Can’t make this stuff up

McCaskill quotes “faith, hope, and love” in support of gay marriage. Good news. Bad faith. Bad Greek.

Claire McCaskill endorses gay marriage. That’s an important sign. McCaskill knows Missouri, and if this is a winning position in Missouri it’s “game over.”

The partisan Democrat in me hopes the Supremes figure out a way to duck, and force the battle to be fought out, state-by-state, in referenda that will split the Republican coalition and alienate even right-leaning independents. If we were looking for a way to generate Presidential-level turnout in an off year, a bunch of referenda on gay marriage would be a good start. (However, that partisan Democrat isn’t all of me; on balance, I hope they do the right thing.)

But what you can’t make up is that McCaskill quotes First Corinthians 13:13 (“And now abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love”) to justify her position. Yes, I know that the same passage gets used in lots of wedding ceremonies, ever since the Bible translators started translating ἀγάπη agape as “love” rather than the KJV “charity.” But that doesn’t make it any less silly.

I don’t say “love” is a bad translation; there isn’t a short English word that means what agape means, which as I understand it is a generalized goodwill. “Lovingkindness” seems more or less right, but as poetry it just doesn’t fit with “faith” and “hope.” But what it doesn’t mean is romantic love; the closest thing to that concept in Greek would be ἔρως “eros” (= desire).

If Saul of Tarsus was still thinking in Hebrew even as he was writing in Greek, perhaps the word he had in mind was “ahavah,” אהבה , which has the same ambiguity as “love” in English, being used both of religious devotion (“and you will love HaShem your god with all your heart) and of sexual desire (“Isaac loved Rebecca”). But since the word he actually wrote has no sexual connotation – and since Saul/Paul wasn’t actually much in favor of marriage, regardless of the gender identities of those being married – the quotation is far from apposite, both here and in the wedding ceremony.

Of course what’s really silly is the pretense that the Senior Senator from Missouri has been reading the Bible rather than the polls. St. Paul, after all, was just as strong on the virtue of “love” ten years ago. Yes, it makes sense to try to soften the blow for the churchgoers who will be dismayed by McCaskill’s new stance by acknowledging the authority of the Christian tradition. But the combination of bad Greek and bad faith is just a little bit hard to swallow.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

16 thoughts on “Can’t make this stuff up”

  1. I’m not a Greek or Hebrew scholar, but there’s just no good way of describing what we now know of as modern romantic love using the words used in the Hebrew or Greek Scriptures – the concept just doesn’t exist, except possibly in a few idealized stories. Odysseus and Penelope and Ruth and Boaz come to mind, but the idealized romantic love between these couples emerged out of marriage for more practical or cultural reasons.

    I’d suggest that our modern “love” in marriage should be a combination of the three Greek words, “philios” for the kind of friendship that sustains a couple throughout the normal times of their lives, “eros” for the sexuality shown and implicit in the relationship and “agape” for the kind of supporting, self-sacrificing support given by one spouse to the other when trouble hits. Personally, I married my best friend, and that has been a great gift. A year ago, I relied on that agape as she saw me through a bout of bladder cancer, even as that disease substantially ended any expression of eros love. The form of the love can change over time, but in a sound relationship, some form of that love will remain. So Paul was right to say that love remains eternal. He just couldn’t list all three in the poetic language he used.

  2. McCaskill is a Democrat in a state full of Baptists, so she knows who she needs to pander to. Citing Paul to Baptists in support of gay marriage seems more than a little clumsy. Republican Baptists will, of course, counter with Romans I and cite McCaskill’s heresy as another reason not to vote for her, which they generally wouldn’t do anyway. I wouldn’t call it a winning position in Missouri, though — McCaskill only re-won her seat because Akin was even clumsier with his rhetoric about something a bit more universally despised than homosexuality.

  3. Remember, there are two cases here. The Supremes don’t have to duck to give Mark his partisan dream. They merely have to decide Windsor on federalism grounds, which only means that any state’s marriage will be respected by the Feds. (Kennedy is very likely to go for this; I would’t rule Roberts out, either.) Then they have to duck or rule against Hollingsworth to set up Mark’s scenario. Ducking Holllingsworth is actually pretty easy–lack of standing would do. (Conservatives love to find a lack of standing.) The District Court decision was pretty carefully written to apply to California’s peculiar referendum alone: another way to duck it. It’s also possible to rule against Hollingsworth: in effect denying the existence of a new protected group. But this would have the disadvantage for the political right of keeping the minimal rationality test pretty minimal, which might hurt their deregulatory efforts.

    Kennedy is torn between federalism and a wingnutty libertarianism, which go the same way in Windsor, but run in opposite directions in Hollingsworth. Roberts is torn between wingnuttery and a genuine respect for the legitimacy of his court–which would probably be helped by a split decision.

    My guess? Hollingsworth goes down 5-4; Windsor is affirmed 6-3. That and $2.25 gets you a ride on the subway. I’d give long odds on the positions of the other seven justices, but Kennedy and Roberts remain unpredictable.

  4. Mark:

    Yes, citing St. Paul is rich-the concept we use for love (attributable to medieval aristrocrats and Hollywood) was not really in St. Paul’s lexicon.

    I wonder too if McCaskill will cite Letters of Timothy, in which Paul argues for patriarchy in marraige, justifying it with proto-natural law and comsic analogies…


    1. The so-called “pastoral letters” (TItus and the two Timothys) are regarded by most scholars as not having been written by Paul, by by another author several decades later who wrote under Paul’s name.

      1. Hmmm…I kinda would like the break-down of which scholars reject the “pastoral letters”. For example, I know Elaine Pangels of Gnostic Gospel fame does, but although a great scholar, she is far outside the mainstream of Christianity. But you may be right that most academic scholars reject the pastoral letters.

        I assume fundamentalist Protestantism accepts the letters as written by Paul, but I do wonder what Catholic, Orthodox, Mormon or Protestant Mainline thinkers believe on the authorship of those letters…


  5. Claire McCaskill isn’t a religious scholar. As long as the Christian right is going to distort Christianity to suit their own principles, I have no problem with gay marriage supporters doing the same thing.

  6. I think what McCaskill’s doing is betting that gay marriage will not be a serious issue in 5 years when she’s up for re-election.

  7. The English word “love” also applies to the parent-child, grandparent-grandchild, and me-pizza relationship (albeit that last one is entirely one way).

    1. Just remember, when you find yourself marrying your pizza, the Religious Right did warn you….

  8. If you’re going to try to convince religious believers to change their views on a social policy, using religious language to do so doesn’t seem insane to me. I’d prefer to live in a religion-free world, but we don’t, and Claire McCaskill, as a savvy politician, is aware of that. Good on her!

  9. What a serious academic plonk! What is wrong for admiring and appreciating MCCaskilll’s courage regardless of her use of the Bible?

  10. Better late than never, Sen. M. Knowing Paul as we do, he certainly didn’t mean romantic or sexual love, but he did mean caring for others, which casts a broad net. Whatever, it’s good to see the Repubs caving, one by one.

  11. The Hebrew for “lovingkindness” is tzedakah.. Often poorly translated as charity.

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