In 1999, NASA was forced to destroy the Mars Climate Orbiter as the craft entered the Martian atmosphere. The mission unraveled because engineers were talking past one another. The same-sex marriage debate is suffering the same fate. The country is unraveling as we talk past one another. What’s the solution?
You might not remember the Mars Orbiter incident. NASA engineers do. A problem emerged as the craft began its orbit insertion into the Martian atmosphere at an altitude of about 57 km. It was supposed to commence insertion at 140–150 km. Atmospheric friction at an altitude of 57 km would disintegrate the craft. NASA engineers had only one choice: destroy the $125 million spacecraft.
The culprit – discovered later – was that engineers were using two different sets of programming language to measure the strength of thruster firing. At the Jet Propulsion Lab they used metric measurements (newtons), while at Lockheed Martin in Denver, engineers used English units (pounds). The mission unraveled because the engineers were working from two different reference points.
In his new book Coming Apart, Charles Murray says American culture is “unraveling.” America’s four founding virtues are faltering. “Two of them are virtues in themselves – industriousness and honesty – and two of them refer to institutions through which right behavior is nurtured – marriage and religion.”1 Murray assigns most of the blame for this unraveling to America’s elites – the “new upper class” – who “barely recognize their underlying American kinship” with the founding virtues. They have a different reference point. To see it, you have to first see the founders’ point of reference.
Murray, an agnostic, recites Catholic theologian Michael Novak’s distillation of the American experiment in self-government. Liberty is the object of the Republic. Liberty needs virtue. Virtue among people is impossible without religion.2 Murray then quotes Tocqueville: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it.” The founders’ point of reference was essentially the ancient Judeo-Christian religion. Religion (“to rebind”) had the power to bind people to an unchanging standard of virtue required for sustaining liberty.
The founders did not however establish America as a “Christian nation.” There was no “sacred” public square where the Christian faith received preferential treatment. Nor was there a “naked” public square, where people can hold to a faith, but only if it is relegated to the private realm. The founders knew this would marginalize religious belief. Rather, they found limited agreement in a third option – a “civil” public square in which citizens of all religious faiths, or none, engage one another in the continuing democratic discourse. Today, we’re losing our limited agreement. If you follow history, you’re familiar with how this happened.
In the late 1800s, Darwinism and Freudianism reframed American views on life, love, and liberty. In Darwinism, human life matures – evolves – from lower to higher life forms. In Freudianism, liberty is unbounded sexual freedom. These two paradigms became legal precedent in 1958 when the U. S. Supreme Court conjured that there are “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society.” This is why many elites sound mature when they describe their views on same-sex marriage as “evolving.” But this makes a mockery of religion, removing it as a binding force for sustaining virtue and liberty and relegating it to personal preference.
In this atmosphere, the American experiment is at risk of disintegration. For eons, there were no dissenting voices among Jews and Christians regarding marriage being defined as a heterosexual male-female union. Jewish writers, including Philo and Josephus, speak with one voice regarding homosexual practice as being “contrary to nature.” Dr. Robert Gagnon and his research team surveyed the Jewish cultural milleu in the period of time preceding Jesus and concluded “early Judaism was unanimous in its rejection of homosexual conduct. We are unaware of any dissenting voices.”3 This was the founders’ understanding of marriage, an institution that – along with religion – was necessary for industriousness and honesty. In binding marriage to a specific religious reference point, they weren’t being homophobic. The founders were acting as students of history.
In ancient Rome, as homosexuality increased, industriousness declined.4 This is one of several reasons why the stakes in the same-sex debate are higher than one’s sexual preferences. Since I started writing about human sexuality several weeks ago, many friends have asked what I believe about same-sex marriage. It doesn’t matter what I believe about same-sex marriage. History warns that if the institutions of religion and marriage devolve, industriousness and honesty collapse. However, noticing this subtle shift requires thinking institutionally rather than individual preferences – not a strong suit for most Americans, including Christians. The stakes in this debate are literally whether the American experiment in self-government will go forward. As Charles Murray points out, the behaviors of industriousness and honesty are already collapsing. Americans sense it. Only 10 percent of them trust America’s political leaders to tell the truth.
The lesson from the Mars Climate Orbiter catastrophe is that truth is unattainable when working from different reference points. If America’s cultural elites continue pimping religion to promote personal positions on sexuality, we’ll keep talking past one another. The culture will continue unraveling and the American experiment will continue on a course most likely leading to fiery destruction.
1 Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (New York: Crown Publishing Group, 2012), p. 130.
2 Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002), p. 34.
3 Robert Gagnon, The Bible And Homosexuality: Texts and Hermeneutics (Nashville: Abington, 2001), p. 160.
4 C.f. Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity.