Before Obergefell: Some Thoughts on How We Got Here

Yesterday I guest posted over on the Theopolis Institute, addressing the question of how we arrived at the widespread cultural affirmation of same-sex marriage. I particularly focus upon the role played by liberal capitalism and its values.

Individual choice and autonomy are dominant and foundational cultural values in a capitalist society, eclipsing almost all else. The liberal notion of the person as androgynous transacting party and consumer that constitutes the heart of the anthropology of capitalism has no real conceptual place for the lasting natural union between the sexes or between parents and the children that they bear. Such unions threaten this anthropology, as they present us with realities that displace the autonomous individual from the centre of the picture, revealing that we are connected to others by nature, not solely by choice.

The gender-neutralizing notions of liberal personhood informs various movements—among them certain forms of feminism—that seek to form an egalitarian society where all differences are reduced to the level of indifference. The natural family, with its clear differentiation between the sexes, is either an eccentric exception to this ideology or an unreconstructed and backward opponent of it that needs to be brought into line. The sexual difference between husbands and wives, between mothers and fathers, is irrelevant. Any two loving parents are interchangeable; sex should not come into it.

The values of egalitarianism and individual choice have been integral to the movement towards same-sex marriage. The notions of ‘equal’ marriage and the right of every individual to marriage as a lifestyle choice expressive of their love appear self-evident to most persons within our society. These values of equality, individual choice, the pursuit of pleasure, and self-expression—the values of liberal capitalism—are sacred and any threat to them will be treated as heresy. Few can even begin to understand why any persons might call these values into question.

Read the whole piece here.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Controversies, Culture, Economics, Ethics, Guest Post, In the News, Politics, Sex and Sexuality, Society, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to Before Obergefell: Some Thoughts on How We Got Here

  1. evan773 says:

    This is a fairly perceptive analysis. I’ll offer a couple of concurring thoughts.

    1. The capitalist view probably came to the fore because Christians failed to articulate any cogent response to our erstwhile promotion of Freudian notions of “normal” sexuality. Instead, Christians tended to reappropriate Freudian thought and read it into Paul’s use of the term “natural,” thereby redefining “natural” to conform to the Freudian notion of “normal.” For example, the whole notion of “biblical manhood and womanhood” (BMAW) is suffused with Freudian renderings of the Pauline text. So, the capitalists were the only ones who were offering any kind of critique. It won out by default.

    2. Conservative Christians have been staunch defenders of capitalism in the economic realm. In the US, evangelical Christians in recent years have reliably promoted the interests of global capitalists over and against those of middle-class families. They wring their hands over the decay of the middle-class family, while they turn around and promote economic policies that push such families closer to poverty. Promoting family values has to be about something more than moralistic finger-wagging; it has to consider a variety of factors that contribute to the stress middle-class families face.

    3. Conservative Christians in the US will have difficulty resisting this trend. In Europe (or at least Continental Europe), the prevailing form of liberalism tends to have more of a positivist bent than a pragmatist bent. That leads to actual hostility to orthodox Christians. In the US, where pragmatism reigns, there will rarely be actual hostility. American secularists are simply indifferent to Christianity. They view practicing Christianity like practicing yoga or going vegan: Go for it; just don’t preach to me about the merits of tempeh.

  2. Chris E says:

    “Conservative Christians have been staunch defenders of capitalism in the economic realm. In the US, evangelical Christians in recent years have reliably promoted the interests of global capitalists over and against those of middle-class families.”

    Is huge. Conservative Christians – including calvinists – have bought into capitalism to the point where no critique – however nuanced – is even possible.

    In fact, a note on language, the critique on the linked post, will be interpreted by the average american conservative as a critique of ‘liberals’ rather than of capitalism. In this context, the usage of the term ‘liberal capitalism’ is highly misleading – because the critique is that of classical liberalism, not modern day ‘liberals’ per se.

  3. Joe says:

    It would be interesting to read your thoughts on where “we” should go from here. The promotion of a “family values” culture in evangelical churches owes a lot to the same values of liberal capitalism. I say that an outsider – a single working class gay man – not as a cynic. I know that the welcome at the door is genuinely “inclusive” but modern evangelical culture does have elements of a lifestyle choice – with newcomers being unlikely to join and settle in any particular church unless they share both the theological and cultural assumptions/values of the existing congregation.

    • evan773 says:


      Sure. The “family values” program is really little more than a cross between Freudian social theory (familialism) and the capitalism of the industrial era, covered over with a thin veneer of Christian language and symbolism. Neo-evangelicalism arose at the same time that the family values program was taking hold, with evangelical churches taking a lead role in promoting it.

