Why the gay marriage debate was over in 1950

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.

baver full

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.


    1. No doubt. A post like this has to start someplace, and I went with the postwar period. But once you start tugging on the sweater string, you see it goes back quite far indeed.

      1. It goes farther back than the 1920s. Try the turn of the 20th century w/ the advent and proliferation of Fabian Socialists and the rise of the University system here, which was patterned after German Universities. Woodrow Wilson tried to “change our history and our traditions,” and even wrote a revisionist history book. Sadly, most subsequent history books were based on this book.

      2. https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/joeljmiller/why-the-gay-marriage-debate-was-over-in-1950/

        Just last night, I was mulling over the seemingly rapid cultural changes that have occurred. Certainly, those of us who have any knowledge of the 1960s think that was the time that pushed change of traditional societal norms and that is true to a point. But what went through my mind: I blame Hitler! Truly, war is always a transformative effect and not just because people die, borders change, nations rise and fall. Those are obvious. What is more fundamental about war is how it disrupts the status quo and ushers in unforeseen changes. The most recent example is the Middle East: GW Bush kicked over the apple cart and the scramble has given us more instability in that region and the world. Like the Arab Spring? It wouldn’t have happened if GW Bush hadn’t deposed Saddam Hussein. The rise of ISIS is the result of that war as is the toppling of Mubarak in Egypt and Gaddafi in Libya: once a bully was exposed as vulnerable, change was possible.
        Getting back to WW2, the disruption caused by that war was a tsunami: national economies took off due to tech changes and mass migration caused by that war. War is actually good for pushing tech forward. People think the California Gold Rush made the state, but it was actually WW2 that set off the post war boom in the US and worldwide. Here in CA, servicemen who had spent time or passed through on their way to the Pacific theater, came back to start families and work in industries created from the war effort. The uprooting of people from their homelands, whether domestic or foreign had the effect of making a break from one’s past. When one is unmoored from one’s past and familial and social roots, a space is provided for change. SF became known as a place for former servicemen who felt same-sex attraction to migrate to because it had always been an open, relatively, non-traditional city back to the Gold Rush days and many had cycled through from the Navy in WW2. Affluence truly is a disease, at least for some people. The Baby Boomer generation, raised in better economic circumstances than any similar cohort in history, were primed to reject cultural norms. To a more pronounced effect in Europe, the prevailing cultural paradigm was moral relativity. They– perhaps better than most– saw political orthodoxies as harbingers of violence and war. ( I’m not saying I agree with that supposition, just that it seems viable) That viewpoint, I think, carries over into the spiritual/moral realm.
        So, Hitler put pink markings on gays in Germany during the Third Reich? Had he not been such a disruptive influence upon the world, the world would have been very different. 70 years is a long time, but there are always catalysts and I think Hitler was one such catalyst. So, I would agree with your points that the roots of what we–rightly– see as incredible change of late, goes back farther.

    2. In the American context the string goes back further still. With the receding of orthodox Christianity and the cultural triumph of Unitarianism in the northeast U.S. at the close of the 18th Century it has been a long slide. And as others put it well — it is such a part of our culture we are hard pressed to think “outside the box”. My epiphany began with a serious study of the history of Christendom.

    3. Historians prefer to use dates and events in order to pin their analysis in time. For example, Francis Schaeffer said pretty much the same thing as Mr. Miller regarding social convulsions and rejection of Christian principle. But Schaeffer pinned his pivotal moments in time to the first half of the twentieth century.

      Students of history are taught that trends (and values) build to a tipping point. An event is recorded in time after which (norms) and behavior are irrevocably altered. Dec. 7, 1941 was such an event/tipping point as was Nov. 22, 1963, Sept 16, 1985(1) and Oct. 26, 2001(2).

      Supreme Court decisions might also be considered as tipping points instead of end points. Regardless of perspective, the culture of the USA has become irreversibly altered. The question remains as to whether we are sliding into a well of despair or marching into a glorious future. God has yet to vote on the matter and we shall see what the divine reaction may be to all this.

