Waiting on the world to change
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