Berwyn, PA.  Many of us will recall the criticism Rick Santorum endured regarding this passage from a 2003 interview:

And if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [homosexual] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does. It all comes from, I would argue, this right to privacy that doesn’t exist in my opinion in the United States Constitution, this right that was created, it was created in Griswold — Griswold was the contraceptive case — and abortion. And now we’re just extending it out. And the further you extend it out, the more you — this freedom actually intervenes and affects the family. You say, well, it’s my individual freedom. Yes, but it destroys the basic unit of our society because it condones behavior that’s antithetical to strong healthy families. Whether it’s polygamy, whether it’s adultery, where it’s sodomy, all of those things, are antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family.

Every society in the history of man has upheld the institution of marriage as a bond between a man and a woman. Why? Because society is based on one thing: that society is based on the future of the society. And that’s what? Children. Monogamous relationships. In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. That’s not to pick on homosexuality. It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.

I found his remarks unsatisfactory only insofar as I do not think a “slippery slope” argument is necessary to demonstrate the irrationality of homosexual unions, nor have I ever been entirely at ease with the prudential strategy of defenders of marriage to prescind from the larger problem of the normalization of sexual license and perversion in order strictly to take a stand against the redefinition of marriage in its public, civil attributes.  It is true that the state has historically been involved in recognizing marriage because that is the social institution in which children are properly conceived, born, and raised; as is it the case that the argument in defense of that institution as presently recognized, and against its redefinition as the public subsidy of sundry private amours, is sufficiently compelling on that basis alone.

But, such rational claims are likely to be trampled down in a culture largely committed to only two principles: autonomy of appetite and free consent.  We have witnessed our entire civilization gradually bulldozed and reconstituted in order to accommodate the principle that one’s guiding interest is the pursuit and attainment of whatever one happens to desire at a given moment, delimited only by the second principle that all persons involved in that desire consent by their own free will.  I have outlined the features of this “culture of atomic eros” as greater length elsewhere, and have anatomized the social psychology that has made homosexual “marriage” imaginable despite its logical absurdity as well.  Prudentially restricted defenses of this or that sound moral principle cannot long retard the decay of a society so deeply committed — as ours is, I have argued — to its own “liberating” self-immolation.

And yet, what stirs me to write this morning is just one such prudential defense of marriage: Carson Holloway’s excellent discussion of the “slippery slope” argument against homosexual “marriage,” prompted by one of the queries Justice Sotomayor made during the Proposition 8 proceedings before the Supreme Court last week.  Holloway begins,

Opponents of same-sex marriage resist it because it amounts to redefining marriage, but also because it will invite future redefinitions. If we embrace same-sex marriage, they argue, society will have surrendered any reasonable grounds on which to continue forbidding polygamy, for example.

In truth, proponents of same-sex marriage have never offered a very good response to this concern. This problem was highlighted at the Supreme Court last week in oral argument over California’s Proposition 8, the state constitutional amendment that defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman.

Surprisingly, the polygamy problem that same-sex marriage presents was raised by an Obama appointee, the liberal Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Sotomayor interrupted the presentation of anti-Prop 8 litigator Theodore Olson to pose the following question: If marriage is a fundamental right in the way proponents of same-sex marriage contend, “what state restrictions could ever exist,” for example, “with respect to the number of people . . . that could get married?”

In response, Olson tried to set up a clear distinction between same-sex marriage and polygamy, suggesting that the kinds of governmental interests that justify a prohibition of polygamy are irrelevant in the case of same-sex marriage.

The Court has said, he contended, that polygamy raises “questions about exploitation, abuse, patriarchy, issues with respect to taxes, inheritance, child custody” and therefore “is an entirely different thing” than same-sex marriage. Moreover, Olson argued, when a “state prohibits polygamy, it’s prohibiting conduct,” but if “it prohibits gay and lesbian citizens from getting married, it is prohibiting their exercise of a right based upon their status.”

Justice Sotomayor’s concerns about the possibility of a path from same-sex marriage to polygamy may arise from the fact that there is already a case in federal court challenging Utah’s anti-bigamy law as unconstitutional.  In any event, she should be just as concerned about this question after oral argument as she was before it, because none of Olson’s distinctions can reasonably justify a prohibition on polygamy if the Court finds a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. To see why, it’s first useful to note a crucial distinction that Olson overlooked, as well as the most famous Supreme Court case regarding polygamy, which he failed to mention.

He then proceeds to consider Olson’s arguments, point by point, in light of their internal logic and court precedent.  You should read the complete article here.