      There is, however, a sense among many secular minds as well as Christian minds, that something is in the wind; a ‘bad moon rising'(3) or that ‘something wicked this way comes'(4). We shall see, but will we like what our eyes behold?

      and that’s me, hollering from the choir loft…
      (1) The Dept. of Commerce declares the US to be a debtor state for the first time in its history.
      (2) Passage of the Patriot Act and subsequent erosion of constitutional law in America.
      (3) Credence Clearwater Revival
      (4) Ray Bradbury

  1. Joel. I appreciated your points noted here. I have pondered the common loss of American Biblical common suppositions as well.

    In my opinion, a good precursor to our acceptance of non-Biblical values is the stories told in the Hollywood media. I have been watching a lot of old classic movies that were popular and was surprised to see how much adultery and divorce was promoted. This in the when I as a child (I was born in 1953) recall my parents disapproving comments on the Hollywood actors lifestyles. Then came out of marriage relationships. Then births out of wedlock. Then promoting the gay agenda. From my observations each one of these social decays were promoted in the media and storylines.

    Raised as a devout Catholic who spent 35 early adult years in Evangelical churches before returning to my Catholic roots 7 yrs ago- my husband and I raised our 5 children with a solid Biblical foundation. Today they are all happily married and parents. Yet I realized the “lost culture war”‘even with my own children when – within the past 9 months I independently asked 2 of my girls….One a professional musician and one a United States Marine Officer…what % of people in our country are gay. Shockingly these women (living in separate states and 8 years apart) told me the exact same thing: “25%”. They were very surprised when I told them they were off by a factor of about 7. But it was a great indicator to me of how deep the propaganda had sunk into my own children.

    Thank you for thoughtful post

    1. You bet. I’ve been researching this cultural push toward individualism for some time now. Like Nixon said about Keynes, we’re all individualists now. It’s the air we breathe. Sexual liberation is just one of many expressions of it.

  2. Whatever may be the theological implications, I think the court got it right on the law. If the government is going to disadvantage a particular group of people, it has to come up with a better reason for it than just that the majority considers that group inferior. And that, by the way, also started to change in the 1950s; before that it was basically open season on any group a majority didn’t like. In Palmore v. Sidoti, the Supreme Court finally held that majoritarian hostility was an inadequate basis for government policy. Whatever one thinks of gays, in general that’s a sound policy given the massive power the government has to hurt people it doesn’t like.

    And the real reason gay marriage won is that its opponents were never able to come up with any real reason to oppose it beyond an assertion that a gay sexual orientation is inferior to a heterosexual one. Which is precisely the kind of prejudice the Court held inadequate in Palmore.

    1. gay people are not considered inferior. that is not the reason gay marriage was opposed. gay marriage was opposed because it is not the biblical expression of marriage. we see throughout scripture what marriage is. no where is there the slightest thought that marriage could be between two people of the same sex. it is not helpful to equate disagreement with a particular action with bias or prejudice.

  3. Gay marriage isn’t marriage because it can’t produce children, and Christians have failed to stop gay marriage precisely because they’ve adopted the same therapeutic view of marriage homosexuals have, as otherwise described in this excellent post. But marriage isn’t about personal fulfillment. It’s about continuing the species as God intended, being fruitful, multiplying, filling the earth and subduing it, replacing ourselves with reasonable facsimiles. And if there is one distinguishing mark of this collapsing society, it is its insane war on the lives which would do just that. We deserve what we’re getting, good and hard.

    1. Your argument that a marriage is only valid if it is capable of producing children is a questionable one. I believe the Orthodox view of these things to be that marriage itself is a precious and beautiful gift from God, given to help us in our efforts to direct our lives towards him. Children are, of course, another such gift… I’m moved to comment because this kind of assertion is truly a very hurtful one for married couples who are struggling with infertility.

      1. I don’t see the assertion that marriage is only valid with children. Certainly, Sarah’s womb was barren, but her marriage to Abraham was no less valid — and they were later blessed by G-d.

