Blankenhorn and Reno

This is the second in a planned series of pieces on David Blankenhorn’s “Conversation,” an online interview show put out earlier this spring and summer as part of the Institute for American Values’ “Call for a New Conversation on Marriage.” My first post featured my thoughts on the pilot episode, in which Blankenhorn sat down with NYU professor Jonathan Haidt for a wide-ranging discussion about the future of the culture war over marriage. In the second installment, he hears from a guest who is far less sanguine than Haidt about the possibility that we can substantially change the terms of the debate anytime soon: First Things editor (and Haverford alum!) Rusty Reno.

The episode is entitled “Should Religious People Join the New Conversation on Marriage?”, and it attempts to address some of the fundamental questions raised by Blankenhorn’s “call”: namely, what do norms of public engagement demand from people of faith who wish to defend their understanding of morality in the public sphere? Is there room for opponents of same-sex unions in an initiative that declares the gay marriage debate to have reached “a dead end”? Can people with radically different ideas of what marriage means really come together to promote policies that aim to strengthen it – when they don’t even agree on what “it” is? As I did in my earlier post, I’ve noted how far into the episode certain points come up for those who are interested in seeing the highlights but don’t want to watch start-to-finish.

The first portion of the video features Blankenhorn pressing Reno on an essay he wrote in the January issue of First Things that in part criticizes hedge fund manager Paul Singer, a wealthy donor to the Republican Party who recently came out in favor of same-sex marriage. Blankenhorn takes issue with the fact that Reno spends much of the piece calling Singer and others like him “fatuous” for claiming to be “pro-marriage” while dissenting from the traditional understanding of matrimony, but then concludes by challenging such people to prove their sincerity by coming out in support of policies like no-fault divorce reform and a tax code that incentivizes marriage (8:00). How, he asks, can Reno ever hope to build widespread support for his agenda by first attacking his would-be allies as insincere?

Reno replies that the so-called “conservative case for gay marriage,” advanced by writers like Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch and now defended by Blankenhorn himself, is “sociologically fatuous” regardless of what its proponents may believe. For him, gay marriage is “an exclamation point on the sexual revolution,” a phrase that he repeats several times throughout the exchange. He insists that “gay marriage is perceived by the public as an affirmation of sexual liberty,” and not as an attempt to establish stabilizing norms of bourgeois family life in the LGBT community (16:00). Moreover, he believes that “the libertarian streak that runs through [our society] militates against a culture of marriage,” and feels that reinvigorating an institution which is designed “to limit radically people’s sexual choices” will necessarily require reintroducing a vocabulary of “prohibition words” (19:00).

Despite offering up what he admits are provocative arguments, Reno is articulate and gracious throughout the interview, even stepping up to the plate to keep the conversation flowing when Blankenhorn’s train of thought spectacularly derails (39:00). When asked to explain an incendiary comment he made in the pages of First Things about how gay marriage would prove to be a “luxury good for the rich paid for by the poor,” he carefully describes how he sees a flexible and individualized understanding of family structures as easily navigable for young people in the upper and upper middle class, who often have the financial security and social capital to spend a period of their young adulthood engaged in romantic experimentation before ultimately “reaffirming the bourgeois mode of life” (5:00). But for those in the lower classes, who often lack the same prospects for future advancement, the path to domestic stability is less obvious. For that reason, Reno posits, clear social norms are needed to steer people into healthy patterns of life, and open disregard for such norms in the ambient culture will have serious unintended consequences.

That may be so. But Blankenhorn rightly points out several flaws in Reno’s line of thinking. For one, he contests Reno’s claim that gay marriage is perceived by the public as a victory for libertinism, and expresses outright surprise at his assertion that married gay couples will eventually come to serve as symbols of sexual freedom rather than commitment and domesticity (1:18:00). Having himself come to support gay marriage by interacting with homosexual couples who “just wanted to join the PTA” and “bake cookies for their children when they came home from school,” Blankenhorn is understandably skeptical of the idea that approval of same-sex unions can be rising as quickly as it is if homosexuality has in fact all the while been connected with sexual anarchy in the public’s moral imagination.

In fact, opinion poll after opinion poll has shown a strong correlation between support for gay marriage and whether an individual personally knows someone who is gay. This is presumably the case because having a close relationship with a gay person leads one to the realization that the basic aspirations of gays are the same as those of straights, and not because being acquainted with a homosexual radically changes one’s fundamental attitudes about sexual propriety. Indeed, it is precisely because the gay rights movement has so effectively dissociated itself from the threatening image of an antinomian bathhouse culture that it has attained such widespread mainstream acceptance.

Blankenhorn also rejects Reno’s corollary argument that gay marriage “not only degrades but denies” the traditional understanding of marriage as “unitive and procreative,” since “homosexual acts are intrinsically sterile” (37:00, 54:00). He insists that broadcasting a message of “marry for keeps before you have children” is wholly compatible with gay marriage, and that recognizing the equal value and worth of gay relationships is not mutually exclusive with promoting married two-parent households as the ideal environment for child-rearing (42:00). This position is bolstered by the fact that Western legal traditions have always recognized sterile heterosexual marriages, a fact that has never been interpreted as denying that there is a morally significant connection between marriage and procreation.

Both Blankenhorn and Reno are civil and good-natured throughout the interview, and the exchange epitomizes the sort of productive disagreement of which we here at RM are so enamored. Blankenhorn’s quirky and deadpan sense of humor is also reliably entertaining, as for example when he tries to reassure Reno about his influence as a public intellectual by pointing out that he’s “not just some guy at a bar” (33:00). There are many points on which the two agree, including the need to understand marriage as a vital social institution (and not merely as a private contract between individuals) and the importance of building coalitions with those whose beliefs about marriage are very different from one’s own. Reno is at his most persuasive when discussing the unseen costs of applying libertarian ideas in the real world and when articulating his concern that “the vocabulary of civil rights” has made it difficult for many in the gay rights movement to cooperate with religious conservatives on a broader pro-marriage agenda (and vice versa) (34:00). After all, why cooperate with someone you think is a bigot?

But he is less persuasive in his attempts to show why legal recognition of gay marriage will be socially deleterious even if most same-sex couples just want to join the PTA and bake cookies, and he offers oblique responses whenever Blankenhorn tries to question him about the incongruity of it all. When Reno talks about “disenchanting taboo structures,” Blankenhorn voices confusion at the high level of abstraction, and even seems to wonder whether he is using actual words (1:07:00). This is not to deny that the cumulative social impact of a policy that is beneficial for specific individuals can nevertheless be undesirable, but only that Reno is fuzzy on detailing what the mechanism driving such a paradox might be in this particular case.

Reno is easily the least supportive of same-sex marriage out of all the guests that Blankenhorn hosts over the course of the series, and his views will clearly be at odds with those of the show’s more liberal viewers. That said, people who sit down to watch 90-minute videos about how to transcend a sterile culture war are generally self-selected for an openness to opposing viewpoints, so maybe that isn’t a problem. If you’re one of those people, you should go watch. And you should tell all of your moderate friends to start following RM, because… well, because we need pageviews. Keep ’em coming.

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