Einstein, Relativity, and California’s Marriage Referendum

I published this in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in May 2000, immediately after the Reform Movement announced its acceptance of “same-sex union” ceremonies.  It only took a few years until the Conservative movement followed suit.  In light of the voters’ rejection of gay-marriage rights across the country in last week’s elections, I think it’s worth another look.

It doesn’t require much imagination to envision a time, very soon, when Americans will look back and shake their heads at the archaic values of days not long past.  Sociology teachers will try, with little conviction and with little success, to convince high school students how their own parents could have grown up in an age when some individuals refused to accept every other individual’s right to define his own standards and choose his own lifestyle.


Fortunately, the teacher of the future will say with a smile, we have long since entered an enlightened era in which no one dares suggest that there may be a rational basis for such anachronisms as academic standards, heterosexual monogamy, the denial of civil rights to non-human mammals, and legislation prohibiting the distribution of pornography.


Today, while we still live in the present, we may expect attacks against these perceived aberrations primarily from groups on the social fringes.  But more and more, as the status quo comes increasingly under assault, stodgy notions such as marriage based on human biology are decried as undemocratic and oppressive.  And when the loudest voices crying out against these kinds of positions are precisely those that should be their fiercest supporters, the time may have come to start walking city sidewalks adorned with placards reading The End Is Near.


Neither does it require much imagination to figure how we got here.  Looking back on the sexual revolution of the sixties and seventies, it’s easy to understand the homosexual revolution of the nineties and today. Looking over the way politically correct sensitivities have led some high school and college students to worry that it might be “judgmental” for them to condemn Hitler’s Nazis, it’s easy to understand how opponents of legal status for homosexual cohabitation are being branded as homophobic, intolerant, and prejudicial.  And, looking back at the history of religion over the past 200 years, it’s easy to understand why the Central Conference of American (Reform) Rabbis has jumped at the chance to embrace and endorse homosexual “union,” a term they prefer over “gay marriage.”


With this latest attempt at bending doctrine to conform with social fashion, Reform rabbis have not only further distanced themselves from Judaism’s 3,300 year old traditions, but have abdicated the most important role to which any religion can lay claim:  the obligation to guide civilized people along the road of morals and values through the tempest of changing times and changing ways.


The bedfellows of religion are even stranger than those of politics.  And so adherents of traditional Judaism today find more in common with Vatican City than with many of their own brethren.  The Pope himself faces increasing pressure to democratize Catholicism, to allow his followers a voice in defining what they believe, to allow religion by referendum.  Yet he remains firm, weathering every storm. 


And rightly so.  For religion has no higher purpose than to warn us when we are about to abandon the path of virtue for the pernicious ways of the seductive world.  And it provides no greater comfort than its confirmation that we have taken hold of that part of ourselves which is most noble — but only when we have actually done so, not when we have rewritten the definitions of good and evil every step of the way.


Not every social indulgence has been for the better.  The unbridled orgies of the Roman empire eroded the bedrock of that society and hastened the fall of the most powerful civilization the West has ever known.  Today we face the same danger once again:  the misguided belief that all boundaries should be torn down and all mores should be discarded, that opposition to any personal freedom equals persecution and repression.  It may be only a matter of time until even the double yellow line down the middle of the highway becomes seen as another symbol of authoritarianism and discrimination.


No responsible person is calling for the criminalization of homosexual behavior or the denial of homosexuals’ civil rights.  But every social action has an inevitable cultural reaction and, as the stream of personal privilege has swollen to a cataract, empowerment and entitlement have become synonyms for selfishness.  We don’t care that redefining marriage further undermines the already shaky foundations of the nuclear family, the fading institution that once guaranteed most children the emotional and financial security of stable homes.  We don’t care that a child growing up without both a father and a mother suffers a psychological loss from which he or she may never fully recover.  In short, we don’t care about our children because we are too obsessed thinking about ourselves.


In the introduction to his contemporary history, Modern Times, historian Paul Johnson offers the stirring observation that Albert Einstein, when he published his theory of relativity, unwittingly let loose the floodgates of social relativism.  If the rules of the physical universe are variable, the reasoning goes, why not the rules of the moral and social universes as well?  But not all rules are fluid.  An apple that ripens on the branch will fall to the earth.  And a society that cuts itself off from absolute definitions of right and wrong will eventually fall off the edge of the world.

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