Waiting on the world to change

April 1, 2013

As the Supreme Court weighed arguments over California’s Proposition 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act last week, the cultural and political momentum in favor of same-sex civil marriage was extraordinary. One after another, prominent Democrats who had been reluctant to endorse same-sex civil marriage switched their positions, recognizing that they were in grave danger of being “on the wrong side of history” (a phrase we’re hearing a lot lately). Some of the reversals have been surprising only because they’ve come so late, as in the case of Hillary Clinton. Others, like Senators Jon Tester and Kay Hagan, were surprising because they represent states, Montana and North Carolina, where same-sex unions aren’t recognized.

But this rush among politicians, including a small but growing number of Republicans, to back same-sex civil marriage won’t settle the issue. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t decide to invalidate the laws of the 37 states that limit civil marriage to opposite-sex couples, 31 of which have constitutional amendments to that effect, this debate will go on for many years. And we’re already starting to see the contours of what comes next ‑ a battle between those fighting to return cultural values to what they were before the sexual revolution, and those convinced that there is no turning back.

A number of conservatives, myself included, have argued that the right needs to shift from opposing same-sex civil marriage to focusing on the broader erosion of marriage, particularly among working- and middle-class Americans. Over the past half-century the share of 18- to 29-year-olds who are married has fallen from 60 percent to 20 percent. This wouldn’t be much of a problem if young adults were delaying child-rearing until after marriage, as is true among college-educated Americans. But the out-of-wedlock birthrate now stands at 41 percent. By changing the subject from fighting same-sex civil marriage to strengthening marriage for all families, conservatives who believe that stable marriages are crucial for child-rearing and economic advancement can form alliances across the political and cultural spectrum. Although this argument has gained at least some currency among younger conservatives, who’ve been raised in a culture that takes gay equality as a given, it is far from becoming the conservative conventional wisdom. If anything, opponents of same-sex civil marriage see this “call for a truce” as a reflection of a basic misunderstanding about the real meaning of marriage.

The central argument against same-sex civil marriage, as advanced by socially conservative scholars like Ryan Anderson, Robert George and Sherif Girgis, is that real marriage is a permanent and exclusive union that is inherently oriented toward the bearing and rearing of children. This connection to the rearing of children is why most opponents of same-sex civil marriage believe the state has an interest in regulating marriage but no obligation to extend it beyond opposite-sex unions. According to this view, the larger cultural changes that have made it optional to have kids, and that have made marriage less permanent and less exclusive, have badly undermined the health of marriage as an institution.

Yet as these cultural changes have become more pervasive, the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage has come to be seen as irrational and bigoted. Same-sex couples are considered the same in all meaningful respects as opposite-sex couples, or at least infertile opposite-sex couples that can’t independently bear children. The goal of opponents of same-sex civil marriage is to restore the cultural centrality of the conjugal view of marriage.

But the debate over same-sex civil marriage has revealed that few Americans understand marriage in this way. Instead, most embrace what Anderson and his colleagues call the revisionist view, in which marriage is seen as a union of two people who commit to each other, and in which the terms of sexual intimacy are up to the couple in question. Under this framework, the state’s interest in regulating marriage is not so much about the bearing and rearing of children as it is about stabilizing romantic partnerships. Conservatives like myself who call for a marriage truce largely accept this revisionist take. 

Many opponents of same-sex civil marriage, particularly those rooted in a strong religious tradition, take the very long view. That is, they maintain that while the revisionist view of marriage may have triumphed, it won’t last. Society can eventually reset, and return to the idea that marriage is about forming durable biological families. Subscribing to that view implies that an opponent of same-sex civil marriage is willing to make the case against it even if it means being called a bigot. Suffice it to say, this is very much at odds with the view of conservatives calling for a marriage truce.

The other key controversy that will arise as the momentum for same-sex civil marriage continues to build is over religious freedom. Religious opponents of same-sex unions are increasingly concerned that religious institutions might find themselves running afoul of anti-discrimination laws, particularly those that provide social services for nonbelievers. Religious institutions that limit their services to members of a particular religious community are generally given a wide berth to offer services as they see fit. But religious institutions that serve the public without respect to religious affiliation, including large national organizations like Catholic Charities USA, aren’t always given the same leeway. One practical issue might be that a church that rents out its facilities for weddings might not be allowed to refuse to serve same-sex couples unless it rents out its facilities only to congregants. Erick Erickson, the conservative activist and editor-in-chief of RedState.com*, recently argued that while Christians should continue to fight against same-sex civil marriage, they must devote more time and attention to establishing legal protections for religious objectors.

What remains to be seen is how the emerging pro-same-sex-marriage majority will interpret these efforts ‑ as a legitimate defense of religious freedom or as a shield for rank bigotry? My own view is that religious institutions should be given a wide berth, and that conservatives on both sides of the same-sex marriage divide should make an effort to build a broad and inclusive coalition on this issue. But given the speed with which the politics of same-sex unions has been transforming, there is no guarantee that such an effort will work.

CORRECTION 3:40 p.m.: This column originally misstated Erick Erickson’s title. He is the editor-in-chief of RedState.com.

PHOTO: Anti-gay marriage protesters march in front of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 26, 2013. The Supreme Court convened on Tuesday to hear arguments for and against a right to marriage for gay and lesbian couples, beginning two days of what is set to be a historic debate. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst


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So, Mr. Salam, your conservative perspective is long on philosophy but short on details. How would you go about “strengthening” marriage? More tax breaks for married couples? Even more tax breaks for married couples with children? Don’t we already have those? Would you eliminate the Single Head of Household tax bracket?