      That’s why it’s especially hard for evangelical churches to come to terms with the Obergefell decision. Same-sex marriage doesn’t simply seem to run counter to biblical prohibitions. It also runs counter to the central institution around which evangelicals have organized their institutions–the Freudian notion of the internally focused, economically self-sufficient nuclear family unit.

  4. I have two requests of Alistair et al: 1. Define capitalism 2. What’s the alternative?

    • Chris E says:

      Strictly speaking, private ownership of the means of production. In reality, it has a number of secondary characteristics that mean it’s more useful to speak of ‘capitalisms’. In reality, evangelicals tend to view things in fundamentalist terms, where anything short of North American capitalism in all its nuances is viewed as a descent into socialism. So usually your second question is the one that is posed immediately.- rather than recognising that there are various degrees of freedom within capitalism itself.

      • I am not fond of the term ‘capitalism’, because in contemporary context I don’t know how useful it is. And that leads to my frustration with its use in this and other like posts I have come seen of late. As to choice in the market-place, I contend that there are not multiple “capitalisms”; rather, individuals live within cultures that allow some measure or another of freedom to choose from among alternatives, and institutional factors have an effect on the degree to which individuals make choices in a given society. In the west we have been given the opportunity to make choices relatively unhindered by government (though government favors and cronyism are present) and, speaking from an American perspective, relatively few are proscribed beyond unique parochial interests that may serve to discourage certain options. In such a society, one wonders what the real alternatives are. The brakes on choice come down to some combination or another of various institutional arrangements that draw lines. So one wonders, in a western world where individuals are free to produce and consume according to what they perceive their needs to be, what arrangements would actually be made to limit them. Do you want to give that power to your local pastor, the pope, the president, the queen, etc.? So rather than taking pot shots at ‘capitalism’, maybe we could see some fleshing out of an actual prescription that dignifies human capacity to choose what is needed to live on this planet.

        While I am actually quite sympathetic to much of what Alistair has to say, I can’t detect any realistic alternatives. And for any who actually possess socialist or neo-Marxian perspectives, well, we are light years apart in our understanding of how God interacts with His creation.

    • mnpetersen37 says:

      I believe Zizek says somewhere that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of Capitalism. Alternatives are, literally, unthinkable.

      That said, there are several important features that a new age should have.

      1) More communal values.

      2) Private property has been extremely destructive to nature, and has helped cause racism. It has also been instrumental in the theft of land from poor, and indigenous peoples. Private property may still exist, but it needs to exist in a very different ecological space.

      3) We need to have real relations with our more-than-human neighbors, particularly, with the land, our Sister Mother Earth, which sustains and governs us, rather than acting as if we walk roughshod atop it.

      4) Older ways of life need revivified. Capitalism puts to death the older forms of life, and so is murderous of peoples, and of collective memories (and of the land, which mourns for the injustice of those which dwell in it). Other, non-White, non-modern ways of being human need revivified.

      5) We have been *extremely* unjust to our plant and animal neighbors—Derrida describes it extremely poignantly in *The Animal that therefore I Am*. We need to be giving to land, not tearing it apart, giving thanks to and for the land, and listening to the land, so we can articulate their praises to the LORD.

      6) Our loves and cares will be given far more by deep communal forms of life, rather than by commercials, and the Market.

    • Chris E says:

      Ah yes. So presumably any laws against selling oneself into slavery, or any regulation whatsoever is anti Christian, based on it being against maximal free choice.

  5. Pingback: Index of Resources on Sexuality & “Gay Marriage” | Pastoral Pensees

  6. Philipp says:

    As usual, an interesting essay, Alastair. A half-objection, however: you argue, as those who develop this argument (which I have heard and seen frequently in Roman Catholic and other self-consciously traditionalist Christian settings) often do, that these marital developments are specifically bound up with ‘Liberal Capitalism’. Without denying the faults of modern market-focused economies (a telling word, no?) and especially of the separation between the home and work, I should wonder whether it is actually a problem of modernist ideologies more generally. Communism, for example, has often led to experiments in erasing sexual boundaries, at least symbolically, while the state benefits entailed by the softer forms of socialism are often insidiously hostile to domestic stability (the married and the frugal are punished, and the spendthrift and unstable rewarded, by default if not by design, and all made subservient to arbitrary, impersonal state regulation). The lesson is, I think, a more general one: the home is always a threat to a state that would rebuild society in its rulers’ image.

