I've read two of Wendell Berry's novels, The Memory of Old Jack and Hannah Coulter, and consider the first one very good and the second very very good, maybe to be ranked with the best novels of our time. I've read a fair number of his essays on cultural and political topics and think very highly of them. But in spite of his striking insights into the nature of our modern problems, I've never seen him as being quite the sage which many similarly-minded people--agrarians, distributists, traditionalists--seem to think him. And I think part of the reason was a suspicion that at bottom he does not have a fully coherent philosophy.
That unarticulated reservation became somewhat clearer a couple of days ago when I read of some recent remarks in which he attacked Christians who oppose same-sex marriage. Though I may have had a few reservations about his thinking, it is with no sense of satisfaction whatsoever that I find him delivering opinions which it would be a kindness to call only incoherent. They are also intemperate, unjust, and detached from reality. You can read some of what he said here at First Things, and yet more here, at the blog of Timothy Dalyrymple.
Dalyrymple, in a thorough response, is by no means unfair in saying that Berry "repeats uncritically a slew of bumper-sticker arguments and engages in some serious straw-man pyromania." If it weren't Wendell Berry, no one would bother responding, because apart from a characteristically graceful way of constructing a sentence he is saying nothing that you couldn't find in the comments at any left-wing web site.
It seems he favors same-sex marriage, which is all right; I think that's a mistake, but thoughtful people can disagree in good faith on the matter. What's so striking about his diatribe is that he does not grant that his fellow Christians who disagree with him are in fact acting in good faith and deserving of respect; instead, he anathematizes them as the kindred of those who practiced "Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others."
Berry's harsh and sweeping condemnations remind me of another Baptist who enjoys sticking the occasional finger in the eye of his co-religionists: Jimmy Carter. That's not a compliment. Unless the reports of these remarks is shown to be inaccurate or incomplete, I don't think I can ever have quite the same respect for Berry that I did. His good work stands, of course, and he does not cease to be right about one thing because he is wrong about another, but this certainly makes him seem considerably smaller, both in intellect and in character. Consider this bit:
Would conservative Christians like a small government bureau to inspect, approve and certify their sexual behavior? Would they like a colorful tattoo verifying government approval on the rumps of lawfully copulating parties?
The intellectual shoddiness of this is self-demonstrating to any honest observer of the marriage debate. And it's a moral failing as well; if not consciously malicious, it's culpably ignorant in one who sets himself up as a wise observer of society. This slandering of the Christian community in retribution for its refusal to revise its principles on command is not blameless. It comes pretty close to calumny ("remarks contrary to the truth which harm the reputation of others and give occasion for false judgments against them"), the only mitigation of that charge being that Berry presumably believes he is telling the truth. I never thought I would have to charge Wendell Berry with such a thing.
The only explanation I can come up with for this aberration--or so I would like to consider it--is connected to what I said about Berry perhaps lacking a fully coherent philosophy. His seems to be essentially an aesthetic sensibility, certainly very insightful in most instances but susceptible to the occasional dramatic mistake which a more analytical mind might avoid. It would certainly be good to hear him repudiate this one.
(Hat tip to Janet Cupo for pointing out the First Things post to me.)