The Ideal of Marriage

This is a letter from Norman Vincent Peale’s Q&A column in Look Magazine from 1956:

Peale was an extremely influential figure in America’s post-war Christianity, so its probably not surprising that this column generated a lot of responses when it ran. Rebecca Davis, a historian of marriage in America, came across a collection of these responses. Davis produced a paper, “My Homosexuality Is Getting Worse Every Day,” an excerpt of which (pdf) is available along with reactions at the Religion and Culture Webforum.

It’s important to note that Peale was operating with the science available to him at the time. Homosexuality was considered a mental illness by most psychiatrists. As Davis points out, Peale was inclined to accept this view because it fit his positive thinking, therapeutic form of liberal Christian theology. It’s interesting that “anti-gay therapy” has now moved to the conservatives.

Another thing to note is Peale’s implicit understanding of heterosexual marriage as the ideal form of life, an idea echoed by the letters he received. Davis explains, “The cure that many of these men and women sought centered on the attainment of marriage and children, a desire that reflected the ethos of the post-war Baby Boom generation that glorified middle-class family life. [...] None of these writers recognized any possibility for family life within a homosexual framework. For all of them, family formation demanded heterosexuality.”

I’ve written before about how I hope that marriage equality will change society’s expectations of what marriage involves. Along the same lines, Margot Page had a NYT column about how gay marriage frees up the language around marriage, and our neighbor Leah Libresco echoes that sentiment:

When the pressure is off and we’re all less focused on the way the State shapes marriage, I think we’re going to have an easier time discussing how marriage shapes us. The growing diversity of models of marriage is going to force us to get specific about what kind of relationship we’re about to enter and begin it deliberately and joyfully.

Bob Cargill on the Holy Grail
Where the Fire Comes From
Being Agent Scully
You Can’t Keep a Bad Man Down
  • vasaroti

    I don’t think the notion of anti-gay therapy has ‘moved’ to the conservative Christians, the belief that it works or is desirable has always been there, and just been left behind by more progressive Christians and non-religious people. If there’s been any movement, it’s conservative Christians advocating anti-gay therapy instead of simply running gays out of town.

    • JohnMWhite

      I got the impression that was the point vorjack was making. Healing or fixing homosexuality used to be the liberal/compassionate thing to do. The hard liners didn’t even pretend to have sympathy. Now they have finally got the message that homophobia is not culturally ok, but they can’t bring themselves to abandon it completely, so they put a nice face on it and call it therapy.

      What I find interesting about the letter is how I have seen and heard similar sentiments regarding people with disabilities. The whole “how will I/they ever have a normal life and get married and have children?” concern seems to be one that applies to anything that’s a bit of a hurdle to being just like everybody else. Of course, that varies significantly on the kind of disability, but it’s still an area where there is generally a cultural stigma, not to mention people’s peculiar curiosity about the mechanics for those who may have mobility or sensation issues. Still, I like to think that Leah Libresco is correct and that gay marriage and other forms of family becoming more common will eventually normalise the fact that nobody is ‘normal’ and that coming to relationships from a different perspective is nothing to worry about.

      • Nox

        “Healing or fixing homosexuality used to be the liberal/compassionate thing to do. The hard liners didn’t even pretend to have sympathy.”

        That’s the f*cked up part. What Peale says here would have been considered a really progressive response in 1956. The slightly more progressive response, that there was simply nothing wrong with liking boys, probably wouldn’t have ever occurred to him.

        The positions which define one generation’s liberals can be the same positions which define the next generation’s conservatives. It isn’t strange for this to happen. It is the most natural way of things. The conservatives of any generation will be concerned with preserving the traditions based on the formerly new ideas of previous generations of liberals. The liberals of any generation will base their own rebellion on their own generation’s conservative positions.

        The basic essence of the liberal view is progress. The basic essence of the conservative view is preservation. While there are many positions associated with “liberal” and “conservative” that wouldn’t fit with this definition, these are the basic driving forces beneath these schools of thought.

