At the website ThinkProgress, whose politics are exactly what you’d expect, Alyssa Rosenberg says the marriage of Beyoncé and Jay-Z makes “the case for marriage that conservatives can’t make”:
Rather than posing choices between these various elements of her life, or acting as if the math that leads up to having it all is impossibly complicated, Beyoncé is an argument that a great, mutually supportive marriage can be a context that makes all of these things easier to pull off.
And that’s what makes Jay-Z’s appearance on stage with Beyoncé at the Grammys so lovely. Mrs. Knowles-Carter doesn’t need her husband with her to dominate a performance space. But she chose their duet. And what we got was a performance that’s explicitly about what a good time they’re having together. Everyone else might get to look at her curves–a reminder that dressing up and showing off doesn’t have to end after marriage, either–but Jay-Z’s the one who gets to look a little goofy checking her out in wonderment that she’s his, the one who actually gets to touch. She gets to own the stage by herself, first, and Jay-Z shows up when the song requires his presence, at which point Bey cedes the stage to him before taking it back. There’s time for them both to shine. And at the end, Jay-Z throws his arm around his wife and squeezes her, and her head inclines towards his shoulder: there’s room for mutual pride and tenderness here, too.
This may not be the vision of marriage conservatives intended to try to promote. And it’s absolutely a more aspirational, exciting good than the idea that marriage will discipline wayward men or provide support for women who can’t manage economically on their own. But if conservatives want to sell Americans on marriage, maybe they have to talk more about the bliss half of wedded bliss, to think about the desire part of making marriage desirable. And maybe the entertainment industry that Douthat’s singled out as the enemy of marriage has something to add to the case for marital happiness. If marriage is a product that conservatives desperately want to sell, the smartest thing they could do right now is to hire Beyoncé and Jay-Z as a product spokescouple.
In his daily email (subscribe!) Jim Geraghty zeros in on “This may not be the vision of marriage conservatives intended to try to promote” and demands to know:
Why not? Is there some conservative argument against “mutual pride and tenderness”? Quotes like this make me wonder if the writer knows any conservatives, or at least any married conservatives.
But I’m afraid Rosenberg is more or less right, at least for the moment. The problem is this part:
Everyone else might get to look at her curves–a reminder that dressing up and showing off doesn’t have to end after marriage, either–but Jay-Z’s the one who gets to look a little goofy checking her out in wonderment that she’s his, the one who actually gets to touch.
That is the part “conservatives” cannot advocate, at least for the moment. This is because, historically, almost all forms of “conservatism” have included a broad commitment to civilized standards of sexual modesty. Many of them have risen even higher than “civilized” to something roughly approximating a Christian standard.
There are three things to note here. One is that Rosenberg’s progressive vision can accommodate all of the most basic structures of marriage. She refuses other restraints that are needed for humane sexuality, but at least she accepts the restraints that constitute marriage itself (that is, the formation of the household unit). There is great hope for a cultural outcome other than all-out war between advocates of marriage in its natural form and advocates of complete individual license. There is a lot of ground to build compromise upon.
The second thing is that, right now, the possibility of compromise is precluded because Rosenberg is convinced that the disagreements we really do have must necessarily drive us absolutely apart. She can’t see the common ground because for her, anyone who believes in the higher standard of behavior that “conservatives” and Christians have upheld (in their different ways) must be an enemy.
Third, the conservative Geraghty doesn’t see what about Rosenberg’s account would set her crosswise with “conservatives.” This may be a sign of a larger movement on the right away from civilized standards of sexuality on such matters as modesty and (you’ve already seen where this is going, no doubt) other issues like homosexuality. I don’t want to say it definitely is, but we should consider the possibility. As Christians increasingly flee political engagement and (concurrently) “conservatism” redefines its identity in a manner more conducive to political victory in the new cultural landscape, it may be that “conservatism” will stop placing a high priority on the broader scope of sexual mores. A pro forma gesture in the direction of these mores might survive such a change, but it wouldn’t matter.
There is no possibility that “conservatism” will cease to champion the family unit as essential to the future of our civilization, and there is much hope that an alliance with progressives can built that would re-establish the core structures of marriage and household as pillars of a shared culture. But this may come at the cost of the culture (left and right) permanently accepting the lowering of broader sexual mores.
Christians should help cultivate common ground on marriage, but they should also watch out that they don’t become captive to “conservatism,” which may not be able to embrace such a compromise without simultaneously moving in the wrong direction on broader sexual mores. I don’t know if it’s possible to simultaneously work to promote common ground on marriage and work to prevent “conservatives” from lowering their sexual standards. I hope it is. But either way, Christians need to be entrepreneurial about finding other avenues besides politics to infuse the highest kinds of sexual life into the culture.