AM and FM was talking about gay marriage, whether it’s talk radio, call-in shows, or sermons preached on Sunday morning broadcasted from Pittsburgh.  Even the Catholic stations were talking about the grave immorality now abundantly evident in our culture now that Obama has disclosed his “feelings,” as if all of these folks needed another reason to hate the President, and as if there isn’t real incompentence and disaster within the Obama administration to really talk about.

But I am now convinced that this issue is not just a political smokescreen for talking about the economic issues on both sides of the aisle or to galvanize certain kinds of religious voters.  This issue is a smokescreen for the reality that heterosexual marriage is destroying our culture.  The statistics are now saying that 50% or more of all households with children have a single parent.  Nearly 80% of all single mothers are on some sort of welfare and nearly 30% of all single fathers are taking some sort of government support.  First marriages end in divorce 45-50% of the time, second marriages end in divorce 60-67% of the time, and 70-73% of third marriages end in divorce. Massachusetts has the lowest divorce rate and Nevada has the highest divorce rate in the US.  For unmarried heterosexuals who cohabitate, roughly 80% end in a separation or divorce, 45% of them ultimately get married.  When children are involved in cohabitations, they are five times more likely to live in poverty than if their parents were married.

My point here is not to start an argument about the ethics of cohabitation, etc., etc., because of all of the weddings I have officiated only a handful of them were not cohabitating already–and those who were cohabitating were more likely to tell me that they would not attend a United Church of Christ congregation because of our “liberal” stance on gay marriage.  My point, however, is that heterosexuals have a lot to account for the problems in our society.  It isn’t that folks aren’t listening to what the church has to say, it’s that the church has totally failed to make connections to marriage and the common good.

This week President Obama released a political ad with “Julia,” a woman who needs government at every point in her life.  While I can appreciate what Obama is doing in this interactive ad, the conservatives’ response attacks this fictional “Julia” to be promoting welfare queens, and the liberal response is that the GOP is out of touch.  But isn’t this the same argument on every economic or social issue in America?  Or is the point of the “Julia” ad to simply encompass these entire debates?

I suggest what is probably a deeply unpopular position:  “Julia” functions in the same way that the gay marriage debate functions in the political realm, namely, that just about anything else can be scapegoated from the actual crisis of heterosexuality in America today.  Heterosexuals have a lot of explaining to do.  Churches should be spending hours thinking about the marriages that are legal as a much deeper crisis of society than gay marriage.  This is not to say gay marriage isn’t something worth debating, but it’s not the issue that should be tearing churches apart.  But we should name the debate for what it is:  a smokescreen for the real issue, which is the crisis of straight marriage.


As mentioned before, my spouse always says “You are so Larry David.”  So here I share my awkward and unpopular views.

8 thoughts on “I am Larry David: Gay Marriage and “Julia” Ad edition

  1. Yes, yes and yes. And now we must ask, how does the Church address the problem of marriage? I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what a kind of ‘marriage reform’ might look like.

  2. Aric: Thanks for your question. This is perhaps a bigger question than how churches can survive the next 30 years, no? Because it is rooted deeply in economics, patriarchy, heteronormativities, etc., etc. I suspect that politically a move must happen to deregulate marriage altogether. This is why I am beginning to be convinced that accepting gay marriage out of some illusion of civil rights just continues the larger problems related to marriage.

    And again, I am just beginning to think through this, it’s a recent “evolution” for me. But I have yet to find anyone in “real life” who agrees with this position.

    I have always been an advocate for sex education in churches, and my spouse and I are both trained in the Our Whole LIves sexuality curriculum for teenagers. (If you’re not familiar, it’s worth checking out.) What I especially admire about this curriculum is the open conversations about marriage and values, and healthy thinking about marriage beyond what I think I got from church growing up: Marriage is the payoff for saving oneself for virginity, and you had better not ever get divorced. (But if you do, since we’re protestants, you can still attend, participate and donate to the church.) The real impact of divorce, opening up adolescent narratives of children of broken homes, creating liturgical space where pains can be named and empathized, etc. But these are small steps for an already small population. Yet if such educational discourse could erupt beyond the walls of the church in viral ways, perhaps like the bullying issues have finally happened, the conversation does not have to be religiously grounded, since it’s an issue of the common good and of social justice, if we’re allowed to say “social justice” anymore.

    Your thoughts?

  3. It seems to me the primary issue is the prevalence and cultural/religious acceptance of divorce. It also seems that there is no way to “educate” this acceptance away; divorce has become a kind of individualistic sacrament – it is a “right” everyone has that should be executed whenever one is unhappy, dissatisfied, or even bored. And I’m not quite sure that we could be able to do a kind of “scientific study” to show how divorce has negative effects: the narratives of “broken homes” seems to be a religious one in the first place (<a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k1BFHYtZlAU"although this isn't always the case).

