Monday, January 18, 2010

Why Not Civil Unions?

Anne Rice likes to pose controversial questions on her always lively Facebook page and watch people argue them out. A recent contributor raises this familiar question. “Once again I don't know why the governments don't just issue a ‘Civil Union’. The ‘Sacrament’ of Marriage is a religious institution and needs to be addressed within each religious organization and the people that follow it.” To which my response is this.

Marriage was the main subject of the earliest known legal codes, long before churches existed. (The pagan temples of the time made good money from "sacred prostitution" and had no interest in marriage.)

From the start marriage was a civil institution designed to create fatherhood as a social role and legal responsibility, thereby protecting mothers and children and providing the best available norm for raising children. It assured children the right, reaffirmed in the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of the Child, to be raised where possible by the two adults who made them.

When the link between marriage on one hand and sex and children on the other is broken, marriage is reduced to a travesty of its former essence, to a kind of Hallmark card sentiment involving two (or more--why just two?) adults. The state has an interest in supporting the institution that provides the best known setting for raising children. It does not have a comparable interest in other, inherently non-procreative sexual relations.

Civil unions do not address this radical difference between marriage and other kinds of sexual relations. They are not a viable alternative, because as courts have already ruled, they discriminate against people who have the same legal rights as married couples except the right to use the same name. Legally and practically, to accept civil unions is to accept same-sex "marriage" and hence the fundamental redefinition of marriage itself. In a nutshell, civil unions an entering wedge for same-sex "marriage," which is one more way in which the rights and needs of children are sacrificed to the freedoms of adults.

Same-sex marriage does not extend a good or right to a new class of people who were excluded from it. It redefines that right and turns it into something altogether different. Indeed, some lifetime opponents of marriage, like Judith Stacey, do support same-sex marriage precisely because they see that it will undermine marriage itself.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Friday, January 15, 2010

Culture and Policy in Haiti

How small, of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure.

I was reminded of this quote from the eminently quotable Dr. Johnson by today's column, "The Underlying Tragedy," in the New York Times by David Brooks. It is at

Brooks cites a recent anthology, "What Works in Development?," by a group of economists who conclude that we don't know how to use aid to reduce poverty. He argues that the catastrophe in Haiti is not a natural disaster story--compare the 63 people killed in the 1989 earthquake, also of 7.0 magnitude, in the SF Bay Area with the tens of thousands killed in Haiti in 2010. "This is a poverty story," he says. "It's a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services." Brooks points to the paradox that the enormous growth and poverty reduction in most of the developing world has bypassed those countries that have received the most aid, whether as macro-development or the kind of micro-projects undertaken by more than 10,000 organizations in Haiti. Among countries with comparable histories of oppression, slavery, and colonialism, some like the Dominican Republic or Barbados are doing well and contrast starkly with the devastation, corruption, and poverty of Haiti.

Brooks's conclusion is that in countries with highly progress-resistant cultures like Haiti, micro-aid is necessary but not sufficient. Programs of locally led paternalism along the lines of the Harlem Children's Zone and the No Excuses schools are needed. These efforts are "led by people who figure they don't understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don't care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement--involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance."

Among the negative cultural influences in Haiti is the voodoo religion, "which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile." The influence of "pagan gloom" that sees humans as subject to the caprice of amoral and largely indifferent gods as a brake on the development of reason, science, and economic progress has been stressed in several remarkable works by historical sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark. Christianity, universalizing the Jewish religion, changed all that with a God who was both Love and Reason (Logos) and whose Creation was understood by scientists--who were with few exceptions churchmen or at least devout Christians until the 19th century--as a book of nature to be read and interpreted. Even monotheism of a different sort--the Islamic concept of God as above reason, a kind of pure Will--stunted the growth of scientific discovery and technological development in the wide areas of Christendom (the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula) that the Muslim armies conquered. (There is much Muslim triumphalism these days about Arab and Muslim contributions to science and innovation in the Middle Ages, but as Stark shows, these were primarily the work of Jewish and Christian dhimmis in the conquered regions, and faded as they assimilated.) The negative cultural influence of voodoo--the national although not the official religion of Haiti--is hard to overestimate. The official religion is Catholic Christianity, but as in South America, it failed to take deep root and its local expression was more changed by the culture than changing it.

Echoing Johnson's sentiment, the economist Abhijit Banerjee draws a realistic conclusion that enthusiastic policy wonks need to take to heart: "It is not clear that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control." Other recent studies, by Oxford economics professor Paul Collier and the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, point to combinations of factors that keep the poorest countries poor--violence and civil war, lack of property rights, corruption, etc. Effective policy that actually helps requires attention to this work as well as to the deep cultural changes that are needed to sustain growth and development.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Duty and Disability

Having spent 20 years wrongly diagnosed as in a persistent vegetative state, Rom Houben reminds us that disabled persons are capable of many more substantive opportunities for human fulfillment than we are initially inclined to believe. But is bodily life just as such worth preserving? Can care-givers rightly remove hydration and nutrition?

See Christopher Tollefson's discussion of the issue at

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Marriage and the Great Recession: Love Is Not All You Need

I have been reading an interesting report on The State of Our Unions 2009, which is available free online at .

