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.