Gay Marriage is about Selma Envy image

Gay Marriage is about Selma Envy

Some of you may have seen this remarkable article on the sociology of support for gay marriage. From where I'm standing, it has substantial explanatory power when it comes to the temperature of the debate, especially in the US, and it has some interesting points of overlap with a comment made by Oliver O'Donovan in Resurrection and Moral Order, which I'll quote beneath it. Gay marriage isn't about justice, says Hans Fiene, it's about Selma envy:

Once upon a time, my generation learned in first-grade social studies, everyone thought it was good to hate African-Americans. But then a group of saintly figures arose who were better human beings than the rednecks from the South, and they changed the world for the better. This story captivated us, and we wanted to change the world, too.

Once, black Americans weren’t allowed to use the same bathrooms as white Americans, we learned the next year, but the holy warriors of progress came along and saved the day. As just as much as we wanted to rescue damsels in distress, Superman style, we wanted to have our own victims to rescue from the forces of bigotry.

The saintly song of the civil-rights movement grew even more rapturous as we grew old enough for our American history teachers to pop a tape in the VCR and show us the gruesome images of the era. Look, children! Look at this sneering face of Southern hatred! Look at these enemies of progress holding the firehoses! These were not human beings corrupted by their circumstances and giving in to the vilest impulses that lurk in the hearts of all men. No, these were demons, evil embodied in human flesh. Look again, children! Look at the faces of these saints who used non-violent protests to fight for equality and change legislation. These are the faces of the morally superior, the holy ones who marched on Selma, those who were more enlightened, more compassionate, more loving than anyone else who had ever lived because they defended the mistreated and defeated discrimination when no one else would.

More than we wanted to find the perfect prom date, we wanted to find our own bigotry to eradicate. After years of hearing those saints sing “We Shall Overcome,” we were overcome with jealousy. We coveted Selma. We envied that march. We looked at that footage and hungered for our own cause to devour.

Cruelly, the Lord of Social Justice wouldn’t grant us a cause, at least not an easy one. Sure, we could march against Roe v. Wade and defend the unborn. But opposing abortion would have required us to adopt sex lives consistent with that position. No more hookup culture, no more consequence-free sex, no more placing our own desires over the needs of children. Opposing Planned Parenthood would never be our cause. It would have cost us too much fun.

Likewise, fighting poverty couldn’t possibly be our Selma. The annoying thing about defending the poor is that the poor need money, and we had student loans to pay. And sex trafficking wasn’t any more attractive. To be holy, you need a cause no one else supports, least of all those wretched white Southern fundamentalists. While forcing women into prostitution is certainly bad, what’s the point of speaking against it if Jerry Falwell agrees with you?

Then, one day, manna descended from heaven in the form of gay marriage. Here it was! The cause we’d longed for all these years had finally arrived! Here was an injustice no one had ever opposed before. Here was a group of marginalized people no one had ever defended. So by embracing this cause, we would instantly be more compassionate, more accepting, more saintly than every human being who had ever lived.

What did it cost us to embrace this cause? Absolutely nothing! It required no moral consistency, no financial sacrifice, no effort. We could sleep with as many people as we wanted, divorce as many people as we wanted, father and then abandon as many children as our hearts desired, and lose no credibility. We could spend our entire adult lives defecating on the institution of marriage and this could not sully our gay marriage halos.

On top of that, these oppressed souls were so gainfully employed that they paid for their own lawyers and lobbyists, so we didn’t need to give them a cent. All we had to do was change our profile pictures on Facebook and beatification was ours. Our prayers were answered. The bright, shiny diamond of righteousness no other generation could claim had been placed into our hands.”

And here’s Oliver O’Donovan, writing in the mid-nineties (emphasis added):

Liberal historicism, in order to remain liberal, has to cultivate movements of social dissent ... Once liberalism is clothed in historicist garb, it has to pinch itself, as it were, to find out if it is still alive. Only the passionate antitheses of resentment and refusal remain to convince it that cultural history is more, after all, than the triumphal progress of an all-encompassing state. Protest, rather than administrative evolution, must be the engine that propels history forwards on its way, the tool with which we fashion the raw material of past and present experience into the artefact of our own future.


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