The report, from the Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, highlights the importance of money matters--income, employment, debt, assets, and the division of household labor--for the quality and stability of married life in the U.S. This contrasts with the focus in recent decades on marriage primarily as a soulmate relationship, as indicated by the finding that over 80 percent of young women believed that "it was more important to have a husband who can communicate his deepest feelings than bring home the bacon." (Good luck with that!)

"About 75 percent of the increase in unemployment since the Great Recession started has fallen on the shoulders of men. Moreover, The State of Our Unions indicates that working-class men have been hit hardest by increases in unemployment since the recession began in late 2007." Stresses of job losses, foreclosures, debt collectors' calls, shrinking retirement assets, and so forth fmay result in heavy drinking, depression, and withdrawal from family life, and so fuel marital tension and conflict.

But there are countervailing tendencies, the report shows. Thrift has acquired a new (or rather, revived) significance in married life, the paying down of credit card debt (a major source of tension for young married couples), more solidarity-building family activities--more families are growing their own food, making and mending their own clothes, and eating in more. (Restaurant sales fell in 2008 for the first time in 40 years.) "In other words," says Willcox, the family that bakes, gardens, and sews together, stays together."

Marital stability is up, at least for now, since the start of the recession. The divorce rate fell from 17.5 to 16.9 per 1,000 married women from 2007 to 2008, a substantial drop though not yet a trend. The costs of divorce for all involved, financial as well as emotional, become more evident in a prolonged economic downturn. But the alarming class divide in divorce, non-marital childbearing, and all the social problems that go with them, is likely to increase as a result of the specific nature of the recession. Joblessness has hit lower income couples and working class and poor men in particular much harder than college educated women or men, so that the contributions of lower-income men to their families become more marginal. It has been suggested (by Christine Whelan in the report) that the resulting shift in the gender balance of work and family time may lead to a greater egalitarianism in working class marriages. The problem with that view is that the research suggests that both "men and women are happier in their marriages, and less likely to divorce, when the husband has a decent job."

In any case, since, as Willcox and others have shown, college-educated couples, with more resources and an increasingly dim view of divorce since its heyday in the 1970s, "have the financial resources and the normative commitment to ride out marital difficulties and challenges."

In my experience, when social work (and doubtless other) students are asked to come up with quick associations with the term "marriage," they most often mention love and emotional intimacy and seldom sex and children. It seems that a kind of Hallmark card sentiment(ality) about marriage (when it is not dismissed summarily as an inherently oppressive institution) has displaced an understanding of marriage as creating the best available alternative for binding a father to his biological children, linking sex and responsibility, creating and sustaining fatherhood as a social institution. But the recession has brought to the fore of our attention--in real life and one hopes the classroom too--"the social and economic realities of married life." As Willcox puts it in an interview about the report,

"If you look across time and space what you see is that marriage and kinship have been vital in helping adults and especially children gain ongoing access to food, shelter, and other needed resources. With our recent focus on a soulmate model of marriage, we have tended to downplay the social and economic realities of married life.

"But today when you are depending on your wife for medical coverage, or your in-laws for a place to stay, or your husband for help with the bills, you are more likely to appreciate that marriage and family is about more than an intense sense of emotional or romantic connection. Marriage is also about making sure that someone else is looking out for your social and financial well-being" (retrieved January 5 from ).

Saturday, January 2, 2010

My Brandy with Michael

No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers by Michael Novak

This is a fascinating book. It adopts a charitable, friendly tone in addressing the views and experiences of atheists from within the Judeo-Christian tradition. Novak sees a kind of common ground with atheists in the experience of nothingness (the dark night of the soul) experienced by Catholic mystics and articulated by those in the Carmelite tradition like St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and St. Therese of Lisieux.

Novak carefully avoids the belligerent and insulting tone of most of the recent "literature of contempt" coming from current popular atheists. In contrast, this is a wise and thoughtful book, open and reflective in tone. It is a kind of summing up of the life experience and reflections of a lifetime--the author more than once mentions his age as of writing--74 years.

What it is not: If you are looking for a polemic that takes on the knock-down arguments and jibes of popular atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens in a similar vein of knock-about debate, this is not your book, though it does discuss and dispute them. For that, the reader should go Dinesh D'Souza's What's So Great About Christianity? or one of several books that take these authors to task for their arrogance and ignorance, like Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution or David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions.

This book reminds me more of the 1981 film, My Dinner with Andre. Instead of dinner, though, Novak imagines a genial but spirited conversation (or series of conversations) over several brandies. (And I myself spent a few hours with this author, brandy in hand.) The real and imagined atheists who serve as his Alcibiades tend to be blunt, to the point, and commonsensical, like Wallace Shawn in the movie. Novak's replies are long and subtle, like Andre Gregory's in the film, but with less of the pretentious and more of sharp philosophical acuity. As Novak says and shows, it is much easier for a believer to put himself in the shoes of an atheist than the other way round.

I recommend the book highly to atheists interested in an understanding of Jewish and Christian belief that goes beyond the usual objections and who are open to the possibility that those objections have been considered and responded to at a very high level of sophistication over centuries or millennia. But the book is also deeply enriching for believers who seek to understand their atheist friends and family members in way that respects them and is both civil and non-defensive. The book requires and rewards effort from both kinds of reader. For the closed-minded, whether atheist or believer, who are content to stay that way, this book is probably not for you.