It amounts to a fascinating and definitive argument of the question out of which — so far as I can discern — there is no escape . . . no escape, that is, unless one wishes, at the last, to pursue the principle of autonomy of appetite, or libido dominandi, to its perhaps inevitable, fundamental extreme.  And I have no doubt that the ever-shifting, because untethered, desires of the contemporary West will pursue that principle until it can no further.  What chance could communal bonds, moral norms, and civilized obligations have of enduring in a society that has already demolished its conception of the rational and intelligible order of nature?  When one can justify the pursuit of  appetite ungoverned by reason, revelation, and custom as just another stage in the inevitable progress of liberty, one can justify anything.  When one disallows rational judgment in the public sphere, everyone and everything comes to appear “equal,” like so many particles of plaster indifferently drifting in whatever direction the wind blows.  So much T.S. Eliot observed some eight decades ago, when he wrote, “It is a commonplace that what shocks one generation is accepted quite calmly by the next.  This adaptability to change of moral standards is sometimes greeted with satisfaction as an evidence of human perfectibility: whereas it is only evidence of what unsubstantial foundations people’s moral judgements have.”

As I suggested above, the “slippery slope” argument on homosexual marriage has never sat entirely well with me precisely because it does not restore to moral judgment attention to its foundation in the natural order of creation.  Anything short of such radical — as in, to the roots of being — argumentation seems too willing to sway public opinion for the moment without revealing to a disordered society its need for perenniel conversion and renewal.

But, I can set that reservation aside long enough to appreciate the fine steel trap of Holloway’s argumentation: advocates of homosexual “marriage” delude themselves to think that they are standing in defense of “equality” or a “fundamental right.”  They are rather, however cloaked in darkness, working to eradicate the moral foundations of “rights” claims entirely from our legal discourse, until “right” becomes nothing more than a synonym for “I will it thus.”  As Edmund Burke so powerfully admonished the voluntarists of liberty more than two centuries ago, the private voice piping “I will it thus,” today, becomes the public fist of power arbitrarily crushing and reordering all beneath it tomorrow.  When reason surrenders to will, justice is only days from succumbing to power.  And no principle of “consent” can long stand in power’s way, as those executed by the Jacobins of long ago pronounced from the guillotine, and as the victims of abortion, in our age, testify with their silence.  Holloway concludes:

As these reflections suggest, there is very good reason indeed to believe that the declaration of a “right” to same-sex marriage will set us on the path to polygamy. To allay these concerns, the proponents of same-sex marriage sometimes respond that they are only seeking what married heterosexuals already have: access to marriage understood as a union of two people. But this reassurance utterly misses the point: All the arguments by which they seek that end can easily be turned to the purposes of those who might next seek polygamy.

This is not to speculate histrionically as to where a ruling in favor of homosexual “marriage” may lead us.  It is to expose the logic that guides an age committed to the incineration of reason for what it is: a culture of atomic eros fostered by a regime of libido dominandi.  If we are to see this clearly, we shall have to come to appreciate that the legislation-into-being of homosexual “marriage” is not the crest of some slippery slope; it rather lies at the bottom of the slope the West began to descend when it legitimated, normalized, and even came to encourage practices that pervert the gift of sexuality and the nature of the family: divorce, contraception, and fornication; the reconception of the home as a place to which autonomous individuals frequently repair for the reheating of frozen entrees and the recharging of their smart phones; and the reimagining of the altar of God as an occasional destination, should the weather be fair, at which to pass an hour reminding ourselves that, whatever else we may be, we are always “just fine, fine, fine.  If we were not, we surely would have noticed.”

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James Matthew Wilson
James Matthew Wilson is Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Augustinian Traditions at Villanova University. An award-winning scholar of philosophical-theology and literature, he has authored dozens of essays, articles, and reviews on subjects ranging from art, ethics, and politics, to meter and poetic form, from the importance of local culture to the nature of truth, goodness, and beauty. Wilson is also a poet and critic of contemporary poetry, whose work appears regularly in such magazines and journals as First Things, Modern Age, The New Criterion, Dappled Things, Measure, The Weekly Standard, Front Porch Republic, The Raintown Review, and The American Conservative. He has published five books, including most recently, a collection of poems, Some Permanent Things and a monograph, The Catholic Imagination in Modern American Poetry (both Wiseblood Books, 2014). Raised in the Great Lakes State, baptised in the parish of St. Thomas Aquinas, seasoned by summers on Lake Wawasee (Indiana), and educated under the Golden Dome, Wilson is scion of a family of Hoosiers dating back to the early nineteenth century, and an offspring of Southside Chicago Poles whose tavern kept the city wet through the Depression (and prohibition) years.  He now lives under the same sentence of reluctant exile as many another native son of the Midwest, but has dug himself in for good on the margins of the Main Line in Pennsylvania with his beautiful wife, dangerous daughter, and saintly sons. For information on Wilson's scholarship and a selection of his published work, click here. See books written and recommended by James Matthew Wilson.