        Luther wrote:

        “This is the true definition of marriage: Marriage is the God-appointed and legitimate union of man and woman in the hope of having children or at least for the purpose of avoiding fornication and sin and living to the glory of God. The ultimate purpose is to obey God, to find aid and counsel against sin; to call upon God; to seek, love, and educate children for the glory of God; to live with one’s wife in the fear of God and to bear the cross; but if there are no children, nevertheless to live with one’s wife in contentment; and to avoid all lewdness with others.” (“What Luther Says” CPH 1959, Vol. II, page 884)

  4. Great article, Joel. I’ve added Petigny’s book to my reading list. I wonder, though, if he draws any lines connecting the permissiveness of post WW2 America to the Liberal theology that had overtaken our churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century (I’m thinking of the theology described in Machen’s “Christianity and Liberalism”)? It seems that would be where the foundations of American theology (especially the general understanding of the depravity of man which you mentioned) began to crack, thus allowing this shift in attitudes in the 40s and 50s.

    1. He’s largely focused on the postwar years. At present I’m working on a book about this that takes that period into account–and a lot more. Matthew Hedstrom’s The Rise of Liberal Religion is worth a read, as is James Lincoln Collier’s The Rise of Selfishness in America.

  5. Good essay. I would add C.S. Lewis “Abolition of Man” as an important warning from this period, and slightly earlier is Chesterton’s “The Everlasting Man”. Rieff is important to gaining an understanding of the thinking and tactics some in the “Orthodoxy and Gay” and their supporters are using to try to “update” (though they are very careful at the language they use) the normative moral Tradition.

    The “it actually started” thinking is helpful (and fun!). Clearly, “individualism” is at the core of the western project by the time you get to sola scriptura. Did it start with Descartes and Francis Bacon? Did Scholastic dialectical theology and the subsequent triumph of Nominalism not lay the foundation? What about when the west lost the “patristic consensus” in the court of Charlemagne?

  6. If the basis of it goes back to individualism and the pursuit of happiness, then it really is written into the Constitution. In other words, the deliberate exclusion of Christian morality (or Theism) in the Constitution sets it up for all that follows.

    So, on the basis of the US Constitution, the justices were right. But they were basically just allowing SSM in Sodom.

  7. One question: Isn’t the liberal acceptance you speak of what has helped us to embrace other cultures, races, physical and mental ability, etc.? I know abolitionists existed in the antebellum period, but can’t we credit some of our advancement as a community to that same spirit we’re crediting with the acceptance of homosexuality?

    Fine, one other question: I know the verses–I’ve grown up Southern Baptist–but how many faithful, self loathing gays have to live in depression because we refuse to accept them in the name of Jesus?

    1. “can’t we credit some of our advancement as a community to that same spirit we’re crediting with the acceptance of homosexuality?”

      No. One of the central myths of modernism is that it (i.e, it’s “spirit”) is responsible for the alleged “moral progress” of the last few centuries (abolition, womens rights, improving race relations/unbderstanding etc. etc. etc.).

      As C.S Lewis and many others note, on the contrary, they were riding the back of the left overs of an earlier Christian spirit and civilization. Now that the the earlier Christian spirit is almost extinguished, the fruits of the modern spirit are ripening: Death (abortion and the murder of the young, old, sick, unwanted), Death (the god of “self” and the worship of “identity”) and Death (soon, the hard persecution of Christians) and more Death…

      Don’t give this spirit credit – it borrows every good and falsely claims it as its own…

      1. Nobody ever said the Father of Lies was stupid! The real problem is that humans have been listening to his whispers ever since the Garden. Not THAT thread goes al long way back. Bless you for your article.

  8. Joel,
    Thanks for (again) giving me something to think about. As a former Lutheran, I have said that once Luther claimed marriage was no longer a sacrament, his claim opened the door for gay marriage. If marriage is simply a civil act, anyone can marry anyone. Or maybe that’s just me being snarky!

