Obergefell and the New Gnosticism

The Sexual Revolution was supposed to be about freedom. Now it’s about coercion and seeks to free our sexual choices from other people's disapproval.

Again, none of these effects came by force of law from Obergefell. But they are all of a piece with the New Gnosticism and its inherent coerciveness. We’ll see more of its effects in the near future. We’ll see more parties enlisting courts in the unfolding coercion, by deploying the perfectly tailored concept of dignitary harm: the pain of being told by others that your choices are immoral. Legal academics have argued that this sort of harm strikes at the heart of the common good, and that judges should count it against the moral and religious liberty claims of those seeking to avoid complicity with others’ sins.


For decades, the Sexual Revolution was supposed to be about freedom. Today, it is about coercion. Once, it sought to free our sexual choices from restrictive laws and unwanted consequences. Now, it seeks to free our sexual choices from other people’s disapproval.

That’s a sharp turn—but it was inevitable. The ideals of the Sexual Revolution call for it: That is one lesson of the year that has passed since the Supreme Court imposed same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. Most of Obergefell’s lay supporters were simply moved by concern for our LGBT neighbors—a worthy and urgent concern that the Church must be the first to heed, as Wesley Hill has beautifully reminded us. But the Court’s ruling itself depended on a broader sexual progressivism; and its cultural fallout has made clearer that sexual progressivism is illiberal. Absorb its vision of the human person wholesale, and you will soon conclude that social justice requires getting others to subscribe to that vision.

In short, the ideas that Obergefell imposed on our government could hardly stop there; as with an evangelical creed, the legal system could not embrace them without feeling bound to spread them. Obergefell is thus best seen as a religious bull from our national Magisterium, the Supreme Court, by the pen of its high priest, Justice Kennedy. With all the solemnity of a Chalcedon or Trent, it formalized new doctrines for our nation’s civil religion—Gnostic ideas about the human person. Ideas that, by their very nature, create an obligation to recruit new adherents. (And ideas that—unlike true religion—could serve their purpose whether or not they were accepted freely.)

Obergefell has thus inspired fidelity and stigmatized heresy, on pain of the (civic) mortal sins of bigotry and injustice. One year later, we can take the measure of its consequences—and prepare for future ones—only if we spell out the ideas it embraced, and why they demand to be enforced.

To hold that same-sex marriage is part of the fundamental right to marry, or necessary for giving LGBT people the equal protection of the laws, the Court implicitly made a number of other assumptions: that one-flesh union has no distinct value in itself, only the feelings fostered by any kind of consensual sex; that there is nothing special about knowing the love of the two people whose union gave you life, whose bodies gave you yours, so long as you have two sources of care and support; that what children need is parenting in some disembodied sense, and not mothering and fathering. It effectively had to treat contrary views as irrational.

That conclusion suggests that the body doesn’t matter. When it comes to what fulfills us, we are not personal animals—mammalian thinkers, to put it starkly—who come in two basic forms that complete each other. We are subjects of desire and consent, who use bodily equipment for spiritual and emotional expression. Fittingly, then, has this new doctrine been called a New Gnosticism.

Beyond marriage, this doctrine entails that sex doesn’t matter, or that it matters only as an inner reality. Since I am not my body, I might have been born in the wrong one. Because the real me is internal, my sexual identity is just what I sense it to be. The same goes for other valuable aspects of my identity. My essence is what I say and feel that it is.

The doctrine is also individualistic. On the old view, you could know important things about me unmediated, by knowing something about my body or our shared nature. And our interdependence as persons was as inescapable as our physical incompleteness and need: as male and female, infants and infirm.

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