Volume 42 - Issue 2

Wendell Berry’s “Risk”: In the Middle on Gay Marriage?

By Jacob Shatzer


Wendell Berry’s influence has grown in recent years as many people, Christians or not, have found his agrarian vision a compelling corrective to various modern problems. However, Berry publicly took what we might call a “middle road” on gay marriage. This position surprised (and disappointed) many evangelicals that do not agree. But how does Berry’s position on gay marriage stand up to Berry’s own criticism? Does he agree with himself?

In Wendell Berry’s most recent collection of essays, Our Only World, he “risks” arguing that there should be no law either for or against homosexual marriage.1 This “risk” explains his feeling of being “caught in the middle” (as the essay’s title puts it) of the current political atmosphere. In other words, Berry’s “risk” is alienating both conservatives—who often appreciate his writing but would disagree on marriage—and liberals—who would find his statements not stretching far enough. Berry seems quite comfortable taking this “risk,” since he does not identify closely with either group.

But what else is at risk here? Is Berry not only “caught in the middle” of the typical sides of the debates, but also “caught in the middle” of his own arguments—or, perhaps more bluntly, does he actually risk contradicting himself? How does this position on gay marriage line up with his own earlier essays related to marriage and sexuality?

In this article I explore Berry’s “risk” in connection with specific arguments from his previous essays on marriage, family, and sexuality in order to provide the overall context necessary for making sense of his current position. Is Berry’s “risk” consistent with his other positions? Is it not only consistent but a logically necessary step? Looking behind simple statements to the broader arguments that undergird and support them will help us understand what to make of Berry’s statement as well as Berry’s continued relevance to evangelical discussions of marriage.

1. Five Previous Arguments Related to Marriage and Sexuality

1.1. Argument 1: Industrial Economies Destroy Home Life

In a 1980 essay entitled “Family Work,” Berry bemoans the way that the industrial economy has destroyed the bonds of interest, loyalty, affection, and cooperation that bind families together. Public life preys on private life by forcibly drawing attention away from home.2 Berry draws on three examples: food, television, and education.

A family who grows their own food improves their quality of life by working together and producing better food than they can buy. The industrial economy, however, encourages that family to see work as something done outside of the home (often at great distances traversed by automobiles) and the home as a place of consumption.

This notion grows with Berry’s second example: television. According to Berry, the TV’s cord is a “vacuum line, pumping life and meaning out of the household,”3 suggesting that consumption is better than production, buying is better than making, and “going out” is better than staying home.

And third, industrial economies destroy home life through public education. Berry notes that such education’s quality is suspect. Yet, the real problem isn’t quality but the quantity of time public education keeps children away from their homes and parents. Days range from nine to eleven hours, depending on extracurricular activities. In opposition to these three causes, families must “try to make our homes centers of attention and interest.”4 Berry acknowledges that parents cannot completely control what influences their children—outside influences are inevitable—but they must not give in to making the home a center of entertainment and consumption rather than a place where the mind and body are nourished and developed. Good home life forms people in certain ways.

But what does this have to do with marriage? On a more obvious level, healthy marriages are the foundation of the “family work” that Berry advocates. It is clear in the essay that he envisions a mother and father working together to raise and guide their children in light of societal pressures. But beyond this implicit connection to marriage, we must pay attention to the way Berry builds his argument. He doesn’t assert that television is bad because of particularly offensive content, or that public education is troubling because of atheist teachers or drug-peddling classmates. In other words, the problems are not rooted in specific moral violations but in the way that the industrial economy frames and influences family life. It is this concern with the orienting power of the economy that marks Berry’s treatment of the family. Industrial economies destroy home life because they remake the home life to serve the logic of consumption.

1.2. Argument 2: Industrial Economies Revise Sexuality

Home life—and its connection to marriage—is not the only thing to fall prey to the shaping power of the industrial economy’s formation. In his 1990 essay “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” Berry responds to critics of his dependence on his wife’s editing and typing skills for his writing. This issue leads him to deal with notions of technological progress and gender roles. He argues that our sexual revolution is an “industrial phenomenon,” by which he means, “the body is used as an idea of pleasure or a pleasure machine with the aim of ‘freeing’ natural pleasure from natural consequence.”5 Diseases are bad, an affront to sexual freedom, and technological solutions solve the problem. While masquerading as liberating, this position is actually a hatred of the body and its life in the natural world.6

This argument bears on our present topic in a similar way to the first one: the industrial economy and its way of being in the world influence and alter the logic of other aspects of human flourishing. Our dependence upon technology and machines leads us to understand other aspects of life in similar ways, even when doing so misleads us.