  1. It is refreshing to read that Justice Sotomayor at least is being honest about some of the implications here. And yet, the rest of this is just so frustrating to watch.

  2. I do not presume to have the solution to the same-sex marriage quandary, but I have a few thoughts. I have been married for 17 years, and my wife and I have two boys. The marriage is the first for both of us, and we will spend the rest of our lives together unless my wife throws me out. The longer that I am married, the more ardently I want to defend the traditions of the institution. Marriage is hard work, especially the raising of children, and I am insulted when people, gay or otherwise, treat it as a kind of extended holiday, a party to which everyone should be invited. My emotion is selfish, perhaps even base, but it is authentic.

    The devil, of course, is in the details. I have a childhood friend who came out to me when we were in our early 20s. He is now in a healthy, stable, monogamous relationship with a man who loves my friend as much as I love my wife. Their relationship is moving into its eighth year. My friend and I have debated the same-sex marriage topic; in fact, at one point our discussion was so heated that it nearly cost our friendship. He and I have covered all of the abstractions of rights, liberty, morality, and the social good (Santorum is wrong on one point: not all Western societies have defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman; the Old Testament is a paean to the blessings of tribes–men with many wives who populated the Promised Land). What stops me in my headstrong tracks is my friend’s tender plea for federally-recognized marriage so that if ever he or his partner is deathly ill, the healthy partner will have the same rights of care and hospital visitation possessed by heterosexual couples. I am not a lawyer, so I do not know which rights would and would not apply to my friend and his partner, but without the marriage designation, doctors and hospital administrators surely will view these men as mere acquaintances. In short, my friend wants dignity, not just a form of libido dominandi.

  3. I also dislike slippery slope arguments for this reason. Similarly I dislike arguments about whether or not children raised in same sex households can succeed (which just means make a certain amount of money and pass a self esteem test) as it seems to suggest the state would also have the right to, say, limit the procreation of the poor as their children are likely to have more problems. In both cases the real solution, the only solution, is a return to the principles of natural law.

    I find it somewhat odd that Christians always group polygamy with homosexuality and bestiality. St Thomas actually says God was able to allow polygamy in a limited way for a time precisely because it does not contradict the fundamental end of marriage, but that all such exceptions were done away with in the more perfect sign of the new covenant.

  4. D o you seriously think that you can legislate away the right to adultery? Are you aware of all the divorces in the United States, with the highest rate among Southern Baptists? Are you out to forbid divorce in a country with a Protestant tradition allowing for divorce? Divorce implies, in most cases, adultery.

  5. Dear Mr. Wilson–Thanks for provoking me to think a little more about natural law thinking about human sex, which I have long regarded as profoundly unrealistic and the specious justification for legal punishment of behaviors that fall outside its strictures as well as the excuse for all manner of savagery against those perceived to practice those behaviors, regardless of whether they actually do. I grant that many advocate it sincerely and charitably. But now more than ever I also see it as an ideology–which, according to Karl Mannheim (Ideology and Utopia), is an apology for the possession of power–that, losing its sway during the past 150 years in the West, is either dying out or reverting to being a description of utopia. I hope it’s dying out, so that we, especially Christians, can return to evaluating the actions and behaviors of human beings by their intents and their fruits instead of their conformity to any procrustean normative system.

    But if we may differ over natural law (I’m always open to further enlightenment about it), we unite in concern over the meretricious “regime of libido dominandi”.

    Dear Mr. Cote–Thank you for your splendidly humane contribution–you made my day, as we say.

  6. The term ‘autonomy of appetite’ best describes the difference between liberty as a high ideal and license to do what one wishes. Liberty as a high ideal is self-restriction such that choices may now be able to be made that would otherwise be un-makeable. The athlete trains, self restriction, so that he may be able to choose to win a race if he pushes himself enough. Without this self-restriction, this victory could only be blind chance or a distant dream.

    The Orthodox do not necessarily have a concept of Natural Law – I’ve never heard of this outside of Catholic and Catholic-influenced circles. We would contend, if I am not mistaken, that the cosmos is in flux, but that God is constant. Man stands between these two realms – the seen and the unseen – and by his hands orders it. A natural law which is so extensive as to leave no room for, say, the man born blind, or the Good Thief on the Cross, is a rule of sorts but no true Law.

  7. “I hope it’s dying out, so that we, especially Christians, can return to evaluating the actions and behaviors of human beings by their intents and their fruits instead of their conformity to any procrustean normative system. ”

    So the Reformers did not judge actions to be sins but only intentions? What sort of Christianity is this?

