In the most perceptive part of his essay, Bottum argues that we lost the intellectual debate about same-sex marriage long ago, when we accepted routine contraception and divorce without a struggle. On that point he is absolutely right. We are losing the public debate on same-sex marriage today because we long ago lost—or rather forfeited—the debate on the very meaning of marriage. But to think that we can cede even more ground, and expect to gain firmer footing somewhere to the rear of our current position, is folly.
Even if Catholics could find a stronger defensive position, what would we use it for? To launch our own offensive? On what issue? What other public battle should we be fighting? From the Catholic perspective, there is no public-policy issue—none—more important than the defense of marriage. Bottum toys with the notion that after conceding on same-sex marriage we might regroup to oppose abortion. Really? In theory homosexuals should have no stake in the abortion issue, but in practice they have made common cause with feminists. (“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”) We will not break up that alliance. More to the point, since the family is the fundamental cell of society, any attack on the family—whether it is abortion or homosexuality—is the equivalent of a cellular disease: potentially fatal. A society that his given its stamp of approval to homosexual alliances is not a society that will protect innocent children, born or unborn.
I don’t agree with any of this, really, but I want to call particular attention to one problem here: the inability to think historically. Lawler thinks that being the “church militant” means always being the “church on the offensive.” If we’re not fighting — an important word to him — on one front we have to be fighting on others.
But I’d like to suggest the possibility that Christianity in America, at least in its public face, its witness in the public square, has fallen into sufficient theological and moral disarray that it may need to step back from its public role for a while to regroup — by which I mean to train up a few generations of faithful Christians who are less vulnerable that the current generations are to conflating Christianity with various versions of the American Dream.
When Douglas MacArthur was driven out of the Philippines he vowed to return, but not the next day. His forces had to recuperate and receive reinforcements, and he himself had to plan. Such things take time, and the church should be thinking on a far greater time-scale than a general does.
Maybe we Christians need to be worrying less about what “battles” we can win today and more about how we can build ecclesial communities that will be thriving and bearing strong witness a hundred years from now, in whatever political environment comes. Thinking in that longer term won’t make us passive, but rather make us active in a more patient, less frantic way; will help us suppress our inclination to believe that every cultural movement or legal decision that goes against us means that the sky is falling.