There are any number of reasonable reactions to the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. Try this one: It was inevitable, and no argument marshaled by the opposition would—or even could—prevent it. Hear me out.
In his 2009 book The Permissive Society, historian Alan Petigny makes the case that the upheavals of the sixties were just manifestations of religious changes from the forties and fifties. It’s not like someone flipped a switch and then—voila!—sex and drugs. “What the nation experienced,” says Petigny, “was a classic instance of norms coming into line with values.”
Something, in other words, happened in the postwar years that set the stage for the events to follow. It’s an observation that helps explain the apparent rapid shift toward gay marriage in our own day.
When the ground really shifted
How rapid is it, really? It sure feels fast. We all have recollections ranging from vague to crystal clear that even progressives such as President Obama and Hillary Clinton opposed gay marriage only a short while ago, or that a person could express contrary opinions without fretting over livelihood or social standing. Not anymore. Something shifted in a hurry. But it was only the norms, not the values.
The values changed all the way back in the forties and fifties. In that sense, the gay marriage battle was already over when Eisenhower was in the White House. How so?
Petigny describes what he calls the Permissive Turn, a liberalization of values that happened following World War II. Some of it came down to a “renunciation of renunciation.” The war had demanded a great deal of austerity and self-sacrifice. But with Germany and Japan subdued, it was time to live it up. Americans plowed their prosperity into material self-gratification. But there was more.
At the same time, the culture witnessed a shift in the way we viewed human nature. We swapped the traditional American view, grounded in a certain pessimism inherited from the Protestant understanding of original sin, for the newly refurbished and Americanized psychotherapy.
When religion found psychotherapy
Freud was no fan of faith, and the rivalry was both hot and clear in Europe. Not so in America, where advocates such as Joshua Liebman, Carl Rogers, Benjamin Spock, and others presented the benefits of psychotherapy without the thorny, antireligious aspects inherent to Freud’s vision. The effect was pronounced. Just two decades after WWII, sociology professor Philip Rieff could look back and talk about the “triumph of the therapeutic” (emphasis added).
No such triumph was obvious at the outset. In November 1949, Irving Kristol pointed to the incompatibility of psychotherapy and religion in an article for Commentary. The controversy was topical enough—and Kristol’s opinion notable enough—that Time magazine actually covered his article.
How could Americans, particularly religious Americans, take psychotherapy’s rose and avoid the thorn? The answer, said Kristol, was to shift the conversation away from ultimate questions of truth and toward temporal questions of health and happiness:
Most clerics and analysts blithely agree that religion and psychoanalysis have at heart the same intention: to help men “adjust,” to cure them of their vexatious and wasteful psychic habits (lasting despair and anxiety), to make them happy or virtuous or productive. In so far as religion and psychoanalysis succeed in this aim, they are “true.”
What’s the problem with that? We made truth a question of outcomes. Does x make you happy? Then it’s probably good. Does y make you anxious? Then it’s probably bad.
John Crowe Ransom argued in God Without Thunder (1930) that most Americans had already traded away the traditional view of God and replaced it with varying degrees of enthusiasm about science, progress, and the like. Here was the most definitive proof of his thesis. Religion, morality, even reality were now questions of self-fulfillment—making truth subjective and traditional truth claims irrelevant and meaningless.
The new gospel of self-fulfillment
Over the course of his book, Petigny shows how this mindset swept the country, the culture, and the churches through the 1950s. “Americans,” he says, “were coming to view the self as a boundless reservoir of inherent goodness and potentiality. . . .” According to the new and prevailing view, “[T]he perspective of people who look inward to their hearts for moral guidance provides us with the best hope for the future of mankind.”
Once self-fulfillment becomes the end towards which individuals are moving, then there is no longer any fixed council or direction to govern any particular individual’s choice—only what a person claims will lead to his personal betterment, as only he is entitled to determine. Individual autonomy and self-indulgence trump all else.
But it’s still hard to imagine Ward and Jim as the parents on Leave it to Beaver. That’s because as Petigny argues, and as we began, it takes time for norms to catch up with values. But by 1966, Rieff could speak about our cultural commitment to “the gospel of self-fulfillment.”
Having enshrined individual autonomy as authoritative, it’s just a question of time and the tide of personal inclination. Justice Kennedy based his opinion on just such an appeal.
It was never really about marriage
The rapid turn on same-sex marriage wasn’t rapid. As Petigny shows, there was a general consensus waiting to be made from the rough ingredients that we’ve been living with for well over half a century.
Which is just another way of saying that this is a very long defeat for the broader acceptance of traditional Christianity. The battle wasn’t over marriage. It was over what’s left of the traditional Christian understanding of human design and destiny.
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.