  8. Dear pb–A Christianity that is not an ideology, an apology for the possession of power.
    I don’t understand your first question. How is it relevant?

  9. As far as I know, consequentialism/utilitarianism, even in its “Christian” form, is a modern creation, and even the Protestant Reformers did not espouse it.

  10. afaik, one will not find consequentialism officially endorsed by any of the apostolic churches, and the Protestant reformers were rather traditional in their moral teachings.

  11. oops – my fuzzy memory yielded consequentialism/utilitarianism, when I was thinking of intention-based ethics, but I can’t remember the fancy name for such systems, if there is one.

  12. It is rather silly to regard homosexual marriage on a slippery slope to polygamy.
    The fact is the polygamous marriages are marriages as understood by all mankind.

    The polygamy does not shock even a small child and is normal over large part of the globe. Even a Western child instinctively understands it.

    So for the conservatives to trot out “slippery slope” betrays their unseriousness. They still regard monogamy for homosexuals to be ideal. On the contrary, any public recognition for homosexual union would be fatal to the Christian society. Closet and discretion are the only viable solution for homosexuals.

  13. Perhaps the only way to wrap up this discussion–indeed, all moralistic discussions of homosexuality that assume it requires public policy measures–is to heed these words of one of America’s greatest bards, Hank Williams: “Mind your own business, ’cause if you mind your own business, then you won’t be mindin’ mine.”

  14. “practices that pervert the gift of sexuality and the nature of the family: divorce, contraception, and fornication”

    Yes, because children thrive in unhappy homes, and because loveless marriages are so cozy; and because having more children than you can support enhances everyone’s quality of life; and because the Enlightenment invented adultery.

    I do like “the reconception of the home as a place to which autonomous individuals frequently repair for the reheating of frozen entrees and the recharging of their smart phones,” but that’s more a critique of modern consumer capitalism than of the sexual revolution. BTW, it might be interesting to pursue a line of thought that “a regime of libido dominandi” is just what you would expect in a consumer capitalist society wherein employment options and political choices are limited if not entirely illusory–people must have autonomy and freedom somewhere, and so to the marketplace and to the bedroom we go!

    Also BTW: there’s a polygamist community not far from where I live in western Montana. I can’t speak for them, but I doubt that they see legalization of gay marriage as good news for them; they more likely see it as the work of the devil.

  15. Mr. Cote: In CA, same-sex “registered domestic partnerships” are EXACTLY equivalent to marriage. Legally there is ZERO difference concerning partnership rights that you discuss. In other words, it attempted to completely assuage the concerns of your friend. And this “deal” was not just completely rejected, but in the height of absurdity this equivalence was even used to justify the enforced redefinition of marriage!

  16. Brian,

    I see your point, but if my friend and his partner lived in California and were to move to a state that does not recognize domestic-partnerships, their concerns would return. Perhaps some people would recommend that my friend stay put, but ours is a mobile society, particularly because work often requires individuals and families to relocate. Moreover, my friend does not want to be “assuaged.” The connotation is wrong. Angry children are assuaged. A mob is assuaged. Citizens are respected.

    As I said in my first comment, I do not have the answer, but loyalty impels me to speak on my friend’s behalf. The world is complicated, which means that thoughtful people are conflicted by competing emotions and allegiances; any honest person will admit as much. If I did not imply the following in my first comment, I will state it clearly: I am a Christian in a traditional marriage; furthermore, I recently converted to Catholicism because my personality longed for the depth, mystery, holiness, and history that the Catholic faith possesses. I wanted to worship in a Church that transcends time and place. I went forward with my conversion in spite of the loyalty I feel toward my friend. The upshot is that I consider myself a traveler trying to make his way in a confusing time. Although I respect the apparent resolve in yours and other people’s comments, I am still wrestling with the angel.

  17. Very satisfying article. Much more satisfying than the recent issue devoted to this subject by Chronicles.

    Additionally, it seems to me that there are only two options:
    1) The State can do nothing that isn’t invidious to someone and therefore ought to do nothing and simply be anarchic/libertarian, or,
    2) The state can arrogate certain powers to itself and define certain goals and interests and use reasonable means to achieve those goals without being honor-bound to enfranchise the whole universe.

    Under neither scenario is the outcome “gay marriage.” (Unless of course some hypothetical sci fi-style State wants to define a goal of encouraging homosexuality by awarding trinkets such as marriage to those who can present themselves as gay.)

    If you give up on straight-only marriage, it seems to me in a certain sense you give up on law. Law only becomes a giant highway sign on which those with enough will doodle their thoughts.

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