I’d be among the last to deny that what one believes about the world affects how one lives and what sort of politics one tends to espouse. But it’s a tricky matter to begin making regional claims about political outcomes based on religious affiliation.
The subject comes up because Ted Nesi tweeted a link to a brief essay by Mark Silk. Silk’s religious affiliation isn’t immediately obvious, but his bio says he’s Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College, which might lead religious intellectuals (as opposed to academics of religion) to read his work with a skeptical eye. And indeed, a quick skim of the most recent posts on his blog suggests an affinity for needling the Catholic hierarchy, particularly on the topic of same-sex marriage.
With that context in mind, we turn to Silk’s attempt to answer the question, “Why is the nation’s most Catholic region first to embrace SSM?”
… New England Catholics retain a vibrant communal memory of once having been a disfavored minority subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous Yankee behavior. Rather than return the favor, they have chosen to do better unto others than was done unto them. Why should the Catholic proscription of SSM prevail against the wishes of those who have no part of it?
Such privatization — or, one might say, communalization — of Catholic marriage doctrine sits poorly, of course, with bishops who believe the doctrine to be inscribed in natural law and thus incumbent on all people at all times. But for New Englanders all politics tends to be local, which is to say less about big ideas than about reconciling your preferences with mine.
Naturally, Silk proceeds to needle the Providence Diocese’s own hierarchical pinnacle, Bishop Thomas Tobin. That is in keeping with his apparent intellectual purpose — namely, to drive a wedge between Catholics and the church structure that makes them, well, Catholic. But there are three items of interest in the above quotation.
The first has to do with the bizarre notion that somebody would look at the push for same-sex marriage in New England, with its grand proclamations about “marriage equality” and love, and disclaim the role of “big ideas.” Among the less-proclaimed ideas bound up with the movement was the insidious one that government is or should be about a reconciliation of preferences — rather than more mundane things like accomplishing the limited activities appropriate to government. The contrast is with the more conservative, libertarian view that the reconciliation of preferences should be the role of society writ large, with government (owner of tanks and central banks) taking the most minimized role possible.
In that regard, perhaps regional Catholicism did have some effect. Even the hierarchy has allowed itself to see government as a moral agent and a legitimate mechanism for charitable works and social change. Perhaps that misplaced trust has come around to undermine the Church in the region, leaving it little rhetorical defense when secular powers chose a contrary objective: namely, redefining marriage as a way of changing the culture.
Among the fears of devout Catholics and other religious Americans is that activists will now leverage the government’s new definition of marriage to wipe out alternate understandings. This will be accomplished through proselytizing government school curricula, and it will be accomplished through laws and litigation that take advantage of the fact that equal treatment within the word “marriage” now includes relationships that they cannot endorse or encourage.
Until recently, marriage was marriage was marriage, whether the employees, beneficiaries, or members within the marriage were black, white, Protestant, atheist, or whatever. More importantly, non-marriage was non-marriage. Religious organizations that did not offer benefits or services to non-married heterosexual couples were not invidiously discriminating by not offering benefits or services to non-married homosexual couples. That’s no longer possible.
There’s a reap what you sow element to this, and it points to the second interesting aspect of Silk’s argument. The people with whom Catholics have been cooperating, locally, to give government its invasive role in society have, in most respects, an incompatible worldview.
New England may be the nation’s most Catholic region, but it’s also the nation’s least religious. Play with these nifty Pew Forum maps, and you’ll see what I mean. In the combined Connecticut/Rhode Island category, 57% of survey respondents believe in God with absolute certainty, versus 71% nationally. Nine percentage points fewer Connecticut/Rhode Islanders attend services of any tradition weekly, while seven percentage points more attend services “seldom or never.”
So, yeah, 43% of the two states’ populations are Catholic, while only 10% are Evangelical Protestant, for example. But in Texas 24% of the population is Catholic in addition to the 34% who are Evangelical Protestants. That’s 53% total versus 58% total.
It isn’t my intention to dive into delineations of each religious denomination’s views on same-sex marriage and politics generally. The point is that Catholics in New England are, to some degree, paired with the irreligious, not with Evangelicals or other religiously conservative communities. Flip-flop Catholics and Evangelicals in Texas, and I’d wager you wouldn’t get New England’s social liberalism.
The third point that I would make is one of disagreement with Silk’s phrasing acceptance of same-sex marriage as the clear conclusion of people who are communally minded and tolerant. The traditionalist’s big idea of marriage is to bind parents with the children whom they create for the benefit of children (and parents) in challenging circumstances.
Marriage is how our civilization has encouraged couples that are capable of creating children to behave responsibly when it comes to those children. If, at its core, marriage is about the mutual affections of two adults, and if in a final analysis, the only difference between procreation and adoption is the method of procurement, it is more difficult to make the case that people who unintentionally create children within relationships that fall short of deep romantic love with a lifetime commitment have a special responsibility to care for them.
Absent the further involvement of government, naturally.
In that context, fortifying the institution of marriage is a labor intended to help those who are less fortunate than us and to protect those who fall victim to the policies of the ideological faith that claims not to be a faith. Unless one assumes that anybody who articulates such things must be arguing in bad faith to cover up their sinful bigotry, that’s a charitable and communal and deeply Christian approach to public policy.
Readers can agree or disagree with the conclusion, but in a better, more reasonable society, people who claim to be professors of “religion in public life” would be more able (or inclined) to draw such distinctions.