Wednesday, April 30, 2003
In London on business, so haven't had a chance to blog much. I've been thinking about the Santorum flap and trying to figure out how to avoid blogging about it. My reactions remain unsettled. I've found almost everyone's responses, both defenders and detractors, fairly unconvincing.
But the more I think about the whole affair, the more I am reminded of a bit from Mathew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy. Apparently, around the time that Arnold was writing, there was a Liberal initiative to repeal an English law that forbid the marriage by a man to his deceased wife's sister. Now, readers of the bible will recognize this law as being of biblical origin, and students of history will of course recognize that this law was the question around which Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England. On the other hand, it was not something that people in mid-19th century Britain cared a fig about. You would have found precious few defenders of the proposition that marrying one's dead wife's sister was somehow self-evidently immoral, and you would have found precious few defenders of the proposition that the Pentateuch should be adopted as the supreme law of England. And I suspect that, faced with an actual man and woman, she his deceased wife's sister, who were truly in love and wished to marry, most Englishmen of the time would have found the law's decisive prohibition of the match, well, cruel. Nonetheless, Arnold found something distasteful about the Liberal enthusiasm for abolishing this law, and repeatedly returns to it in Culture and Anarchy as a kind of paradigm case of what he disliked so about the Liberal termperament, what he referred to (ironically in this context), as its Hebraism.
One doesn't get the sense, reading the book, that Arnold had even thought about a defense of the justice of the law. Rather, he felt that the injustice of the law was slight, and this in itself made him suspicious of those who wished to abolish it - suspicious that their efforts were grounded in something other than a passion for justice. He suspected, rather, that they were passionate about a rule (in this case, a rule about what was and was not properly the state's business, with whom one married being out of bounds) and its universal and absolutely consistent application. And this kind of passion he distrusted, even feared.
It does seem to me that the desire to retain sodomy laws strikes most of us as about as loopy and irrational today as the prohibition on marrying one's dead wife's sister did then. And, indeed, they have common roots: the reason we have sodomy laws at all is that, after Henry VIII's revolution, various laws that had been part of the law of the Catholic Church were incorporated into the law of the state, the Catholic Church having ceased to be a semi-independent source of law in England following the Reformation. A reasoned defense of the laws, such as Senator Santorum tried to provide, descends very quickly into ugliness. But there's something missing from the argument for repeal as well, even if one can't quite put one's finger on it.