Berry explains the way industrial economies revise sexuality in another way in “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground,” an essay from 1987. Treating the notion of individualism, he explains that bonds give individuals worth. On the other hand,

In our industrial society, in which people insist so fervently on their value and their freedom “as individuals,” individuals are seen more and more as ‘units’ by their governments, employers, and suppliers. They live, that is, under the rule of the interchangeability of parts: what one person can do, another person can do just as well or a newer person can do better.7

Now let us consider the notion of heterosexual marriage in light of this industrial obsession with the interchangeability of individuals. Governments, in particular, view people as isolated “units.” This view applies to gay marriage in two ways. First, why would the government care what two units decide to do together? And second, it is highly offensive to this notion that one unit and another unit might not be interchangeable. For instance, the fact that one cannot exchange the bride in a wedding ceremony with a male flies in the face of this notion of interchangeability, a notion that revises sexuality, and one that we owe to our industrialized economy and its formation of our imaginations as a society.

1.3. Argument 3: The Community Adjudicates These Matters, Not the Public Government

Who has the authority to define marriage? For Berry, there is a difference between community and public that illuminates this issue. The community has authority: “The common ground between men and women can only be defined by community authority.”8 This notion is related to what Berry calls “authorship”:

We are not the authors of ourselves. That we are not is a religious perception, but it is also a biological and a social one. Each of us has many authors, and each of us is engaged, for better or worse, in that same authorship. We could say that the human race is a great coauthorship in which we are collaborating with God and nature in the making of ourselves and one another.9

Membership in a community defines relationships in a deep and complex way, including the very nature of the marriage relationship.

A community is different than a public. First, “public” simply means “all the people, apart from any personal responsibility or belonging,” while a community has first to do with belonging: “a group of people who belong to one another and to their place.”10 Both are founded on respect; the community, on respect for the family and the public, on respect for the individual. Second, communities and publics require different sorts of law. The moral law has to do with community life. Its aim is integrity and the longevity of the community. The public law, on the other hand, aims at the integrity and longevity of the political body.11 Third, these differences lead to different sorts of freedom, two types that are at odds. “A community confers on its members the freedoms implicit in familiarity, mutual respect, mutual affection, and mutual help; it gives freedom its proper aims; and it prescribes or shows the responsibilities without which no one can be legitimately free, or free for very long.”12 A community must be free from outside pressure for this to work; any change must come from within, not without. The freedom of the individual on the other hand, is “a license to pursue any legal self-interest at large and at will in the domain of public liberties and opportunities.”13 Public laws serve individual freedom, while the moral law serves community freedom.

For Berry, this would mean that the legalization of gay marriage, for instance, as an issue of public law must serve the notion of individual freedom. However, moral law and particular communities must be free to move in their own directions as well. Individual Christians and individual churches should seek to be good members of their communities rather than crusading voices of the public. However, in a society where the autonomy and authority of communities have been framed as stifling and limiting, most people consider the constraints of the government the only constraints necessary, and thus Christians interested in guiding society find themselves concerned with the laws of the land more than the strengthening of particular communities. (Now, to be fair, I do not want to imply that this is anything more than a practical strategy by many Christian activists. I’m sure they would speak highly of strong communities and the moral law. However, since by and large these communities are powerless, most seek governmental influence as a larger priority.)

1.4. Argument 4: The Basic Sexual Unit Is More Than You Might Think

In “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground,” Berry states:

We need a broader concept yet, for a marriage involves more than just the bodies and minds of a man and a woman. It involves locality, human circumstance, and duration. There is a strong possibility that the basic human sexual unit is composed of a man and a woman (bodies and minds), plus their history together, plus their kin and descendants, plus their place in the world with its economy and history, plus their natural neighborhood, plus their human community with its memories, satisfactions, expectations, and hopes.14

Here Berry is attempting to broaden our thinking about sexuality and what a married couple is. Some of these aspects might be shared by a homosexual couple, but others cannot be so shared. Since in this particular essay Berry isn’t even considering gay marriage, we can only speculate on whether such a couple could count as this “basic sexual unit.” Just because this basic unit is more than the biological coupling of two sexually compatible bodies, can it be all of those other things without the male and female bodies?

