A few weeks ago, I was participating in a marriage debate with Glenn Stanton, a Focus on the Family researcher whom I’ve debated many times in the last half-dozen years.
It’s not as if I hadn’t heard the “unnatural” claim before. Indeed, it has roots in otherwise respectable philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas, and finds expression today among notable conservative academics like Robert George of Princeton and John Finnis of Oxford and Notre Dame.
But I had never heard it from Glenn, and when it came in the wake of an audience member’s linking homosexuality to rape, I lost my cool.
During the ride back to the airport that day I expressed my anger and disappointment that Glenn would fail to challenge the audience member’s strange claim. It’s one thing to oppose marriage for gays and lesbians, I told him, and quite another to remain silent while someone claims that homosexuality is the “unnatural” result of sexual abuse.
Particularly in light of the recent string of gay teen suicides, such myths must be forcibly demolished.
A few weeks later we were speaking together in Missouri, and once again Glenn made the claim that homosexuality is “unnatural.” I asked him again to clarify, and he seemed unable to say more than that “marriage between men and women is a human universal”—something he says in every one of our debates—and that no society in history has accepted homosexuality without effort (a debatable point of dubious significance).
None of these claims were new to me. But the “unnaturalness” wording continued to rub me the wrong way.
I’m still trying to figure out why this bothers me so much. After all, I disagree with Glenn about a lot of important issues—our relationship is rooted in debate, after all. Much of what he believes I find harmful and wrong. Why would this particular claim stand out?
What’s more, the claim that homosexuality is unnatural strikes me as largely impotent. Homosexuality appears, not just across human cultures, but also in hundreds of other species. More to the point, many valuable things are “unnatural” in some sense: airplanes, eyeglasses, iPhones, and government, to take a random list. Unless “unnatural” can be backed up with some morally significant explication, it has no force.
Or at least, no MORAL force. Its force is emotive and rhetorical. And perhaps that’s what bothers me.
We call sexual activities “unnatural” when we want to evoke a certain horror—such as, for example, when we speak of necrophilia and bestiality, rather than, say, adultery. (I’m putting aside here natural law theorists, who hold that all immoral acts are unnatural—because such acts are against reason, which is central to human nature.) The term suggests not merely something bad, but something monstrous and disgusting.
Such rhetorical flourish makes sense if evoking disgust is one’s goal. But I don’t think that’s an acceptable goal in reasoned discussions of same-sex marriage. Hence my dismay.
In the years I’ve debated this issue, I’ve done my part to foster discussions that produce more light than heat. For example, I’ve argued (sometimes in the face of criticism) that the term “bigot” should be used sparingly, because it’s a conversation-stopper.
“Unnatural,” for me, is a similar conversation-stopper.
I don’t know whether Glenn intended to evoke disgust by his use of the term. But I now expect him to know better.