    The reason why I raise this point is that I fear that your post could provoke an anti-capitalist reaction when, in our society, the most credible alternatives to capitalism all involve an even more greatly overweaning state power that is in no way friendly to homes, families, or the natural communities built of them. The solution is not, I humbly suggest, greater government control of the ‘free-market’ or anything else, but to strengthen, by any means possible, the foundations of human society–families, communities, and the virtues of individual men and women–which modern states are not merely ill-equipped but simply unwilling to do.

    • Philipp says:

      P.S. If he is not being ironic, I think the above post by MNPetersen may well exemplify the kind of thing I am concerned about: it is simply not true that capitalism is a ‘white way of being human’, any more than Maoist Communism is a ‘yellow’ way of being human, and to cast the issue on those terms is already to have conceded the point to the modern leftist (or fascist!) for whom people are inherently divided by certain innate identity categories (all of which are, paradoxically, sheer social constructs without any inherent reality–or so we are told even about biological sex now). It is, however, a peculiarly modern way of being human, even as Maoism or Francoism, say, are, and both Communism and Fascism have proved far more directly ‘murderous of peoples, and of collective memories’, than (say) American-style capitalism. Now, I readily concede that I may misunderstand the point being made; nevertheless, I wonder: how are we to achieve the reversal of our deleterious social situation in a way that does not simply put more and more power into an arbitrary, impersonal, and politically omnipotent state, and how are we to articulate our ideas without simply tacitly conceding the world-view that we are refuting?

      For an American, this is an especially pressing issue, as Obergefell was as much a blow against the states as subsidiary powers as it was against marriage itself. Indeed, Obergefell could be read as the tacit replacement of both the 1st and 10th Amendments with arbitrarily-granted and -defined ‘rights’ imparted to individual persons directly by an unaccountable and far-removed federal power (not just the judiciary, of course, but also the executive–or why else did I see rainbow flags hanging from the US Embassy in London, as if acceptance of sodomy were now a requisite for American citizenship?) I think, as I have said, that the strengthening of the lower levels of society is the only solution for this, but the rot may–in the US at least–have progressed too far.

      • mnpetersen37 says:

        I agree with a lot (though not quite all) of the strategy in your first comment, and my difference with you is, I think, that I include more strategic goals, and differ somewhat on tactics.

        I agree that Maoism and Stalinism and Fascism have been extremely destructive. They have, in multiple, glaring, ways, failed on, I think, all of the points I listed.

        Regarding the murder of the older ways of life, and of collective memories: This criticism comes from an almost anti-Marxist section of a book on the Russian Revolution. The author (Rosenstock-Huessy) says, more or less “Marx said X is the problem, which gets a bit right, and a lot wrong. What is the real problem? The real problem is that there aren’t just proletariat and capitalists, but pre-Capitalist markets. [Now, since we have consumerist capitalism, this would swap around: There is pre-Capitalistic labor, whose fruits can be sold in Capitalist countries.] And Capitalism works by putting to death these older forms of life. On the manor, the lord was responsible not only for the food of his workers, but for their education, and spiritual well being, and all the other parts of being fully human. The Capitalist out-competes him by only producing food, and not having to pay for anything else. And so, through the power of low cost, putts to death the older forms of life. [This, he argues is also why Marxism only got a foothold in Russia, which was pre-modern. Capitalism was far more destructive there than, say, in England, because there were far more things to destroy.] The result is that the services previously covered by private persons must now be covered abstractly, irrespective of place, by the government.”

        Regarding white: It isn’t that whiteness isn’t socially constructed, but that a particular way if life, which presents itself as The Way of Life, is particularly tied to European history, and that the markers of division separating it from other ways of life, were (and in a number of ways remain) racial markers. This is not to say that only white people can be Capitalists, as some turn of the century racists said, but that when we take, say Indians, and, assuming that they are equal to whites, work to civilize them, and train the Indian out of them, (as was also done at the turn of the century) we are attempting to assimilate them into a foreign, white, reality and thus, killing their collective memories, and isolating them from their peoples and lands—in a sense, doing the work of genocide—even while preserving the individual body. This was a sort of inverted hospitality: Rather than learning as guests, we presumed to be unteachable teachers, speaking, but never offering the first hospitality, listening. This is not to say that we should remain separate, in a sort of Jim Crow or Apartheid—though the difficulty of thinking these things through in a way that does not fall into these pits shows the depths of the problem—but that we, as Europeans, need to recognize that we are a particular people, who need to learn from our neighbors, and receiving them as guests, being received by them as guests, offering them the first hospitality of listening and learning from them. And looking up to them, esteem them better than ourselves. We must, in our interaction with them, become like little children, learning from them, as beginners; not presuming to teach, as masters—which, though all too often our practice, is not the mind which was in Christ Jesus.

