(Edited and reposted from the old blog.)
I mentioned in a recent post that, in the culture wars, or more generally in politics, I prefer to engage in "jujitsu".
In the martial arts, Jujitsu is a style of fighting that involves using the opponent's weight and momentum against them. In other words, it eschews the direct confrontation and impact of opposing blows, in favor of a more subtle, perhaps manipulative approach. There are three ways that we can engage in political jujitsu.
1) I really don't know anything about martial arts, but I can imagine that having a low center of gravity and a stable stance is very important for Jujitsu, or for any art that involves throwing the opponent. What is the political and cultural parallel to this? You can understand the analogy when I say that having a firm sense of identity is like having a low center of gravity. You are rooted in place, in other words.
2) In addition to being rooted you must be decisively flexible when necessary. In politics this implies a clear-eyed essentialism, an understanding of exactly what things are most important, and what is not important, even when the two are deeply intertwined in tradition. Jujitsu, if I understand it correctly, seeks to deflect a blow only a little, to waste no energy in combating it head-on with opposing force, but to deflect it away from the most vulnerable target, and use the great power and momentum of the blow against the enemy. This requires the martial artist to understand clearly what are his most important assets, i.e. what parts of his body are most vulnerable.
3) Finally, when attacked, you must use your rootedness and your flexibility to find a way to redirect your opponent's attack, acting decisively in an unexpected way. Along the general path of his motion, there must be some destination that it is safe or advantageous for you to send him. We are always on the look-out for how to use the attack to our advantage.
Take for a good example, the extremely contentious issue of gay marriage. Here is a political disagreement that has nothing to do with solving an economic problem or protecting the nation from a foreign threat. Instead it is a simple disagreement of values, over what our society should consider "normal". Both sides experience a heightened interest in winning: the left, because it truly believes that government sanction bestows moral legitimacy (in other words that gay couples are being gravely wronged by their community's withholding of its approval), and the right, both because it correctly understands that it has a majority on the issue and on an individual basis because of each person's natural disgust for sexual perversion.
Now lets look at the right and wrong ways to go about dealing with the controversy. (From the conservative side, of course.)
The wrong way is the obvious, simple resistance.
Many years ago, it was true that society had a kind of ultra-consensus on the definition of marriage. For this reason, laws were written in the context of that accepted definition, and their reference to marriage was a matter of convenience. It is much easier, for instance, to write child custody laws, if you assume that most parents are married and everybody agrees with what that means.
Once that ultra-consensus is gone, there will be all kinds of trouble, regardless of whether a simple majority is able to maintain the older view in the legislature. (Even setting aside the issue of a pro-active judiciary!) If we accept that the courts are going to have to deal with situations such as a lesbian couple fighting for custody of a child, of whom one of the women is the biological mother and the other has been the de facto primary care giver, real questions of fairness arise that cannot be handled by the older system.
To simply insist that the nation at large maintain the fiction of a consensus, on the strength of only a majority, is not a tenable strategy. Constitutional amendments in defense of marriage represent the wrong strategy, in my opinion.
But that does not mean that we should accept defeat and go home. What strategy is suggested by my idea of political jujitsu?
1) Rootedness. Christians and others who believe in traditional marriage need to defend, maintain, and promote a firm sense of identity and comfort with their beliefs. We should recognize that in a diverse society where a majority is not guaranteed to us, it is a mistake from the beginning to have the definition of marriage be determined by a democratic vote. Lets put ourselves in the shoes of gay couples for a second: How would we feel and react if ONLY gay couples could marry, and our relationships were not recognized? I can't speak for everyone, but I would laugh it off and go on with my life: living my marriage, secure in my identity, and comfortable with my religious beliefs. I don't believe the government has the authority to define marriage in contradiction to Christianity, and to those who agree, I say we must begin to act as if we really believe that. It doesn't matter what the government says marriage is. Legal terminology cannot alter the form of the Sacraments.
2) Flexibility and Essentialism. What are the most important things that Christians have a stake in, in the argument over gay marriage? I would argue that the legal definition of marriage is not itself one of those things. The reason that we value a legal definition of marriage is that it makes it easier for us to be Christian. It makes it easier to pass our values on to our children, easier to catechize our adults, etc, because we have the government essentially supporting the Christian doctrine the way that outlawing adultery would assist our understanding and teaching that sex is reserved for marriage. But that doesn't mean that we should insist that adultery be outlawed.
No, the gravest threat of gay marriage isn't the existence of gay couples or the fact that they might get a tax break, etc. The real risk is that once society has implemented gay marriage, our very freedom of conscience and religion will be under attack. Under the banner of "human rights", it will be demanded that Christians recognize gay marriages as metaphysically and morally equal to Christian marriage. Religious coercion will begin to take place once opposition to that idea is redefined as "hate". Preachers will risk losing their tax-exempt status for teaching Christian doctrine, parents will be unable to object to what their children are taught in schools, etc. We will not be permitted to agree to disagree - the Christian teaching on marriage will be considered as vile as racism.
