Beauty is the best persuasion

The public debate on marriage raises a serious question about how traditionalists can make an efficacious argument in a society that privileges emotion over reason, equality over liberty, and democracy over religion. Regrettably, many traditionalists believe that success is possible only if their arguments bracket morality and religion, which reveals just how much traditionalists have caved to the terms of engagement set by political philosopher John Rawls, who insisted on public reason. (“Citizens engaged in certain political activities have a duty of civility to be able to justify their decisions on fundamental political issues by reference only to public values and public standards.”) And let us not be deceived: the goal of public reason is the privatization of religion.

Watch what happens when a traditionalist like Ryan Anderson, an author of What Is Marriage?, follows the standard of public reason in his debate with Piers Morgan and Suze Orman. He fails to persuade, not because the natural law arguments are weak but because the ears of his opponents are deaf to the reasonableness of his arguments, hearing only prejudice and partisanship. (Also, see Anderson’s appearances on CNN and MSNBC.)

The situation does not improve, however, when religious and moral arguments are invoked. Watch what happens when a traditionalist like Douglas Wilson does not follow the standard of public reason in his debate with gay activist and writer Andrew Sullivan. He fails to persuade, not because the religious and moral arguments are weak but because the ears of his opponents are deaf to the wisdom of his arguments, hearing only bigotry and sectarianism.

Unfortunately, it seems, neither natural law arguments nor religious arguments will gain a fair hearing in our society. What, then, shall we do? Reformed theologian Peter Leithart’s answer resonates with me. In his First Things blog post “Gay Marriage and Christian Imagination,” he concludes:

Perhaps Christians are called to do no more than speak the truth without worrying about persuasiveness. Perhaps we have entered a phase in which God has closed ears, so that whatever we say sounds like so much gibberish. We can depend on the Spirit to give ears as He pleases. Whatever the political needs of the moment, the longer-term response to gay marriage requires a renaissance of Christian imagination. Because the only arguments we have are theological ones, and only people whose imaginations are formed by Scripture will find them cogent.

Leithart further develops his view in another First Things article, “The World Can’t Hear Us On Marriage.”

By all means, defend marriage, invoke the weight of tradition, make all the arguments you can invent with all the passion, compassion, and cunning you can muster. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking any of this readily touches the experience or intellectual habits of a majority . . . . The truth will out, of that I have no doubt. People do, mysteriously, get persuaded. Cultural revolutions happen. No one can defy creation forever. Beauty is the best persuasion, so Christians should above all aspire to form marriages and families that are living parables of the gospel. The Spirit wins. Between the present and that victory of the Spirit, we are in for what may be an extended period of dullness, when truth about sexuality and marriage will fall on deaf ears until the obvious is relearned. It’s not a hopeless place to be, or even a bad place. It puts us in the good company of Isaiah and Jeremiah, of Jesus and Paul.

Going further

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