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Wendell Berry is a distinguished man of letters. He is an acclaimed author of novels, short stories, and especially poems and essays. He is the recipient of the National Humanities Medal and in 2012 he was selected to deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture, which the National Endowment for the Humanities describes as "the highest honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual and public achievement in the humanities."
In addition, Berry is something of a cult figure, especially among conservatives who profess to admire his reverence for the land, his love for small farming and rural values, his opposition to environmental despoliation, and his criticism of contemporary American culture. Because he is such a revered figure among conservative intellectuals, Berry's recent endorsement of marriage equality came as a surprise and, indeed, something of a shock.
Remarks that Berry made last week at a Baptist pastors conference at Georgetown College in Georgetown, Kentucky, a small evangelical school with historic Baptist ties, which should not be confused with the Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., have created a great deal of stir in the religious and conservative blogosphere.
This was not the first time Berry had addressed the question of marriage equality--in July 2012, for example, he told conservative writer John J. Miller that he agreed with President Obama's evolution on gay marriage. But the Georgetown remarks got more attention because he elaborated a great deal on the reasons for his support of marriage equality, and he did so in a way that must have made his audience of Baptist pastors distinctly uncomfortable for he was unsparing in his denunciation of Christian bigotry.
As reported by Bob Allen of the Associated Baptist Press, Berry said that "the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government's approval or disapproval, and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples."
He said that "Christians of a certain disposition have found several ways to categorize homosexuals as different from themselves, who are in the category of heterosexual and therefore normal and therefore good."
He pointed out that "The Bible . . . has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality."
He questioned why Christians characterize homosexuality as a perversion, when the real perversions are quite other. "If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare--with its inevitable massacre of innocents--as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion."
"Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so," he said. "Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses--not all of them together--has made as much political/religious noise as homosexual marriage."
Berry also confronted the charge that homosexuality is "unnatural."
"If it can be argued that homosexual marriage is not reproductive and is therefore unnatural and should be forbidden on that account, must we not argue that childless marriages are unnatural and should be annulled?" he asked.
"One may find the sexual practices of homosexuals to be unattractive or displeasing and therefore unnatural, but anything that can be done in that line by homosexuals can be done and is done by heterosexuals," Berry continued.
"Do we need a legal remedy for this? Would conservative Christians like a small government bureau to inspect, approve and certify their sexual behavior? Would they like a colorful tattoo verifying government approval on the rumps of lawfully copulating parties? We have the technology, after all, to monitor everybody's sexual behavior, but so far as I can see so eager an interest in other people's private intimacy is either prurient or totalitarian or both."
"The oddest of the strategies to condemn and isolate homosexuals is to propose that homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals."
"If this is not industrial capitalist paranoia, it at least follows the pattern of industrial capitalist competitiveness. We must destroy the competition. If somebody else wants what you've got, from money to marriage, you must not hesitate to use the government--small of course--to keep them from getting it."
He said, "Heterosexual marriage does not need defending. It only needs to be practiced, which is pretty hard to do just now."
"If I were one of a homosexual couple--the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple--I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians," Berry said.
He added, "When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation--as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness--then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war."
"Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred," Berry said. "Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness--as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves."
"Perhaps the most dangerous temptation to Christianity is to get itself officialized in some version by a government, following pretty exactly the pattern the chief priest and his crowd at the trial of Jesus," Berry concluded. "For want of a Pilate of their own, some Christians would accept a Constantine or whomever might be the current incarnation of Caesar."
As conservative Christians are now busy on their blogs attacking and defaming Wendell Berry as an apostate, we must thank him for his compassionate defense of equal rights.
Although many of the arguments Berry presents are familiar ones to marriage equality activists, to have them articulated by a conservative Christian and placed in the context of his concern for agrarian values gives them a new resonance. Moreover, Berry's willingness to speak directly to some of the most vociferous opponents of equal rights and to call them out for their bigotry earns him great credit for speaking truth to power.
In the video below, Berry discusses his views on agribusiness and other issues with Curt Meine at the 2009 Wisconsin Book Festival.