1.5. Argument 5: Marriage Is a Limiting and Liberating Form

In a 1982 essay entitled “Poetry and Marriage; The Use of Old Forms,” Berry provides perhaps his most illuminating metaphor for marriage: poetry. Forms involve definitions, or limits. Marriage is “the mutual promise of a man and a woman to live together, to love and help each other, in mutual fidelity, until death.”15 Furthermore, “It is understood that these definitions cannot be altered to suit convenience or circumstance, any more than we can call a rabbit a squirrel because we preferred to see a squirrel.”16 Forms don’t only limit, however. They also liberate, providing an opening, a generosity, a possibility. As Berry puts it, “The forms acknowledge that good is possible; they hope for it, await it, and prepare its welcome—though they dare not require it. These two aspects are inseparable. To forsake the way is to forsake the possibility. To give up the form is to abandon hope.”17

But Berry has more to say about forms like marriage. Most important for our exploration are the notions of inconvenience and changeability. Forms can obstruct us, deflecting our intended course. But we must remember that “the mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”18 In other words, the very limitations posed by the form, marriage, open up new possibilities, opportunities for growth and change, that would not be present if the limitations were simply discarded. On the other hand, Berry argues that such forms are both artificial and arbitrary.19 However, “Arbitrary in the choosing, these forms, once chosen and kept, are not arbitrary, but become inseparable from our definition as human beings.”20 For Berry, the authority of the community founds and secures these forms: the individual “genius” cannot simply change them, but they can change over time based on the community authority. He specifically names personal freedom, personal fulfillment, and sexual fulfillment as problematic in seeking the change of forms.21 In fact, “Individual attempts to change cultural form—as to make a new kind of marriage or family or community—are nearly always shallow or foolish and are frequently totalitarian. The assumption that it can be otherwise comes from the faith in genius.”22 He goes on to say, “Individual genius, then, goes astray when it proposes to do the work of community.”23

Thus we see how marriage as a form both limits and liberates. It limits because it is a form; it has a definition. But it liberates because in these very limits we are shaped and grow. Even though the limit, for Berry, relies on the authority of the community, it does seem that the community authority stands up over time against “genius” modifications. (As a side note, the Supreme Court’s 2015 Obergefell decision doesn’t quite fit neatly into Berry’s categories here. SCOTUS doesn’t quite represent a “genius” or a “community.” But if we had to force it into one category, I think it is closer to the individual genius category than community.)

1.6. Summary of Earlier Arguments

These five arguments can be placed in two categories and linked together. The first two deal with the way the industrial-capitalist economy has damaged traditional families and communities. The last three focus on the fact that the government is not capable of upholding morality; asking it to do so is wrongheaded. These five arguments are linked because it is the destruction of the family and community that have led to the focus on the government to step in and do what those groups used to be responsible for doing. Thus, Berry’s treatment of marriage and sexuality has not focused so much on particular actions or legislation, but on the structures necessary to uphold and pass on a sexual ethic that contributes to human flourishing.

Now that we have explored these five arguments that Berry has used in the past relating to marriage and sexuality, we can turn to his most recent book of essays, Our Only World, and specifically the piece entitled “Caught in the Middle,” wherein Berry takes his “risk.”

2. The Logic of “Caught in the Middle”

Originally written in 2013, the essay “Caught in the Middle” refers to the present political atmosphere in America, which assumes that everyone must be on one of two sides, liberal or conservative. Berry notes that, depending on the issue, he often finds himself in disagreement with both of these sides. In a lengthy but central statement, Berry explains why, saying:

I am especially in disagreement with them when they invoke the power and authority of government to enforce the moral responsibilities of persons. The appeal to government is made, whether or not it is defensible, when families and communities fail to meet their prescribed moral responsibilities.… The middle ground is the ground once occupied by communities and families whose coherence and authority have now been destroyed, with the connivance of both sides, by the economic determinism of the corporate industrialists. The fault of both sides is that, after accepting and abetting the dissolution of the necessary structures of family and community as an acceptable “price of progress,” they turn to government to fill the vacancy, or they allow government to be sucked into the vacuum.24

We see the two main issues here that we noticed in his earlier arguments: the community is the proper level for moral responsibilities to be dealt with, and industrial economies have destroyed the community to such a degree that we’re asking the government or the public to do more than it should be asked to do. As Berry puts it, “I do not think a government should be asked or expected to do what a government cannot do. A government cannot effectively exercise familial authority, nor can it effectively enforce communal or personal standards of moral conduct.”25 Our so-called “sexual politics” produce conflicts that are not politically resolvable.

