Wrong Way Riegels

Michael Metzger

The game was scoreless in the second quarter of the 1929 Rose Bowl when Georgia Tech’s John Thomason fumbled. California’s Roy Riegels recovered the ball and took off for the Tech goal line. But suddenly Riegels did something that forever earned him a place in football folklore. What happened next is the reason why the California Supreme Court ought to reverse its recent decision in giving homosexuals the right to marry.

After scooping up Thomason’s fumble, Riegels ran a few yards but then turned and reversed course. Suddenly, he was in the clear, but racing toward his own end zone. California’s star halfback Ben Lom chased Riegels, trying to turn him around and finally tackling him at Cal’s 1-yard line. The Cal coach, Nibs Price, ordered his shaken squad to punt on the next play, but Georgia Tech blocked the kick for a safety. Those 2 points proved decisive when Georgia Tech went on to an 8-7 victory.

From time immemorial, there have been rules governing the game of life. Philip Rieff said one set of rules called fate governed the “first culture” stretching from Athens to the enchanted mysticisms of aboriginal Australia. A second set of rules called faith governed the “second culture” that stretched from Judaism to Christianity to Islam.1 You can still find either culture today, but the important point is that both societies were dependent on a vertical relationship with the sacred – a set of rules. Eventually, the second culture began to win over the first culture, especially in its view of marriage.

In the second culture, marriage was a social convention under a sacred canopy: “A man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one. This is a great mystery, but it is an illustration of the way Christ and the church are one” (Ephesians 5:31-33). I can’t say it enough – marriage was a social institution governed by a sacred tradition. The new culture said God is holy, meaning “other” or fundamentally different. So marriage became male and female, two people who are similar yet fundamentally different. This “second culture” view of marriage overwhelmed the Greco-Roman “first culture” where bisexuality and homosexuality were common.2 Homosexual unions misrepresented this new sacred order. They were running in the wrong direction.

But now we’re shifting to a new “anti-culture that would never address sacred order” to determine social conventions, wrote Rieff.3 This even shifts the chief role of religion, which used to be to provide a sense of life’s overarching meaning. In the “third culture” it’s now an underwhelming “therapeutic” message “with nothing at stake beyond a maniputable sense of well-being.”4 If homosexual marriage feels right, so be it. Appeals to a vertical relationship with the sacred are laughed off as fictions. It’s unprecedented said Rieff. It reduces marriage to merely love, long-term relationships, or whatever you want. This is why the California Court’s decision is a reversal of the game’s rules.

Even a columnist who is a Christian says he’s now reversed course. Once opposed to homosexual marriage, E. J. Dionne now believes society has “a powerful interest in building respect for long-term relationships and that gay marriage underscores how important commitment is. Prohibiting members of one part of our population from making a public and legal commitment to each other does not strengthen marriage; it weakens it.”5 Not quite. Prohibiting homosexual marriage only weakens marriage if what I want trumps what God wills – a notion that makes mincemeat of the Lord’s Prayer. It’s no surprise then that the poet W. B. Yeats would pray that his daughter would pursue whatever she preferred – and call it heavenly.

I have walked and prayed for this young child…
Consider that, all heard driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will.6

When Roy Riegels was informed that he was running in the wrong direction, he didn’t retort, “Who are you to judge?” The fact is, Riegels later told reporters, “Somebody shoved me and I bounded right off into a tackler. In pivoting to get away from him, I completely lost my bearings.” From then on, he was Wrong Way Riegels. Philip Rieff said we’ve completely lost our bearings. “We believe we know something our predecessors did not: that we can live freely at last, enjoying all our senses – except the sense of the past.”7 That’s worth remembering this Memorial Day Monday.

This is why the California Supreme Court is a modern day Wrong Way Riegels. “If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-face and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man,” C. S. Lewis said.8 Perhaps we should pray for a Ben Lom to run down the court and reverse this decision before it crosses the goal line and we lose the entire game.