        At its core, liberalism is about being dissatisfied with history. Liberals see our past largely as a set of lessons in what not to do. We see where we have been, and we think we can do better.

        Conservatives see perfection in our past. The way we used to do things is as good as we can do, and moving away from our foundations can only serve to make things worse.

        The conservative mindset will always be a part of humanity (in some ways that’s a good thing). Some portion of us will always prefer the world we grew up in to the world we see around us now. The positions occupied by that portion of humanity is what will change.

        The natural progression of events is for new ideas to appear or be embraced mostly on the liberal end of the spectrum. As ideas spread, and generations are born and die, ideas which were previously shocking, can become widely accepted (or if not accepted, at least something people are used to hearing).

        The traditions people are most attached to are not necessarily the oldest traditions. It is more the traditions they are personally accustomed to that conservatives seek to protect (the tradional ideal of marriage from most of human tradition is the purchase of an heir incubator, the traditional ideal of marriage upheld by our current generation of conservatives is Ward and June Cleaver).

        Think of Schopenhauer’s “all truth passes through three stages”. Then imagine something doesn’t have to be true for this process to apply.

        Every idea must go through being a new idea someone is proposing for the first time ever, before it can take its place as one of those things we’ve always believed. Now that liberals are able to say gayness isn’t a disorder, it makes sense that “curing” gayness should only be a concern for conservatives. For a forward thinking christian (and Peale was one) born in 1898, saying there’s nothing wrong with being gay might have been just a little further than his progressive sensibilities could carry him.

  • L.Long

    Looking at marriage, all I can say is that I’ve seen many different kinds and numbers in marriage and the only happy, lasting marriages are those that have have happy loving people in them who are allowed by their surrounding people to live happily in their relationship. If you surround a marriage type by dogmatic bigots the stress will build to the point where something will give out.
    I know a gay couple who have a very loving relationship and are happily ‘married’ in a relationship since. And the surrounding people either ignore them or are supportive of them, and they are doing VERY well as a couple. But as a family not so much as the dogmatic bigots will not allow them to adapt, so a family is not allowed.

  • picklefactory

    Leah Libresco is unequally yoked with a squad of insufferable Catholic bigots.

  • kessy_athena

    Peale was acting out of heartfelt compassion and doing his best to help people who were genuinely suffering the best way he knew how with the science of the time. How is that not admirable? How is that anything less then giving his best? You want to condemn him for not having a 2010′s attitude? You’re condemning him for living in the 1950′s. How many of the things we do today to try to help people are going to turn out to be wrong, or even harmful? Science marches on, and we’re always learning. “The slightly more progressive response, that there was simply nothing wrong with liking boys, probably wouldn’t have ever occurred to him.” No kidding – that hadn’t occurred to *anyone* in the 1950′s. Even today, psychiatry generally defines sexual orientation issues as being pathological only when they interfere with a person’s ability to have healthy relationships and live a happy life. In the 1950′s, homosexuality fit that bill, even if that was the fault of society.

  • picklefactory

    You want to condemn him for not having a 2010′s attitude?

    Did we read the same thing? Vorjack doesn’t come off as condemning him at all.

  • UrsaMinor

    The further I get from the 1950s, the better I like them.

    I think Peale must be given credit for being as compassionate and supportive as he could be, given the beliefs of the time period about homosexuality. There is only just so much pushing a progressive can do against the social boundaries recognized by his generation.

    Yet thanks to people like him, fifty-odd years later it’s a very different world. The generation that is currently coming of age generally doesn’t give a crap about anybody’s sexual orientation. I don’t think we could have gotten from Peale’s whitewashed, straitjacketed 1950s to where we are today without people who were willing to show a modicum of sympathy and express a desire to help alleviate suffering in the best way they knew how.

    Every bit of tolerance that is shown makes it a little easier for similarly-minded folks to speak up, and a little harder for the gay-bashers to justify their actions. And bit by bit, we’ve slowly gotten to the point where today I can be married* to another man and only the most rabid religious conservatives are speaking out publicly against it.

    *Not recognized by the Federal government. Not available in all states. Void where prohibited.

    • Custador

      “*Not recognized by the Federal government. Not available in all states. Void where prohibited.”


    • Bart Mitchell

      Now that we have homosexuality on the fast track to normalization, what’s the next great frontier for liberalism? As a committed carnivore, I think it will be meat. Just as technology and research has shown us that all humans are one species, and that homosexuality is a normal variant in not only our specie, but many others, I think the growing research into the minds of animals will show that they are gentle, loving and self aware creatures. I imagine that mammals will be first on the chopping block of humanities diet, followed by the birds.

      My great grandchildren make think I’m a savage, but I love my double bacon cheeseburger.

      • kessy_athena

        Humans are predators, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I do not see a moral problem with eating animals, I see the moral question as being how we treat those animals in life.

        Incidentally, you shouldn’t romanticize animals. Animals are people, with both the good and bad that implies. Animals can be loving and gentle, and they can also be obnoxious, selfish jerks, just like humans. Humanity is a subset of animals, and few of our failings are truly unique to our species.

        I think that the next social battle will be over racism towards hispanics and muslims. Although I think a more significant fight is developing over the outright bigotry toward the poor that certain parties are currently working hard to spread.

      • UrsaMinor

        I’m pretty sure that the world is not going to embrace vegetarianism en masse until compelled to by the twin forces of economics and ecology. First, meat production is highly dependent on cheap petroleum, which is coming to an end. Second, the sheer numbers of humans on the planet is growing to the point where we simply won’t be able to feed grain to the cows and then eat the cows, because we lose about 90% of the food calories that way.

        By the end of this century, a meat-centric diet may once again be the province of the very rich, as it has been for much of history.

      • Makoto

        You list three major topics – humans as one species, homosexuality, and potentially stopping people from eating meat. One of these things is not like the others…

        I’m liberal in many respects, and I like eating meat, too. I don’t think anyone is talking about making laws stopping us from enjoying eating meat, they seem to have bigger fish to fry (pun intended) in terms of actual laws they need to consider.

        • Bart Mitchell

          “You list three major topics – humans as one species, homosexuality, and potentially stopping people from eating meat. One of these things is not like the others…”

          Are you trying to suggest that people don’t have meat in them? The makers of soylent green might have something to say about that.

          Here’s the next comment:
          “Humans are predators, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I do not see a moral problem with eating animals, I see the moral question as being how we treat those animals in life.”

          Let’s try some rephrasing. “Humans are small group social primates, and there is nothing wrong with that. I see nothing wrong with humans that choose to remain in small groups, treating those outside the group with bigotry. The moral question is how we treat those we discriminate against.”

          The moral argument against eating meat has always confounded me. I wont eat a chimp or a dolphin, why? Because they show clear signs of intelligence. That means I need to draw an arbitrary line somewhere that says ‘Ya, your’e dumb enough to eat” Arbitrary lines bug me, but I realize they are necessary in the world we live in. The question is where you draw them, and what conclusions you came to to put the line there.

          • kessy_athena

            Biological dietary requirements are a bit different then social behaviors. Are you going to say that cats are inherently immoral creatures because they’re obligate carnivores? While it’s possible for humans to live on a strictly vegetarian diet, it’s not easy to do in a healthy way. Predation is as much a part of the natural system as reproduction is. Morality is about trying to avoid causing suffering, not about trying to rewrite billions of years of evolution to suit an abstract ideology.

      • The Other Weirdo

        To the devil with that. There’s room for all God’s creatures. Right next to the mashed potatoes.

        They’ll pry the last chunk of unchewed red meat from the mouth of my cholesterol-choked corpse.

        • UrsaMinor

          Room on your plate for all God’s creatures, eh? Please, please, please come and eat the woodchucks that have been plaguing my garden.

          • kessy_athena

            I’d suggest you get a good hunting dog, Ursa. Groundhogs may not understand, “Get out of my garden, you overgrown pudgy rat!” very well, but they understand something fury with teeth barreling at them full tilt quite well indeed.