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Monday, October 31, 2011

Gilreath on "Patriarchal Religion, Sexuality, and Gender"

It is not quite apropos of my last post, but I thought it was worth linking to a recent paper, a symposium introduction, posted by Shannon Gilreath of Wake Forest, who has done a good deal of interesting work on gay rights and competing claims (which is not to say I necessarily agree with it).  The paper is titled Patriarchal Religion, Sexuality, and Gender: An Introductory Essay.  Its target is the "new natural law" theorists, particularly their writings on sexuality and gender.  It argues not only that their arguments are flawed, but part of "a larger political project," and that it is important to "locate them as a subsidiary of a wider, well-organized, extremely well-funded movement aimed at perpetuating Gays as a pariah caste and reversing hard-won and, generally, meager legal advances."  He draws inspiration for the essay, and the symposium, on the recent work of David A.J. Richards on these issues, which he says "root[s] out the ulterior motives of new natural law and exposing its gratuitous meanness in a systematic, rigorous way."

I am not especially fond of the new natural law; or, to put it differently, because I reject many of its foundational premises and believe them to be based on ipse dixits, I find just about everything built on those premises to be unhelpful.  But I am not all that impressed by Richards's work either, to put it mildly.  I reviewed Richards's most recent book on the subject here.  I suggested that his psychoanalytic approach was neither productive nor necessarily offered in good faith, and certainly not for purposes of persuading anyone who is not already convinced.  I concluded: "In the end, then, this book is not a call to resistance at all.  It’s a cri de coeur: an argument that everything disagreeable that has occurred since roughly Watergate could be cured with a good fifty-minute hour on the couch.  I’m not convinced.  Richards makes many valuable points about both religious and constitutional fundamentalism in this rich book.  Ultimately, however,Fundamentalism in Religion and Law is more an act of self-justification than an effort to understand the other, let alone to engage with him."  If this is the foundation of the symposium Gilreath introduces, I suspect many of my criticisms would apply to it as well.

Here's the connection to my last post.  

At the end of his introduction, Gilreath writes: 

I would be remiss were I to fail to acknowledge the lack of “balance” present here, in the sense that no new natural law theorists or religious traditionalists were invited to respond or to defend their positions. The composition of this Symposium, including what it excludes, was an intentional effort on my part as the Symposium’s organizer. Despite the remarkable and enviable ability of religionists to propagandize themselves as an embattled, endangered minority—no mean public relations feat, to be sure—the facts are not on their side. Religionists have a powerful lobby and a powerful bully pulpit. They are generally successful at propagating and, indeed, institutionalizing their views. In reply to the likely liberal criticism of a lack of “balance”—a criticism born of liberals having fetishized ecumenism for ecumenism’s sake—I would simply ask where you have seen the institutionalized religious interests engaged and refuted here making equal time for the theorists speaking from the pages of this Symposium. By presenting a critique of patriarchal religion and its artifices, unqualified by the liberal apologetics that passes for academic engagement of religion these days, this Symposium is not only a project of particular importance, but also of particular bravery. 

Now, I'm as much of a fan of critiques of liberalism as anyone, and I do some of that in The Agnostic Age, which, as Rick notes below, is the Pope's new favorite book.  And I don't think every symposium is required to be "balanced."  That said, the reasons for the refusal to include any opposing participants strike me as not being scholarly in the slightest, but purely political.  I take it Gilreath would not view that as an insult, and that's fine.  But for scholars, questions of lobbies and embattlement are beside the point; they are things to be examined, but not reasons to fail to engage opposing viewpoints or invite someone to a conference.  And whether "liberals" have "fetishized ecumenism" or not, genuine engagement with others is certainly a scholarly value, and one that Gilreath apparently does not share.  

I do think Gilreath's dismissive point about "the liberal apologetics that passes for academic engagement of religion these days" is an important one.  Most of us who write about law and religion, and most people who write about issues of sexuality and gender and the law, do make an effort to engage those we disagree with.  I think Gilreath goes too far if he thinks we're fooling ourselves, but in a sense his dismissal is a worthwhile reminder that for some involved in these debates--both champions of gay rights and champions of religious rights--their premises are so far apart that genuine dialogue may not be possible.  It is possible that we "moderates" are neglecting some important sectors of the debate, precisely by engaging with those who think engagement is possible, in much the same way that many liberal scholarly arguments can ignore or fail to engage with truly illiberal groups.  Perhaps we need to make a greater effort to read and engage with those on both sides who believe that engagement is impossible.

Still, my bottom line, as I said about Richards's book, is to find something deeply sad about all this.  And the capping line--"this Symposium is not only a project of particular importance, but also of particular bravery"--strikes me not only as needlessly self-congratulatory, but false too.  I would have the same view of a symposium populated only by new natural rights scholars, even if most of the academy thought they were crazy or bigoted.  (Which strikes me as probably being true.)  In neither case would anyone be burned at the stake; since such a collection of scholars on either side would mostly write for each other, they would probably not even suffer a lack of conference invitations.  Academics write about high issues but play for low stakes.  If one is looking for bravery, one must look elsewhere than an academic symposium published in a law review.  Let us not devalue the language of bravery.



Posted by Paul Horwitz on October 31, 2011 at 09:39 AM in Paul Horwitz | Permalink


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