IN FOREIGN-POLICY DEBATES, YOU CALL IT THE "blame America first" syndrome. When you're talking about homosexual marriage these days, you more and more bump into the same kind of argument.
On the foreign-policy front, it works this way. Someone exclaims how awful al-Qaeda is and how Osama bin Laden needs to be captured or even wiped off the face of the earth. But then someone else pipes up to remind us that America has its own serious problems and shortcomings-and who are we, after all, to be telling the rest of the world how to conduct their affairs?
Transferred to the homosexual marriage debate, the same general line of discussion appears. It goes like this: One concerned party expresses outrage over the very idea that two men would try to appropriate for themselves the rights, the privileges, the public benefits of traditional marriage. "The very idea is preposterous!" exclaims Party No. 1. "Well, wait just a minute," says Party No. 2. "You may have a point-but given how badly the rest of us have messed up traditional marriage, who are we to talk?"
At first, the caution seems wonderfully sensible-and maybe even biblical. We may have used this argument ourselves. For one thing, it sounds so modest and self-effacing. And it reminds us right away of Jesus' warning not to be too quick in pointing out someone else's problem when we might very well be dealing with a similar problem ourselves.
Indeed, the marriage mess is so bad that Lionel Tiger, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, says that if marriage were a product available for sale, it would have to be banned as "too flawed for public consumption." And cultural anthropologist Robert Myers from Alfred University in New York, writing in USA Today, says: "Instead of worrying about same-sex marriages between individuals who are promising each other life-long commitments, we should spend our energy and resources on other issues-such as reducing violence within marriages or reducing childhood poverty." Similar comments have flooded the media in recent weeks.
But in both cases, whether we're talking about foreign policy or marriage, let's be honest. What's going on here, very simply, is that someone doesn't like the way the discussion is going-and wants desperately to change the subject.
There is, to be sure, a time and a place for talking about America's failures and weaknesses. But that occasion is not when America is under direct attack by terrorists.
There is also a time and place to talk about the weaknesses and failures of traditional marriage. But that occasion is not when marriage itself is being assaulted by moral terrorists.
You can be pretty sure of this: In neither case are those folks who speak so humbly and self-effacingly really interested in improving and rebuilding the institutions they are criticizing. What they really want is to replace them with something altogether different.
The "blame America first" critics don't like the America of the past. They want to do away not just with our blemishes, but with all that constitutes our very soul. If they had their way, all our nation's great distinctives would be loaded into a giant blender and pureed into a flavorless transnational mush.
The "traditional marriage" critics are much the same. They don't really weep over broken homes and the children of divorce. Read the already-cited Myers piece from USA Today and see how this scholar not-at-all-subtly allows for polygamy as a not-so-bad practice. The current "ire" over same-sex marriage, he says, is "too bad, because it ignores both matrimonial variety within our own society and differing practices elsewhere. Our narrow view of marriage limits our appreciation of the strengths and potential of the institution, whatever its form."
"Whatever its form," Mr. Myers says, expansively. His door of tolerance is no longer just a bit ajar; it is flapping in the wind.
So is our nation's. So steeped in pluralism, so enamored of tolerance, we've lost track of any ability to say that something is just flat wrong. Our only recourse is to acknowledge that, yes, we too have a few imperfections in our own approach.
So let's acknowledge that in our zeal to identify the splinter in our opponent's eye, we sometimes ignore the 2 x 10 in our own. But Jesus taught that as a procedural caution-not as a prohibition on criticizing all forms of behavior. Some folks can't seem to affirm or critique anything at all before apologizing first for being so opinionated. I can't find a single record in any of the four Gospels where Jesus was ever so cautious.