Sunday, December 20, 2009


I've said that I believe culture-war issues are less important for rank-and-file members of the tea party right than for wingers of the Reagan and Bush eras; no, they don't like gay marriage, and the health care bill will be killed over abortion if the right manages to kill it ... but the lobbyist and media-titan leaders of the tea party movement have the rabble focusing far more on "socialism!!!1!" these days than morals.

Robert George, the right-wing Catholic Princeton philosopher, would like to change that. He's profiled in today's New York Times Magazine, where he's described as a rising star on the right (he recently convened a multidenominational group of religious leaders to endorse the so-called Manhattan Declaration, which, as the Times notes, "promised resistance to the point of civil disobedience against any legislation that might implicate their churches or charities in abortion, embryo-destructive research or same-sex marriage").

But what really seems to float this doctor of thinkology's boat is thinking about sex.

Read the article if you want all the details; I'll just note this:

The same-sex marriage debate, George argues, illuminates an error in our understanding that he blames for most of the ills afflicting modern marriage -- infidelity, divorce, out-of-wedlock births....

First, he contends that marriage is a uniquely "comprehensive" union, meaning that it is shared at several different levels at once -- emotional, spiritual and bodily....

The second step is more complicated, and more graphic. George argues that only vaginal intercourse -- "procreative-type" sex acts, as George puts it -- can consummate this "multilevel" mind-body union. Only in reproduction, unlike digestion, circulation, respiration or any other bodily function, do two individuals perform a single function and thus become, in effect, "one organism." ... Unloving sex between married partners does not perform the same multilevel function, he argues, nor does oral or anal sex -- even between loving spouses.

George argues that reason alone shows that heterosexual sodomy and homosexual sex are morally wrong, just as the Catholic Church, classical philosophers and other religious traditions have historically taught. Unlike marital union in his special sense, he contends, such acts treat the body as an instrument of the mind's pleasure.


Now, see, however much I may disagree with Professor George's morality, I can understand (if not agree with) the notion that the only kind of sex that's moral is heterosexual sex within marital bonds. And I can also understand the notion that there's something special about heterosexual vaginal intercourse -- it is, obviously, nature's special way of making more people.

But, um, reason leads us to recognize that non-vaginal sex is "morally wrong" even between married people? Hunh?

Even if you accept the notion that only, um, opposite-married people should have sex, and that vaginal intercourse is special, why are other kinds of married sex immoral? Because they're not that special kind of sex?

So what? A lot of things loving married couples do together aren't that special kind of sex. Forget sex. What if you just snuggle on the couch together and watch something mindlessly entertaining from Netflix while eating a big bowl of popcorn slathered with real butter? Is that morally wrong? Couldn't it be argued that that "treat[s] the body as an instrument of the mind's pleasure" -- the snuggling part, and maybe even the (mutual) junk-eating part?

Why is some sex that reinforces even a kind of love Professor George finds morally acceptable, married heterosexual love, immoral? Don't a lot of things married people do together lead to bodily pleasure?

Even if you don't want to expand the perimeter and say that many more kinds of love (and sex) are OK, isn't this nuts?

(And don't many of the evangelic churches teach that sex should be limited to the traditionally married virgins-until-wedlock, but that their sex after exchanging vows should be, well, hot? That at least seems relatively reasonable.)

Ah, but why does any of this matter? Well...

He has parlayed a 13th-century Catholic philosophy into real political influence. Glenn Beck, the Fox News talker and a big George fan, likes to introduce him as "one of the biggest brains in America," or, on one broadcast, "Superman of the Earth." Karl Rove told me he considers George a rising star on the right and a leading voice in persuading President George W. Bush to restrict embryonic stem-cell research. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told me he numbers George among the most-talked-about thinkers in conservative legal circles. And Newt Gingrich called him "an important and growing influence" on the conservative movement, especially on matters like abortion and marriage....

When George W. Bush became president in 2001, George was an active player in weekly White House conference calls for Catholic allies. Bush later awarded George a Presidential Citizens Medal. During the 2008 campaign, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and John McCain each sought George's counsel.

Does anyone care about this stuff anymore? If people start to care again, this guy really has an in.

Oh, and by the way:

...when Bill Clinton denied [Pennsylvania governor Bob] Casey a chance to speak about abortion at the 1992 Democratic convention, it was George who had helped to write Casey's speech.

Whatever the real reason Casey was denied a speaking slot -- The New Republic's Michael Crowley has argued, convincingly, that it was because Casey hadn't even endorsed Clinton -- it's probably just as well he didn't get to utter this lunatic's words.

So where does this guy get his deep philosophical ideas about sex?

His mother, the daughter of Italian immigrants, taught her children "some pretty firm ideas about sexual morality," George told me, and then he begged me not to repeat some of his more recent arguments on the subject. "Mom, I have got to explain!" George said, raising his voice to imitate first himself and then his mother: "'George's opposition to sodomy! What are you doing talking about sodomy? You shouldn't even know what that is! Why do people have to know your views about that?'..."

Those are the underpinnings of an Ivy League philosopher's moral thought. Maybe the right-wingers have a point about the decline of elite education.

No comments: