At the Intersection of Faith and Culture

Connecticut just became the 17th state in the union to outlaw capital punishment.  It now joins the company of such illustrious former colonies as my own home state,New Jersey.

This is a tragic turn of affairs.

Call me quaint, but among those figures from the past that I would love to see resurrected, and with a vengeance, is that of the dreaded “Hangman.”  More so—significantly more so—than anyone else, it is he who had proven to be the most trusted and effective custodian of our liberties.

Lest I sound morbid, just consider that the Soldier is routinely thanked by his compatriots for “his service” to his country.  Yet unlike the Hangman, the Soldier slaughters, not criminals, but other men who are serving their countries.  These men may be as willing as is he to provide this service, or they may be conscripted.  In either case, though, they are not outlaws.  And although it is practically inescapable that with each war he prosecutes, the Soldier, however inadvertently, will wind up extinguishing the lives of non-combatants while causing incalculable amounts of structural damage, we still lavish praise upon him.

We erect statues in his honor, conduct reenactments of famous battles, and romanticize his exploits in cinema and television. 

And we do this all for the sake of thanking him for “keeping us safe” by “defending our liberty.” 

The Hangman, in contrast, targets for death only those who have been convicted of the most egregious of offenses.  The concept of “collateral damage” has no application in his enterprise, for his objective is not to wreak widespread havoc but to distribute the ultimate punishment to those who have been found deserving of it.  It is with the utmost care and precision that he conducts himself.

Still, he is despised while the Soldier is praised. 

This is ironic.

The Criminal or the Outlaw poses a far greater threat to our liberties than any posed by the Terrorist or the Enemy Combatant. The reason for this is not difficult to discern.

The liberty that we Americans have grown to enjoy is not some universal abstraction.  It is, rather, the product of law.  Laws specify the obligations or duties of each citizen to another.  For example, my right to freedom of association is really nothing more or less than the duty of every other citizen to refrain from preventing me from exercising this right.  It is also my duty to respect the right of my fellow citizens to do the same. 

The citizen is a composition of laws.  As laws are weakened, so is the citizen.  In the absence of laws, there is no citizen. 

From this premise, a few inferences can be drawn.

First, since there can be no law without a law giver, and since government is, if not necessarily a law giver, a law enactor, there is a symbiotic relationship between citizen and government.  There cannot be one without the other. 

Second, since there is an inseparable connection between government and citizen, it is to the person qua citizen, and not in terms of any other persona, that government speaks. 

So, the Florida prosecutor, Angela Corey, who charged George Zimmerman with second degree murder for the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, betrays an alarming ignorance of her office when she declares that she is seeking “justice for Trayvon.”  Whatever prejudices accompany the other roles in which life cast Corey, insofar as she is an agent of the government, she is expected to see only citizens, each of whom is indistinguishable from all of the others. 

Justice, as they say, is blind. The government exists, not to avenge this person or that, but to preserve the integrity of the law, for without the law, all citizens perish.

Finally, it is precisely because the very existence of each citizen hinges upon the law that all praise is due to the Hangman.  Every single one of the Criminal’s acts, however small or large, undermines the law.  Every criminal act is an attack against every single citizen.

This, of course, doesn’t mean that every act is worthy of death.  But inasmuch as the death penalty remains an option for the most heinous of transgressions, the citizen, by way of his government, sends the unmistakable message that he will preserve his existence at all costs.  And this, in turn, is but another way of saying that his respect for the law is such that he is willing to extirpate those of his fellow citizens who would destroy it—and, with it, the citizen himself.        

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 


One can only hope that all of this talk over the controversial issue of “the liberty” of homosexuals to “marry” will get us to thinking a little harder about marriage and liberty.

Marriage is a more vulnerable institution today than it has ever been in the past, it is true.  Yet I don’t think that this has much if anything to do with recent demands for “gay marriage.”  In fact, if the demand for radically reshaping marriage so as to accommodate homosexuals can legitimately be said to signal a deterioration of marriage, then it is but the latest such signal, the culmination, perhaps, of a complex of marriage-imperiling trends that Western societies have long permitted.

Divorce and non-marital sex of various forms, to say nothing of illegitimacy, are just some of the things that we have been allowing long before anyone heard of “gay marriage.” 

In an order of liberty like the United States of America was originally intended to be, perhaps it is impossible for us not to allow such conduct.  Yet there is all of the difference in the world between refusing to criminalize divorce and the rest, on the one hand, and, on the other, romanticizing these activities.   In fact, it is precisely for the sake of conserving our liberty that we must take care to conserve the cultural prerequisites—like marriage and family—undergirding it.

And what this means, at the very least, is that we must recognize conduct that threatens those prerequisites for the poisons that they are.

But far from sounding the alarm on these kinds of actions, we not only normalize them; we romanticize them (In some instances, like that of “the romance” genre, we literally romanticize them).  From the Hollywood celebrity to the person next door, Americans (and Westerners) from all walks of life have acquiesced in, when they haven’t actively encouraged, trends that have considerably weakened marriage.

Most of these trends are the legacy of “the sexual revolution.” Some of them, like the popular notions of “falling in love” and “living happily ever after,” and the idea that marriage is a “contract” (as opposed to, say, a sacred covenant) can be traced back much further.

Those on the political right are disposed to blame their opponents on the other side of the ideological aisle for marriage’s reversals of fortune.  Indeed, the leftist deserves no small share of blame.  After all, the so-called “sexual revolution” was devised almost single handedly by the leftist.  Yet, as has been said, it has been quite some time since even the temperamentally “conservative’ has acclimated himself to the mores advanced by the revolution. Furthermore, only by the lights of a short-sighted view can marriage be said to have been sailing smoothly until the late 1960’s.

Actually, it is not a stretch to think that a certain understanding of “classical liberalism” or “libertarianism” is guilty of facilitating the decline of marriage.  The cardinal libertarian principle is known as “the Harm (or No Harm) principle.”  For many a libertarian, this principle is sacrosanct. Back in the nineteenth century, the English philosopher John S. Mill articulated what has since become a famous statement of it.  In his essay, On Liberty, Mill wrote that “the sole end for which mankind are warranted individually or collectively in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number is self-protection [.]”  In other words, “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community against his will is to prevent harm to others” (emphases added). 

If a person is engaged in self-destructive conduct, and if he is an adult of sound mind, then he must be left unmolested, free to live in accordance with his own folly.

The lover of liberty can sympathize with the thrust of the Harm principle.  But once the general truth encapsulated by this principle is elevated into an abstract and absolute doctrine, it becomes self-defeating.  As Mill says, the Harm principle is “to govern absolutely the dealings of society with the individual in the way of compulsion or control, whether the means used be physical force in the form of legal penalties, or the moral coercion of public opinion” (emphasis added). 

Notice, while the inviolability of the individual requires legislators to refrain from enacting laws that undermine his self-chosen engagements, it requires as well as that his fellow citizens refrain from judging him harshly!  Nor is this an idiosyncrasy on Mill’s part: because the concept of “harm” is not self-explanatory, Mill is simply drawing out the reasoning of the Harm principle to its logical end.

To put it another way, once individuality—a historically and culturally-specific disposition—is exchanged in favor of the creed of individualism, the result is not more, but less freedom.  Once the individual is free from the moral constraints imposed upon him by way of the judgments of his fellows, the only thing left to control him is the government.  So, more “individualism” equals more government. 

And this is the problem with individualism (as opposed to individuality).  By focusing on the individual in abstraction from the complex of historical and cultural contingencies that make him the concrete being that he is, we license all manner of conduct.  Yet we don’t appreciate that much of this conduct is corrosive of just that delicate balance of institutions that gave rise to our individuality to begin with.

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 




The partisan weighing in on the issue of so-called “gay marriage” has one simple choice to make. On the one hand, he can choose to either join the consensus of the vast majority of people who have ever lived by choosing to preserve the exclusively heterosexual character of marriage.  On the other hand, he can choose to cast his vote in favor of the “enlightened” preferences of a minority of his contemporaries who seek to re-imagine marriage by transforming it into a bi-sexual institution.

Being a relatively low risk taker, my money is on the wisdom of the species.

Many of the most outspoken critics of “gay marriage” are certain that the decision to permit gays to “marry” promises to undermine marriage.  I do not share their certitude. 

So-called “gay marriage” may weaken institutional marriage—or it may not.  The point, though, is that precisely because we cannot know for sure how the adoption of such a revolutionary, historically unprecedented measure like “gay marriage” will impact this hallowed, socially indispensable institution—or any other aspect of our lives—prudence and humility counsel us to submit to the teachings of our ancestors on this score.  

Marriage, though of crucial import, is but one institution in a complex of institutions.  This much we know for sure: a change as radical in nature as that of “gay marriage” most certainly will have an impact, not just on marriage, but upon the web of institutions of which marriage is a component.  The very fabric of our culture will be altered—even if it is quite a while before we determine either the nature or even the existence of the alteration.

In the interests of fairness, however, it needs to be said that “gay marriage” does not appear as likely to deleteriously affect marriage and the family as other forms of conduct that we, as a society, have long since sanctioned.  Moreover, because of these other trends, it seems to me that the case against “gay marriage” is itself on extremely perilous ground.

In a “state of nature”—a pre-political or pre-social condition—there would be no marriage.  Marriage is a legal entity, a social institution.  As such, it exists for the sake, not of procuring satisfactions for those who marry, but, rather, civilizing the married and their offspring.

In the past, marriage has been viewed almost exclusively as the means by which the species can be propagated and educated.  As the early nineteenth century conservative theorist Louis de Bonald put the matter: “The production of man is the purpose of the relationship between the sexes; his conservation is the purpose of the relationship between the ages, which is to say that man and woman produce the child, and the father and mother conserve it.”  And there is no doubt that the production and nurturance of children remain critical reasons for society’s need to preserve and strengthen marriage.

But in the past, in advance of marriage, there was no way to determine whether prospective spouses were capable of producing children.  Today, obviously, there are.  Among such methods is the now commonplace practice of pre-marital sex.  Thus, not only have we long permitted non-marital sexual activity; for just as long, we have permitted marriage between couples who are either incapable of or unwilling to have children. 

My point here is not to criticize either of these practices.  Instead, I seek only to show that well before anyone ever dreamt up “gay marriage,” heterosexuals had done much to deprive the classical justification for marriage articulated by de Bonald of much of its force. 

Of course, the argument that marriage is a great civilizing institution remains sound.  

Marriage demands and encourages the cultivation of a host of virtues: honesty, fidelity, patience, forbearance, perseverance, temperance, humility, and, selflessness are some of the more salient human excellences that it promotes.  Ideally, marriage should endure through sickness and health, better and worse. 

And it should last until death.

But the ease with which we grant divorce and the frequency with which couples avail themselves of it has rendered this ideal of marriage that much more remote. For many, marriage has become but another relationship of convenience.

It becomes increasingly difficult to argue that “gay marriage” is impermissible while permitting pre-marital sex, illegitimate births, cohabitation, and no fault divorce. If “gay marriage” should be forbidden because it threatens to weaken marriage and the family, then pre-marital sex, illegitimacy, cohabitation, and divorce must be forbidden as well.  In fact, inasmuch as homosexuals claim to want to marry, the latter activities appear to pose a much clearer and more imminent threat to marriage. 

Conservatives in the past were well aware of this.  Take the eighteenth century German thinker Justus Moser, for instance. Moser authored a brief essay entitled, On the Diminished Disgrace of Whores and Their Children in Our Day.  In it, he writes that since “matrimony is always a highly important means to check vice and preserve virtue,” states must appropriate those measures that make this institution inviting while eschewing those that marginalize it. 

This being so, “It is impolitic to give the children of whores the same honor as the legitimately born, since by so doing one destroys one of the strongest incentives for marriage.”  Moser makes frequent references to “our ancestors, who were guided by experience rather than by theories [.]”  Past generations stigmatized illegitimate children, not because the children themselves did anything that warranted unequal treatment, but because they sought “to reserve all honor and all civic benefits for matrimony, in order to encourage it.”

It is not my intention here to argue for or against “gay marriage.”  Nor is it my intention to argue for or against the criminalization, or even stigmatization, of non-marital sex, divorce, illegitimacy, or anything else.

My objective is simpler than this: I want to bring to the reader’s attention the fact that the enemies of “gay marriage” must do better than they currently have if they want to sound convincing, for they have allowed the development of trends that weaken, not just traditional heterosexual marriage, but their own case for traditional, heterosexual marriage.     

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 


Joe Biden and Barack Obama have finally expressed what many of us, friend and foe alike, have long known is their real position on the contentious issue of “same sex marriage”: President and Vice President alike favor it. All that matters, Biden says, is that two people love one another.

Notice, from the perspective of the Bidens and Obamas of the world, the opponents of “gay marriage” are guilty of arbitrariness (and worse) insofar as they insist on defining marriage in heterosexual terms.  Yet Obama, Biden, and their ilk should attend to their own glass houses before they cast stones at the homes of others: if the criterion of heterosexuality vis-à-vis marriage is “arbitrary,” then how much more arbitrary are their criteria of monogamy and love. 

Although we are accustomed to thinking of marriage along the lines of both monogamy and love, there are numerous others who are not so inclined.  Historically, polygamy has been the rule around most of the globe.  Even today, a not insignificant percentage of the Earth’s population continues to opt for this ancient marital arrangement.  And love—love!—has been regarded by most human beings as a woefully inadequate basis upon which to root a lifelong commitment.

For that matter, the self-avowed champions of “same sex marriage” demand that marriage be limited to only those individuals who are not related.  Why?  Is not this an arbitrary requirement, especially when it is considered that, again, most societies have permitted marriage between blood relations?

But at no place, and at no time, has marriage been understood as anything but a heterosexual union.   Given that the champions of “gay marriage” wish to mark a radical departure from a universal and timeless practice by imposing upon marriage a homosexual character, the burden is upon them to convince the rest of us that this is something other than a fool’s errand. 

Contrary to what radicals would have us believe, the wish to preserve the heterosexual nature of marriage doesn’t need to be anchored to any religious sensibility.  An aversion to radical change, an aversion born out by painful familiarity with the innovator’s abysmal record, is enough to render anyone skeptical regarding the proposal to restructure marriage so as to accommodate homosexuals.

Let me be clear as to what I am and am not saying here.

First, “bigotry” is presumably immoral because “the bigot” makes arbitrary—i.e. “irrational”—judgments in contexts where sheer preferences have no place.  Since marriage has always and everywhere been treated as an inherently heterosexual union, those of us who want to continue regarding it as such are less “bigoted” than any partisan on this topic. That is to say, we aren’t “bigoted” at all—at least not in respect to this issue.

Hence, whatever else can be said about the charge of “homophobia” that the friends of “gay marriage” level against their rivals, we can safely say that it is most certainly not justified.

Secondly, that marriage has been defined heterosexually by all peoples in all places and at all times does not necessarily mean that “gay marriage” should be outlawed.  Rather, by alluding to the universality of the heterosexual requirement for marriage, we accomplish two ends.  In addition to showing that it is the proponents of “gay marriage,” not its opponents, who are arbitrary and capricious, we show as well that the conflict over marriage boils down to a conflict between the experience of the entire human race—“the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages,” as Burke said—and a minority of our contemporaries. 

Of course, that the apologists for “gay marriage” are overwhelmed in numbers by their opponents is not proof that they are mistaken.  Truth may very well be on their side.  But at the very least, appeal to the experience of the human species constitutes a prima facie case against “gay marriage.” 

To quote the mighty Burke once more, by looking at our present institutional arrangements as a legacy of the past, “an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity,” we strike upon the means by which “our constitution preserves an unity in so great a diversity of its parts” (emphasis original).   

The problem with proposed changes of the magnitude implied by “gay marriage” is that they threaten to come at the cost of squandering our “inheritance.”

Jack Kerwick, Ph.D. 






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