How would you go about discouraging women from having children outside of marriage? What penalties or benefits would you impose, or provide? How would those benefits or penalties apply to the biological fathers, and how do you propose to enforce them?

Would you accomplish these goals of yours through propaganda, legislation, or money? Give us some specifics, or you’re just another homophobic conservative with a vocabulary and a personal agenda.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

What we have concerning marriages is our past and present liberal leaders who have no sense of right or wrong. God plainly says marriage is between one man and one woman period. I see this country is going down the small end of a funnel as it hits the smallest end it falls faster and faster into Gods judgements and they are coming very,very soon.May god have mercy.

Posted by wayne218 | Report as abusive


Posted by wayne218 | Report as abusive


Posted by wayne218 | Report as abusive

I am so tired of the marriage argument. In other words, couples who are barren cannot get married, senior citizens cannot get married, couples who do not want to add to this overpopulated world cannot get married. It is such an assinine argument yet they won’t shut up. It is all based on homophobia. I have several gay friends. Some are married, some are married with children. I can only wish my life were as level, accomplished and happy as theirs. Religion has nothing to do with marriage. If religion wants to rear its ugly head start taxing religion. Our financial ruin would be over in a snap!

Posted by northernstar | Report as abusive

It’s all about the breakdown of the traditional family, driven by secular moralism and the society’s refusal to hold individuals accountable for their actions. There is no longer a social stigma associated with having children out of wedlock. In fact, we have “programs” to support these individuals. Fatherhood ends at conception, and abortion is used for birth control because the results of a decision are inconvenient.

As a nation, we have legislated irresponsibility under the guise of “equality”. We provide housing, food, medical care, etc. and there are recurring generations who have learned to “game the system”. Parents are not even responsible for feeding their children–it started with school lunch, then breakfast, and now we even feed them during the times when schools are not open. It’s not the kids fault, they are the result of the irresponsibility of their parents (a loose interpretation of the word>)

So, allow the gays to marry, while we listen to the President speak about the “breakdown of the family”. Is there not anyone out there capable of connecting the dots? The causes are obvious, and the effects are documented. But we allow feelings to replace logic and then our “leadership” legislates accordingly.

Everything is now a right–but no one is responsible. We are getting exactly what we asked for. Death of a thousand cuts and our nation is morally bleeding to death.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

1. This is an opinion column
2. Resorting to insults and name calling only weakens your position and detracts from your arguement.

Why don’t you give us some specifics, or you’re just another pro LGBT progressive liberal lemming with a vocabulary and a personal agenda.

Posted by Crash866 | Report as abusive

Why continue to fight an issue when you know the next generation will overturn everything you have fought for? This is such a waste of energy for conservatives if you look at the big picture. Embrace the fact that people who love each other want to be married and have all the same rights regardless of sex and sexual preferences. All we’re doing is letting a few old men get rich pushing this agenda in return for campaign donations and all the potential income that comes from a little political acknowledgement.
This is so short sighted.
You are losing the ability to win on other issues by devoting time to this lost cause.

Posted by attatt | Report as abusive

The issue is simple for believers of traditional marriage:

Do NOT re-define the term “Marriage”.

Calling gay marriage the same as traditional marriage is an insult and is offensive to those that believe marriage is based on religious beliefs from whence it came.

Marriage was not invented by government. It is only recognized by government as a legal agreement for one man and one woman to share their lives, rights, privileges, and responsibilities between them.

There is nothing stopping homosexual couples from sharing their lives, if they so desire.

There is nothing stopping them from having contracts defining joint rights, privileges, and responsibilities between them.

If they want to be together, fine! Just call it something else, such as what is commonly referred to as a “Civil Union”.

For those that think this is about monetary benefits, get government out of it! Then there’s no economic advantage or disadvantage for either traditional or gay marriage.

Posted by 1WorldDone | Report as abusive

It’s a civil rights issue. People against legal recognition of same-sex marriage are basically against equal rights for all, since gay people would have fewer rights than straight. I couldn’t care more or less about gay people and if they want to marry they should go for it. Your church may not bless them, but govt shouldn’t get in their way.

Smaller govt, right? Except when it comes to the bedroom, then Big Brother to the max…

Posted by CDN_Rebel | Report as abusive

@crash866 – I do have specifics, and they’re called equal rights for same-sex couples to marry and enjoy all the legal benefits opposite-sex couples enjoy.

Ninety percent of every argument I read comes down to this: religion. Call it tradition if you want, but it’s religion – and homophobia.

If the “traditionalists” had their way, women wouldn’t be allowed to vote, and interracial marriage would still be illegal, and probably African Americans would still be slaves.

If white males weren’t used to having their way through force of arms or opinion, American Indians would still have a country.

If the fundamentally religious were in power, the Earth would still be considered 6000 years old and flat.

It used to be a social stigma to have babies outside of marriage, but it wasn’t a stigma for the young men who got the women pregnant because “boys will be boys”.

So, tell me. How would you guys go about “strengthening” marriage? What proposals do you have?

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

Oh, and tell me what you would do about that pesky little legal dissolution of a marriage (that “Whom God hath joined together, let no man can put asunder”) called divorce?

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive

“marriage is based on religious beliefs from whence it came”

Pair bonding seems to predate even the development of our own species in our branch of the hominid line–it’s part of our evolutionary hardwiring. Certainly, most primitive human societies have had pair-bonding arrangements that looked indistinguishable from marriage without ever having heard of Christianity and its biblical tales.

Posted by JohnCoz | Report as abusive