There are two ways to protect our freedom of religion in this matter. One is to somehow achieve a homogeneous Christian society in which we all agree. The other is to achieve an honestly pluralist society in which the rights of Christians are protected even when Christians are in the minority, or like today when the Christian majority has lost control of the government for whatever reason. I make two observations.
First, the goal of achieving a homogeneous Christian society is not realistic in America today.*
Second, working to achieve both goals at the same time is counterproductive and contradictory. Everything we do to try to control society, and particularly ramming Christian marriage through our legal system, only legitimizes our opponents tactics, making oppression of Christian doctrine the most natural thing in the world to follow the redefinition of marriage to include gay couples.
3) Taking Action. Having clearly identified our priorities, we must act to deflect our opponent's blow, and turn his energy against him. First, we unexpectedly give in and end the Christian legal definition of marriage, giving the gay lobby exactly what they say they want. Second, we take all the value out of that victory by making the legal definition of marriage irrelevant, and returning such metaphysical questions to the churches, where they belong. We do this in two concrete ways.
The first way to deflate the victory is to immediately allow not only gay marriage but polygamous marriage, interspecies marriage, temporary marriages for any reason, etc.
The second way we make their victory worthless is we refuse to enter legal marriages. Oh, we will still have weddings. We will still "marry" in the sense of entering a sacramental bond that is witnessed and recorded by the Church. The only thing that changes is that we completely boycott the paperwork and the legal benefits of marriage. In the eyes of the state, Christian married couples will become mere cohabitators like so many of their neighbors. We will declare that our religious convictions tell us that the state has no business licensing us to practice our sacraments. Which is perfectly true. And politically unassailable.
I believe that the results of all this would be a greater religious freedom for Christian culture in the long term. We would end up in a situation where it wouldn't matter what kind of legitimacy for gay marriage is taught in public schools: Everybody can see that you can "marry" any person or thing, and that it is meaningless. Preachers would be free to talk about Sacramental matrimony because it would be clear that it is in no way a political topic, any more than there are political problems today for priests who teach the Catholic doctrine on divorce. And the reason is simple: We're not trying to ram our religious beliefs on divorce through the legal system to impose it on a bunch of people who don't practice our faith.
And that is it. The first item in the list is the most important to our success: a rootedness in our Christian identity. Without that, the same approach just ends in a post-Christian society with no idea of the importance of gender and sex. But with a proper grounding, we can reclaim the whole idea of marriage as a sacrament of the church and indeed the genesis of the domestic church which is the family. In fact I'd recommend going farther and getting rid of the word "marriage" altogether. We should be concerned with sacramental matrimony. Ultimately that is what we are concerned with today. By eliminating "marriage", we cut the cord that binds our sacrament to the whim of democracy. Matrimony ends up in the exclusive control of the Church. That sounds like a win to me.
*Important footnote: My fellow Catholics should be warned that I am dangerously close to denying non-negotiable doctrine in this essay. As you can read here, the CDF (in fact, Cardinal Ratzinger before he became Pope) has said that Catholics must oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriages. In fact,
When legislation in favour of the recognition of homosexual unions is proposed for the first time in a legislative assembly, the Catholic law-maker has a moral duty to express his opposition clearly and publicly and to vote against it. To vote in favour of a law so harmful to the common good is gravely immoral.
So how do I justify my position? Well first of all, it's perfectly possible that I am flat wrong about this issue. But I would like to point out that I'm not denying the fundamental moral assertion of the CDF document: that giving same-sex unions the same status as marriages is harmful to society. My point is rather, first that it is not realistic to expect to win on the issue, because the cultural shift has already taken place. A handful of states have legalized gay marriage since I wrote the essay. Right or wrong, this is the path that we are on. Second, failing in the vehement attempt to prevent this from taking place can cause us grave harm. I am recommending an alternative path of action where we actually do work against the idea that homosexual unions are the same as marriages -- But we do so pragmatically, the way a political minority should.
Am I wrong in discounting the possibility of a revival of Christian values? Am I selling short the work of the Holy Spirit in our society? Perhaps. It could be that I am lacking in the virtue of Hope. But we have to remember that we are fighting, in the words of J. R. R. Tolkien, "the long defeat." Christianity does not predict or expect a long march to an ever better, ever more utopian society. Yet we have a duty to work for the good even when it is unlikely that we will win. Am I abandoning that duty, or am I just saying that we should choose which hill we want to die on? The reader may judge.
I should strongly emphasize that I am not saying we shouldn't witness to our faith. People should be aware that we are morally opposed to homosexual relationships, just as they should be aware that we are opposed to divorce and contraception. But we all recognize that if Catholics started calling for divorce to be outlawed, our credibility would be shot. This is despite the fact that divorce, especially no-fault divorce, is gravely harmful to society, perhaps even more harmful than gay marriage because of its wider appeal to human selfishness. We have to be able to find an effective balance between an uncompromising witness of our moral beliefs and a prudent incrementalism in our political agitation. Anybody who is paying attention knows that if we come out of the next few decades with our freedom of religion strongly intact, it will be cause for a big sigh of relief. What it comes down to, in the end, is that I will fight to protect my kids from a thought-police state even if it means putting up with bad influences. If that's the worst influence my libertine American culture has on my Catholicism, I'm in a pretty good place.