        Nor so I mean that there is an essential difference, but that we are different peoples, with different languages, different ways of relating to land, different hopes, different boundaries, and especially, different collective memories.

  7. Thanks to everyone leaving comments here. This is just a brief comment to say that I am currently on holiday in the South of France, so won’t be responding to comments for the next week.

  8. quinnjones2 says:

    I have read all your comments and I find them interesting but I don’t know much about capitalism or liberalism so I don’t have much to offer in this debate. But I do remember the ‘swinging sixties’ and spending time in the prefects’ room at school ‘putting the world to rights.’ I was most impressed when one of our friends made the pronouncement that we were living in a ‘pro se quisque’ world. I remember being fascinated by Alvin Toffler and ‘future shock’, ‘built-in-obsolescence’, ‘information overload’ and so on, and getting the general impression that just about everyone I knew was rushing around trying to have and know ‘the latest’. I always seemed to be lagging behind, being one of the last to have the latest gadgets, to see the latest film everyone was talking about and to read the latest book ( which so many people said was a ‘must’) , one of which by the 70’s (or 80’s?) was ‘The Selfish Gene’ – all that, and feminism, too!
    Despite being a bit lost with regard to capitalism, liberalism and what I still think of as ‘the rat race’, I think I can say with confidence that Alastair’s article is by far the best that I have read on this subject and I hope it receives a much wider readership. If I were to comment as much as I would like on the article, I would probably end up quoting most of what Alastair wrote, so I will be brief. The character of marriage has indeed changed, and this change has been influenced by sociological, political, economic, ideological, moral, medical and technological changes. There is indeed, as Alastair wrote, a ‘growing detachment of sex from procreation’, and ‘safe sex’ ( with its focus on mutual pleasuring) has become the default position in many heterosexual relationships, including many marriages, so it has become increasingly difficult for many people to see much difference between heterosexual marriage and same-sex relationships and many are wondering what all the fuss is about when some of us outlandishly claim that same-sex ‘marriage’ just isn’t marriage and isn’t natural. ( What the heck does ‘natural’ mean or matter anyway in this advanced and sophisticated age?!)
    I don’t know what the solution is, but identifying the problem is a good start, and I think that Alastair has done an excellent job of identifying it.

  9. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    if I may be so bold as to distil the argument into a single sentence, Americans have viewed eros as a whole as the ultimate consumer good and the recent ruling reflects that perspective, which asserts that since eros is the ultimate consumer pursuit all consenting adults should all be given the opportunity to purchase it in its most culturally prestigious form.

    An observation about childrearing and choice, it’s been interesting to track Mockingbird contributors who write about the esoteric legalisms associated with parenting when Americans choose to have children. Whether the subject is vaccinations (or not); attachment parenting; theories of emotional development; or degrees of autonomous play permitted before child protective services get called, it seems American culture is moving toward a legal approach in which two consenting adults can choose whatever form of erotic activity they find most pleasing so long as they concede that whatever children they may choose to have in their lives are to be raised by a series of explicit and tacit norms settled on by neighbors and/or the state.

    And then there’s the rise of what’s called “helicopter parenting”, which I wonder about–what if helicopter parenting were an extension of the child-only-by-choice approach? Not that surprise babies can’t grow up in demanding or legalistic homes, but it sometimes seems as though children who were planned might have more risk of facing parents who, having planned for their births, also planned for other things, too. Helicopter parenting may be less frequent among couples who only “sort of” planned for the children they birthed but I doubt any longitudinal studies of that are even practical.

    • quinnjones2 says:

      I suppose one positive thing about the recent ruling is that it is evidence of the popular association between sexual relationships and marriage.The tragedy is that the link between sexual relationships and procreation has largely been eroded, with the result that sexual intimacy has spilled over into relationships where it does not naturally belong and where, I believe, God does not intend it to belong. This is a breach of personal boundaries which has serious implications for the future of humankind.

  10. Katherine says:

    Hi Alastair,
    This post is now a couple of years old but I found it very helpful last night in an email discussion which I’m having on the SSM issue. Your take on it as the outcome of a long process in which marriage is increasingly a platform for the exercise of a self-fulfillment based prioritising of personal choice above all else, all trained and facilitated by a lifetime of consumerism, was a really interesting analysis, and I shamelessly borrowed your thoughts. Thank you! It’s an especially incisive approach, I think, with left-wing people atheistic people who have no interest in a Christian worldview or sexual ethic, but would be horrified to see themselves as the ultimate consumers in a capitalist system 🙂

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