    1. I definitely agree that the lost of sacramentality is a big piece of this story. Marriage is more than a contract. But when we define it as such, who’s to limit the parties? It’s a free country, after all. Add to that the additional reality that we primarily think of marriage as a path to self-fulfillment, and here we are.

  9. Very thoughtful article Joel. However, as the author of Leave it to God, a Leave it to Beaver devotional book, I just wish you had used a picture other than one from Leave it to Beaver : )

    I would’ve preferred something from the late 40s or early 50s.

    You are right, this shift began a long time ago. In my opinion, we’ve been a post-Christian nation since at least 1963, but I see where that began much earlier.

    Thanks for your post,

    1. No slight was meant for the Beaver! Just seemed like the perfect image. By the time the Beaver aired in the late 50s, it was a done deal (at least that’s what I was hoping to say).

  10. Good call on the psychotherapy effect. I think I would add 1) Modernism in churches; 2) Public education trends; and 3) the film industry liberated from meaningful censorship/social constraints (e.g. the Miller case-SCOTUS again). Interestingly Psychiatry once regarded homosexuality a disorder until pressure was applied (1970’s). Liberals would just see it as extending trhe Civil Rights of the 1950’s-60’s but that assumes an equation of race with disposition/behavior. Rights divorced from God are arbitrary grants from the state to be taken or given at will.

    1. Speaking of the Civil Rights movement…disparaging minority relationships as just being about “dispositions and behaviors,” as you did, was part and parcel in the propaganda against the movement…as any of us old enough to have been accused of the “unnatural sin of miscegenation” can tell you.

      It should be no surprise that Mildred Loving (of Loving v Virginia) before she passed on, had endorsed the marriage equality movement. So had Coretta Scott King.

  11. Hi: In actuality, when you are contrasting and comparing the genesis of what we are now seeing or what is being conceptualized as the outcomes of the post war or the “roaring twenties” regarding America’s fascination with all things humanistic and we being our own inner moral compass, the first signs of this was….wait for it!… The Garden of Eden in which the crafty serpent (Satan) beguiled Eve with the question that still is the poster child for “doing my own thing!” and that was: “Did God really say…..?”
    When doubt was placed in Eve and later in Adam’s mind that God was not to be revered or honored for his holiness and righteousness, then that let in the whole concept of each man being a god unto themselves and answerable only to themselves.
    The grounded moral compass of God and as found in scriptures was cast aside (along with guilt, sin and judgment) and mankind went on a “binge” indulging his every whim of what he/she thought was right and OK as to how they lived their lives and what they engaged in.
    Without the inner moral groundings as found in the absolutes of the Word of God, mankind was spinning around in its own self made orbit and was not bound to any
    moral cables but rather, “If it feels do, then do it!” was the mantra of the day.
    When the call when out that “God Is Dead” that was a national statement that we are all now free to do what we want, when we want and with who we want and there is no accountability to a God who will call us into judgment for the deeds done in the flesh.
    Brave New World?….For some maybe but for society, it is a buffet of divorce, child abuse, mass murder, suicides, abortions on demand and gay marriage.
    We have met the enemy and it is us!

  12. Maybe we can actually go back to the statements made by the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who was supposedly a Christian(?), when he asserted that truth is subjectivity. That is to say that truth begins with the self. It begins with one’s own context, one’s own experience, one’s own feelings, etc. This affected (or should I say INfected) the theology of many a church body. Among others in the church, Billy Graham caught this disease. If one were to listen to his sermons from the 40’s and early 50’s, they thundered with the threats of the second coming of Christ and the need to repent of sin and throwing one self on the mercies of God in Christ. By the 1970’s his preaching was already catering to what one hippy writer called “our existential plight”, where the emphasis was more on how Jesus can change your life and what he could do for you than the urgent call of the Gospel, eventually even stating that the hearing of the Gospel was no longer necessary for people who have lived in areas of the world where there was no Gospel light. Make no mistakes. Judgment begins in the house of God, and it began a long time ago. Renewal also begins in the house of God and discerning Christians ought to be crying out mightily to God for this.