1 John Seel, “It’s the Culture, Stupid! Reflections on the Challenge of Cultural Influence.” This is taken from an address first given at the Boston L’Abri and subsequently republished in Think, a publication of the Work Research Foundation.
2 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco Edition, 1997), p. 117.
3 Philip Rieff, My Life Among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority. Kenneth S. Piver, General Editor, Volume I, Sacred Order/Social Order (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006), pp. 129-130.
4 Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith After Freud (Wilmington, DE: ISI Book, 2006), p. 10.
5 E. J. Dionne, “Two Road to Gay Marriage,” Washington Post, May 19, 2008, A17.
6 W. B. Yeats, “A Prayer for My Daughter”
7 Rieff, Triumph, p. 4.
8 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone Edition, 1980), p. 36.


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  1. Surely the difference between the first order and the second order is something addressed in the separation of church and state. If marriage applies to the second order, should anything be writ in the first order that acknowledges it?

    What I am suggesting is that Marriage is an issue of faith, not government, and I believe that the ACLU suggests something similar. Marriage being an issue of faith should not be addressed by government but by faith groups, and the only matter the government should address is civil union so that basic rights can be given to couples.

  2. Mike –
    I tend to agree with Maggie. Unfortunately, this train has left the station. The problem is that government has gotten involved in regulating a sacred institution. I think that the end game is for government to get out of marriage. Government ought to recognize and regulate civil unions. Faith communities ought to recognize and regulate marriages. This would lift marriage up. If someone (homosexual or heterosexual wants a civil union — fine. If however, they want a marriage, the bar is raised.

    I don’t disagree with you that California got it wrong — but there is no way they’ll turn and run the other direction. This ship has sailed.

  3. I agree with both Danny and Maggie.

    Our government doesn’t regulate baptism, communion, confirmation, baht mitzvah., etc., which are considered sacred (hence “sacrament”) by many religious institutions, and which have a very defined set of requirements.

    So why should our government regulate “marriage”?

    We, as Christians, should not expect our non-Christian neighboors to follow our own faith any more than our neighboors should expect us to follow theirs.

    Now, if we, as Christians, still have difficulty with “civil unions”, then we need to adderss this from a “secular” angle.

    Quoting scription to non-believers is not an effective way to create law.

  4. Mike,

    I was probably too busy to read the post this morning but I got hooked by the Georgia Tech reference. See, I work at Georgia Tech which is a place that is dominated by scientific naturalism. The question I have is, “what is the current place of natural law in the marriage law debate?”

    Atlanta, GA

  5. You can change the language and call it civil unions, but it’s the same thing. It’s an end around to justify something that is simply against the sacred tradition of marriage.

    This can’t possibly be what your parents, teachers, anyone of significant authority taught you was right. Most of what they learned and taught us as youngsters, including the laws we live by, was derived from the same book everyone seems to be now running from.

    You can put lipstick and a dress on that pig, but it is still a pig.

  6. Ken’s comments are noteworthy; however, the problem with lumping marriage into the same group as “baptism, communion, confirmation, bat[sic] mitzvah” is that not all faiths subscribe to these individual ‘sacraments’ (that’s what some call them – so I’ll use it here). But…

    Marriage is a universal institution that transcends religions, cultures, ethnicities – you name it. Every people group that has ever existed has (and OUGHT TO) held sacred the institution of marriage. Our Creator had a perfect design for establishing a construct by which the propagation of the human race could be conducted in a manner that is fitting for the part of creation that was made in His own image. For the record, every institutional definition of marriage (whether it was a religious or legal definition) prior to the 21st century has defined marriage as being between a MAN and a WOMAN. Please, could anyone show me an example of another culture in history (pre 21st century) where the definition of marriage ever included same-sex unions? I can assure you that since no one has ever figured out how two members of the same sex can procreate – this would have been a short-lived society if such ever existed.

    Discussions about ‘separation of church and state’ with respect to the UNIVERSAL institution of marriage are largely irrelevant as some ‘body’ has to oversee it if its definition is going to have any consequences outside of the relationship itself. As our society (and most others) afford certain privileges to married people (maybe because we are the major majority) – the government seems like the best fit… otherwise, we would as many definitions of marriage as there are denominations, states, interest groups and the value of marriage is cheapened.

    Should we expect the non-Christian world to get the definition of marriage right? ABSOLUTELY! They’ve been doing it for almost 6,000 years now (goes back almost to Adam and Eve, right?)…

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