Peculiar institutions by mattsteinglass
May 31, 2009, 2:52 pm
Filed under: Conservatism, Human Rights and Torture, Religion, United States

Hilzoy asks: “[W]hat sort of person would not only forswear gay marriage for him- or herself, but actively work to deny this kind of happiness to those who do not share his or her religious views?”

I dunno. But as of about 15 years ago, if you’d asked me, I’d probably have said I preferred civil unions with full rights for homosexual couples, rather than “marriage”. I felt this way for conservative aesthetic reasons that are similar to the reasons why people disliked “New Coke”, or why they feel sad when the college they attended renovates an old building they remember fondly. And I think the opposition of cultural conservatives to gay marriage is really rooted in the same kind of conservative and nostalgic aesthetic attachments.

Once the issue became a live one around a decade ago, I realized that the fact that millions of Americans profoundly wanted to be able to marry the people they loved trumped whatever piddling aesthetic or linguistic concerns I might have. And the aesthetic excitement of the new, equal-opportunity vision of marriage overwhelms any sense of aesthetic loss. (I miss the Washington Capitals’ old uniforms too, but let’s face it, the new ones are much better.) What has flummoxed conservatives like Rod Dreher is that they persist in trying to articulate a moral case for their opposition, when there’s simply no moral case to be made; their opposition is really rooted in emotional and aesthetic responses.

But I don’t think those emotional and aesthetic responses should be ridiculed, as liberals like myself tend to do. Many people who support gay marriage like to make fun of opponents’ claims that allowing gays to marry somehow alters or diminishes the marriages of heterosexuals. “How does Portia de Rossi’s marriage to Ellen DeGeneres affect the marriage of Richard Land and his wife in any way?” Such dismissals are deliberately obtuse. In an aesthetic sense, it does make a difference when the set of members of an institution you belong to undergoes a dramatic expansion, and it’s understandable that people’s conservative defense mechanisms are triggered by such a shift.

I’ve spent some time trying to think of an aesthetic conviction I hold that’s analogous to the way religious conservatives feel about gay marriage. The best I’ve come up with is my revulsion towards choirs and organs in synagogues. I feel strongly that choirs and organs have no place in the Jewish faith. And my revulsion is not limited to the synagogues I attend; I am offended by the idea that any Jews anywhere are worshipping in synagogues with choirs and organs. Synagogues should be places where simple melodies are approximately rendered by a few dozen stoop-shouldered men and shawled women in off-key baritones and wavering sopranos. At those few moments in the service of real musical intensity, such as the “Khashivenu l’adonai” in the Ashkenazi rites, the power and resonance should be achieved by the swelling participation of the diffident ignoramuses in the congregation, as those of us who had stood there nodding and mumbling finally join in a prayer we know.

I am exaggerating here for effect, but in all sincerity, when I’m exposed to Jewish congregations that borrow the musical trappings of generic American Protestant Christianity, my reaction isn’t just get me out of here but something closer to this must be stopped! But I recognize that this is a purely aesthetic concern that has no moral grounding. I also recognize that I am wildly unqualified to make any such purist complaint; as someone who married a non-Jewish woman, I’m happily engaging in a violation that any observant Jew would consider infinitely more serious than working out a three-part harmony for the sh’ma.  And I recognize that it would be ludicrous to try and impose my aesthetic preferences on others who disagree. People who oppose gay marriage need to recognize that they consider gay marriage an abomination in the same sense that Van Halen fans considered the Sammy Hagar years an abomination. They’re allowed to hold that aesthetic position. But there is simply no moral ground for them to try and impose their aesthetic position on anyone else. Gay people who want to get married, in contrast, have an extremely strong moral claim for the right to do so.


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