    So I think reform starts within the Church (or churches) and within the realm of theological discourse itself. I think this requires a re-thinking of not just what marriage is, but what it is to love, and how love that is divine is love that is, among many other things, faithful.

    At the end of the day, marriage as a “right” is a problematic concept because it turns divorce into a right as well… along with any other social institution we can think of. I think conceiving of everything within this “rights-based” or Lockean paradigm is fatal to the kind of discourse necessary for revealing the problem of divorce and its subsequent remission.

  4. Hey Chris:

    This is Darek McCullers from Faith Practices Writers Conference 4 in St. Louis. Before I start, let me say I made it! I was ordained as a UCC minister by the Eastern NC Association in Raleigh on May 6. Anyway, I’m saying in an unsophisticated way, what you are saying. In my circles, I’ve been saying that the government needs to get out of marriage. What could this look like? Well, churches, sea captains, etc. could still perform the ceremony, but the document simply would be registered at the local county clerk’s office, much the same way one registers a deed or military discharge papers, etc.,Accordingly, the status “married” could be applied to anyone who claims to be. Where some entities require proof, the certificate could be produced.

    On the other hand, if we are going to retain the current system, it needs to be modified. Perhaps (like UCC ordination) an assessment could be required before the marriage license is issued. The assessor could be given the power to not recommend that the license be issued, for which another assessment could be done after 90 days and the rationale for denial addressed (such as conflicts in faith, family, finances, fighting, and fun-the five F’s as my pastor called them).

  5. It seems that the crisis of marriage is often framed (notably in Laura Kipnis’s Against Love, for example) as a crisis of fidelity, and specifically of sexual fidelity. This framing sets up an opposition between pleasure and duty, from which the moral is most commonly drawn that pleasure perhaps shouldn’t overrule duty but – people being people, and modern folks being modern folks especially – inevitably will. The story goes that previous generations had less freedom (or more moral fibre) and were able to (or just had to) put up with less in the way of pleasure than the present generation has come to expect. Whether the present generation’s expectations are spun as liberation or selfishness depends on who’s doing the moralising. I don’t find the triumphalist liberation-of-desire moralising any more edifying than the imminent-death-of-civilisation variety. It’s all Protestant Work Ethic theatre either way.

    So, I think that framing’s wrong. I don’t think marriages generally fail because sexual fidelity is too hard (or infidelity is too easy). Both of those things might be true, but there’s a false anthropology involved in the opposition of pleasure-seeking to duty-fulfilling: our various pleasures and obligations always come together, inasmuch as we oblige and gratify each other as social beings. Adulterers – or at least the careful ones – are among the most onerously obligated people on earth.

    My marriage failed because it became sick; I mean that both of us suffered from mental ill health, circumstanced by bereavement, economic stress and social disorientation, and that this mental illness was not localised in one person but generated through the interactions between two (plus n: children, friends…). It may seem a perverse way to describe a violent stew of emotions, but I would ultimately characterise the failure of my marriage as a breakdown of rationality. By “rationality” I mean here the ability to discern justice, to identify that which is worth fighting for. There was no “just order” in the relationship, and no apparent will to try to create one. I spent the last three years of it in pure survival mode, drowning in depression; and perhaps my spouse did also.

    The kinds of bad behaviour that explicitly violate boundaries and destabilise trust are usually symptoms rather than causes, and are often taken up as weapons in conflict, as ways of getting from bad to worse. I think the crisis of marriage is often ultimately a crisis of rationality – of governance, or “steering”. People can live with difficult others, with others who behave badly, who say and do disappointing or outrageous things: such things can be forgiven, and will inevitably have to be from time to time. What people can’t live with is injustice, and when injustice fills up the intimate sphere of one’s life then everything is war.

    When there is justice – or at least a minimal will towards justice, towards creating greater justice – then one can forgive a great deal, because the goal in view is immensely demanding and one is humbled by it: “do justly” and “love mercy” belong naturally together. I suppose I am not now in a position to say what it is that happens when a marriage “works”, but I would argue that a necessary if not sufficient condition is that justice should be sought within it, and that such seeking is fundamentally rational. We live in disordered societies, the rationality of which is perverted and dysfunctional, and the disorder of marriage within those societies is not primarily a disorder of personal morality.

    It is a wonder that anyone manages to carve out any sort of a space within which sanity and goodness are possible, but no wonder at all that so many still look to marriage – unrealistically as may be – as a way of establishing a shelter within which they can live their intimate lives in peace. It’s a cruel optimism – the shelter often fails, and violence wells up within the home – but understandable. Heterosexuals do indeed have some explaining to do, but it is not so much themselves that they need to be explaining, as the way in which those selves and the shelters they construct are torn by “the steel claws of contingency”.

  6. My first marriage failed. Also, my best man read a long excerpt from Kipnis’s Against Love at my rehearsal dinner. But correlation, we are taught, does not imply causation.

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