Berry turns to homosexual marriage as one of his examples of irresolvable sexual politics. He makes three points: first, the so-called “right to marriage” is a new idea, and one that there is no reason for. Second, the process of establishing a “right to marriage” seems to base itself on the idea that rights originate in government. Third, it doesn’t make sense for a government to establish a right just to withhold it from some people.26 Berry expands this third argument by explaining why “There is no good reason for the government to treat homosexuals as a special category of persons.”27 He spends much of the rest of the essay denouncing Christians’ attempts to categorize and exclude homosexuals. Rather than exclusion, Christians should focus on kindness, which connects to notions of community membership and love.

If we break this essay down, we see three dominant arguments. First, the government or public cannot adjudicate moral issues such as marriage. Second, the family and community are no longer strong enough to deal with such issues, because of the influence of industrial capitalism. Third, since there shouldn’t even be a right to marriage, it can’t be denied of certain categories of persons—and such categories probably aren’t worth focusing on anyway. With these arguments in mind, let’s return to what Berry has said in the past. First, the consistencies.

3. Consistencies in Berry’s Arguments

Most of Berry’s thoughts in “Caught in the Middle” flow as logically necessary from his earlier work on marriage and sexuality. His position in “Caught in the Middle” shouldn’t surprise us, in other words. If we recall the five arguments from earlier in his career, we see the same concerns. The family has been damaged because of industrial capitalism and its demands. Thus it is unable to pass along the values that it once did. While some may be tempted to ask the government to step in, as we saw earlier, Berry does not believe in the public’s ability to adjudicate moral matters that must be done in a community of belonging. He has been consistent on this perspective. In the past, conservatives have been happy when this position has served our purposes, but Berry is only being consistent in applying it to moral positions conservatives don’t agree with. For Berry, the issue is not the content of a public moral law, but the fact that “public moral law” is a confusion of categories, because it attempts to extend the moral nature of the community of belonging to the public.

In other words, Berry’s position in “Caught in the Middle”—at least the position that the government should not make gay marriage illegal—is not only consistent with his earlier work but is a logical necessity of his earlier work. Disagreeing with this position of Berry’s does not mean simply disagreeing on one issue; rather, it means disagreeing on a foundational point of Berry’s worldview, a point that carries a lot of structural weight in his critique of modern culture.

4. Contradictions in Berry’s Arguments

The latter part of “Caught in the Middle,” however, does not seem as consistent with Berry’s earlier work. In particular, Berry seems to misapply the notion of “category” when he builds his position on why Christians should stop singling out homosexuals to deny them marriage. He states: “A marriage, by contrast, is the making of marriage, by daily effort to live out the vows until death. The vows may be taken seriously or not, broken or not, but there is no way of withholding them from homosexuals. You cannot copyright the vows, which a homosexual couple is perfectly free to make. The government cannot forbid them to do so, nor can any church.”28 This statement contradicts Berry’s earlier work in at least two ways.

First, it contradicts what he earlier said in “Marriage and Poetry” about the form of marriage. As we learned from that piece, marriage is “the mutual promise of a man and a woman to live together, to love and help each other, in mutual fidelity, until death.”29 He admits that the form is limiting, but finds liberating power in that very limitation. Yet in “Caught in the Middle,” he seems to have given up entirely on the gender aspects of this earlier definition, gender aspects that impose a limitation. He gives no explanation for this change. And in fact, Berry’s diatribe against “categories” seems to misunderstand the way many conservatives seek to “limit” marriage. It isn’t that homosexuals are a special category of people who cannot marry. Homosexuals have the same right to marry as any human being does. However, marriage as a concept limits the partners. Homosexuals aren’t being put into a special category by those against gay marriage. In fact, it is proponents of gay marriage who are trying to create the special category. Berry’s position here is logically inconsistent and out of step with his own earlier statements.

