The Philosophy of Exclusion

By the end of his talk hosted by the Anscombe society last Friday, Alexander Pruss laid out a vision of sexual ethics and marital norms far more insidious than his unassuming tone suggests.

Baylor Professor Alexander Pruss is a sincere man and an articulate speaker. A Christian theologist and philosopher, he does not raise his voice or invoke fire and brimstone—those are the crude tools of a bygone age. He relies instead on banal assertions and charming anecdotes to work towards his larger argument. The pace of his speech is deliberate, his ethos, pathos and logos are all in the right places. And yet, by the end of his talk, hosted by the Anscombe society last Friday, Alexander Pruss laid out a vision of sexual ethics and marital norms far more insidious than his unassuming tone suggests.

Professor Alexander Pruss. Credits to Baylor University

Professor Alexander Pruss. Credits to Baylor University

It is no accident that Pruss must be measured in his presentation of those once universally-held social values on love, marriage and sex. In the last few decades, rapid progress in social attitudes has shifted the burden onto conservatives to defend their increasingly unpopular beliefs on topics like premarital sex, contraception and most prominently, same-sex marriage. Other popular Christian intellectuals like Princeton Professor Robert George have responded by shrouding their religious views in a secular cloak and attempting to justify their views on the grounds of philosophy and policy analysis. Pruss is more straightforward about the source of his views and more hesitant to prescribe policy solutions, but at the core, their arguments coincide. In fact, George described Pruss’s latest book as “quite simply the best work on Christian sexual ethics that I have seen.”

The crux of this conception of sexual ethics is that marriage is an institution designed to enshrine a particular form of love—erotic love—which can only be realized through the “one body union” formed during coitus, and which is unique in its potential to create offspring. During his talk, Pruss was careful to acknowledge other forms of love and intimacy, but contrasted them to the unique act of heterosexual intercourse and its implications for marriage: the most thorough union of bodies demands an equally thorough union of souls. According to this worldview, coitus is exceptional due to its potential to create children (regardless of whether the couple is actually fertile), and marriage is inextricably bound to this procreative act.

Having a narrow view of marriage is fine for conservative members of a religion; religions have the right to extreme and sometimes narrow views on a whole host of issues. The problem comes when intellectuals like George and others conflate this Christian conception of marriage with the civil institution that exists in modern society—and when they use corresponding religious arguments in the public sphere. It is true that until recently, marriage in the US coincided with the Christian model in being defined heteronormatively, but the parallels stop there. Marriage in the US is not tied to sex and reproduction in the same way as in Pruss’s world. There is undeniably a very strong correlation between the two, but sex legally occurs outside of marriage, and marriages have never had a legal burden to contain sex or produce children (if they did, we might have needed a Game of Thrones style bedding ceremony after the reception!). Thus, an acceptance of same-sex marriage does not imply the dangerous ontological restructuring of the institution that George (and presumably Pruss) would have us think. The only real threat presented by this exciting expansion of civil rights is to those who look to society for reaffirmation of their prejudicial beliefs.

And in the end, that is what it comes down to. It doesn’t really matter to me what personal beliefs Alexander Pruss or Robert George or the Anscombe society members hold—there will always be those who are stuck in the regressive perspectives of a bygone era. I don’t think that these views make you a hateful person, and I know that Pruss and George have empathy for gay men and women. What is dangerous, however, is giving an intellectual justification to the people who are hateful—and there are many. In the United States, we may be nearing a more enlightened state if current trends continue, but news from India, Nigeria and Russia suggests that progress isn’t necessary occurring worldwide. Lending an intellectual air and a distinguished name to such discriminatory movements can do real harm to the persecuted individuals in those countries—and that matters.

And aside from all policy implications, there are important questions within Christian theology evoked by this restrictive conception of marriage, some of which were touched on in the Question and Answer session following Pruss’s talk. Most immediately troubling is that tying romantic love and marriage to heterosexual intercourse—while at the same time presenting marriage as a fundamental Christian experience—inherently bars a substantial population of people from fulfilling this central aspect of the faith and thus from being good Christians. The question of why a just God would create people who are incapable of living a Christian life is seemingly problematic. When I posed it to Pruss after the lecture, he weighed it carefully before lumping the conundrum with the equally unsolved Christian problem of evil and promising to look into the both of them. I’m sure that gay and transgender Christians will join me in looking forward to his next book for clarification.


Daniel Teehan is a sophomore from Brooklyn, NY with academic interests ranging from Cognitive Science, Religion, and Philosophy, to Arabic, History, and Near Eastern Studies, to Comparative Literature, Creative Writing, and Journalism; he is extremely undeclared. In his free time, he enjoys writing about reading, reading about rights, watching fantasy TV, and fantasizing about social justice.

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