  13. The Biblical reason for the explosion and ubiquity of gayness is that God is giving this nation over to a reprobate mind in a way we have not seen since the Puritans came upon our shores? We have all the signs that we are fast approaching our final judgment? We may continue as a nation but spiritually we will be a barren and dry land where there is no water? That is the water of life which flows from the hand of Jesus Christ! So we can trace our departure from a Christian consensus as far as we can, the reality is that we are where we are because the enemy (Satan) has come in like a flood and God has not seen fit to raise a powerful standard against him? Under the present circumstances God will demonstrate His power among those of us who genuinely belong to Him and have a testimony of those who love the Lord Jesus and His word who will never retreat no matter the cost! In our tribulation God will bring to pass His salvation plan and use His people bring salvation to lost sinners no matter how few we may be! The iniquity of the Amorites is almost full my Friends. God does have a limit and will cast the wicked into outer darkness by withholding the light of the gospel in a nation where it has burned so bright through out its history? God is love but God is also HOLINESS! The one who is believing on the Son has life everlasting; But the one who is not believing shall not see life but the WRATH of God is abiding on that one. John 3:36

  14. It does indeed go all the way back to the Garden of Eden, but in modern times it can be traced back to the 1800s, where people began to think they knew better than God.

    God never said that it is wrong to drink alcohol, for instance, but human reasoning gave us prohibition. God said He created the world in six days, but human reasoning says it took billions of years (millions of years in the 1800s… we’ve come a long way since then.)

    And, it goes back to the introduction of the Critical Text in 1881. We had a good, reliable, accurate bible, but “scholars” told us that they could reconstruct a more accurate bible using textural criticism. What they gave us was a bible containing all the errors that had built up over some 1800 years.

    The bibles based on this new text are ambiguous, to the point that we are no longer sure what the bible says. Thus human reasoning trumps the bible.

    This will not stop until God returns and brings His judgment with Him!

  15. Well, in this country there are a few understandings of marriage. For some it is religious. Others understand marriage as a civil, legal, non religious union. Both are based on love, but one has religious underpinnings and the other doesn’t. Perhaps it is time to have two types of marriage in this country. That way people can stop fighting over what goes on in their neighbors’ relationships.

    I understand that marriage is sacred to many religious people. I just wish that the non religious among us could be free to marry without harassment.

  16. Heard you on Bill Bennett’s radio program this morning. I particularly liked your plain spoken and point-on comments of linkage. On the show you explained that the “old” standards of virtue in America (God, others, things, self) have been replaced with the “gospel of self-fulfillment” as you put it in this blog. History shows the move away from this sort of priority of virtues does indeed go way back, and not just in America. Now, which direction will the pendulum swing, and where will society find it’s “new” virtues? Surely basing standards of social morality on what “feels good” explains the aimlessness of much of today’s culture.

  17. Why is your theology so sticky?

    Is it because you favor gay marriage?

    I am against the right for same-sex couples to marry.

    I want to marry my dog. Is that okay? Of course not. Neither is gay marriage.

    Please wipe up that sticky mess before it dries up like that. (How disgusting.)

    1. I didn’t say that I favor gay marriage any more than I said it was “okay.” Only that regrettable changes in our culture have made it practically inevitable. You may try reading a little more carefully in the future.

    2. Right…loving minority adult couples who want to legally marry and settle down is just like a person marrying their dog.

      Not to mention that’s what the segregationists were saying back when I was growing up, about legalizing interracial marriage in the Bible Belt…that it was like a man marrying his dog.

      You “conservatives” are just so…perhaps I shouldn’t complete that sentence.

      Oh wait…I’ll write “You ‘conservatives’ are just so conservative in recycling metaphors.”

  18. Sorry, not buying it. SSM was in no way anticipated. For millennia, even societies that tolerated sodomy, no one even thought about marriage. Ive known tons of gay people, many who have confided in me, and never had one say, “You know what I’d really like to do? Get married to someone”.

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