Second, the statement that “the government cannot forbid them [from marrying], nor can any church” is inconsistent—or at least confusing—in relation to his earlier statements (even in the same essay) about the authority of the community. The first part—the government can’t forbid—makes sense and follows.30 The government can’t forbid because of its existence as a public, not a community of belonging. But the church? How does Berry define the church here? Isn’t the point of his family/community versus public/government split that Christians and the church shouldn’t try to make the government do what it shouldn’t do and should instead focus on being faithful witnesses in community? Thus isn’t the church, as a community of belonging itself and as a part of broader communities, the very place that can and indeed must make moral statements and forbid immoral actions? In “Caught in the Middle” Berry does not acknowledge or develop why he makes this exception to the community’s authority on such matters.

5. Conclusion

When we analyze Berry’s recent comments on gay marriage in light of his earlier work, we shouldn’t be surprised—for the most part. Berry has throughout his career emphasized the moral authority of the family and community. Asking the government to rule on moral matters is just asking it to fail—or, worse, inviting it to become totalitarian. However, Berry does seem to have shifted in his own views on whether gays can marry, especially considering he had earlier defined marriage quite clearly and also argued for the right of the community to regulate the form of marriage. Perhaps in future essays he will draw out this shift in more detail so that we can identify the root of the argument. In “Caught in the Middle” it is not very developed or explained in connection with his earlier, explicit statements about the male-female nature of the marriage form. Berry seems “caught in the middle” not only of conservatives and liberals, but between conflicting emphases in his own arguments.

In the end, however, Berry has one piece of wisdom that conservative evangelicals neglect, to our peril. So-called “sexual politics” in our culture cannot be dealt with apart from economic reality and the way economic systems shape our imaginations and our way of being in the world. We can see this in one of Berry’s positive statements about marriage: “Heterosexual marriage does not need defending. It only needs to be practiced, which is pretty hard to do just now. But the difficulty is mainly rooted in the values and priorities of our industrial-capitalist system, in which every one of us is complicit.”31 Even if we disagree with Berry’s inconsistencies on the issue of gay marriage, we do well to dig deeper on the ways that we are complicit in the logic by all-too-often championing the industrial-capitalist system without paying equal heed to its deformations and attendant problems. Perhaps he has some wise warnings for us, even from the “risky” middle.

[1] I originally drafted this article for a session on Wendell Berry at the 2015 Evangelical Theological Society annual meeting. Many thanks to Richard Bailey and Paul House for their outstanding leadership of Berry studies in ETS.

[2] Wendell Berry, “Family Work,” in The Gift of the Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2009), 156.

[3] Ibid., 158.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Wendell Berry, “Feminism, the Body, and the Machine,” in The Art of the Commonplace: Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2002), 75.

[6] Ibid., 76.

[7] Wendell Berry, “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground,” in Home Economics (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1987), 140.

[8] Ibid.,135.

[9] Ibid., 137.

[10] Wendell Berry, “Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community,” in Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Random House, 1993), 161.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 163.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Berry, “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground,” 139.

[15] Wendell Berry, “Poetry and Marriage,” in Standing by Words (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1983), 93.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid., 97.

[19] Ibid.,94.

[20] Ibid., 95.

[21] Ibid., 100–101.

[22] Ibid., 102.

[23] Ibid., 103.

[24] Wendell Berry, “Caught in the Middle,” in Our Only World: Ten Essays (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2015), 74.

[25] Ibid., 75.

[26] Ibid., 87–88.

[27] Ibid., 89.

[28] Ibid., 93.

[29] Berry, “Poetry and Marriage,” 93.

[30] Some scholars, however, have criticized Berry for failing to account for the fact that the government has a role to play. As Kimberly Smith puts it, “Nevertheless, some sort of authority must lie behind such basic and critical institutions [such as marriage]. Custom and tradition may serve this role to some extent but custom and tradition seldom work alone; laws give them crucial support. And, more importantly, a rationalized, democratic government has many advantages over custom and tradition—not the least of which is that, like the institution of marriage, it provides a means for citizens to consciously ratify their decision to live together” (Wendell Berry and the Agrarian Tradition: A Common Grace [Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003], 201).

[31] Berry, “Caught in the Middle,” 92.

Jacob Shatzer

Jacob Shatzer is assistant professor of theological studies and associate dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee, USA.

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