The so-called "Christian right" is awake and energized. It's going to town on behalf of the same Republicans who, just weeks ago, thanks partly to the capers of Mark Foley, drew looks of dismay.
The reason? That New Jersey Supreme Court mandate that the state legislature give gay and lesbian couples rights equivalent to those of traditional heterosexual couples.
Around the country, Christian conservatives recently apathetic to the electoral fate of Mr. Foley's former GOP colleagues sat bolt upright in bed. A Pentecostal bishop told the Wall Street Journal: "This is probably the best possible thing that could have happened to the moral values movement two weeks before the election." Brrrrrinng! A chilling wake-up call. The old moral order was in trouble again.
A word about that moral order and where the marriage question fits in would not come amiss, it strikes me.
Critics of the "Christian right," speaking more ferociously than ever these days, tend to regard sex as one of those matters people can work out for themselves. The notion of heterosexual marriage as an institution worthy of protection and nurture is not vastly popular on the political left, where "Christian rightists" are seen as so many blue-nosed busybodies, fearful (as H. L. Mencken wryly said) that somebody somewhere may be enjoying himself. What's good enough for heterosexuals is good enough for gays and lesbians, right?
Many things are, yes. Marriage isn't one of those things, as the great majority of Americans seem to know in their bones. Otherwise, they wouldn't keep enacting gay marriage bans at the polls. A table isn't a chair; an oboe isn't a ham sandwich. Neither, for matrimonial purposes, can a gay relationship be likened to a straight one. Gay rights ideology can't trump for an instant the social (not to mention the religious) purpose of marriage, which institution the philosopher Roger Scruton has characterized as "the means whereby the work of one generation is dedicated to the well-being of the next."
"Marriage," Scruton says ("The Meaning of Marriage," Spence Publishing Co., 2006), "does not merely protect and nurture children; it is a shield against sexual jealousy and a unique form of social and economic cooperation, with a mutually supportive division of roles. … Society has a profound interest in marriage, and change to that institution may alter not merely relations among the living, but also the expectations of those unborn and the legacy of those who predecease them."
Which grand concatenation of purposes the New Jersey Supreme Court reduces to a matter of observations concerning a species of legal rights never claimed prior to our own crazy time. And you think that's no reason for "Christian rightists" to generate votes for candidates who display glimmers of understanding as to what goes on?
A word about the marriage question suggests the need for one about the "Christian right." A body can get tired of the yelps that journalists and politicians emit when everyday Americans attest to and affirm the moral traditions of their culture.
In fact, the "Christian right" never asked for the fight it commenced a quarter of a century ago against attempts by judges to ram down society's open throat the judges' own notions about abortion, school prayer, creche scenes and such like. It was the judges who started this brawl. How come those who merely fight back, exercising their First Amendment rights, get accused of seeking darkly to turn culturally diverse America into a Puritan theocracy? Far the greater danger is the burgeoning of that which the Greeks called krytocracy -- government by judges -- and which conservative activists, secular and religious alike, name as a disease potentially fatal to our culture.
New Jersey may address its current perplexity by allowing civil unions, rather than by mandating gay marriage. We'll see. What many of us have seen thus far is morose enough: judges sitting in judgment on the norms and convictions of those wiser and more ancient than themselves. We haven't yet read the last chapter in this woeful saga.