Opinion

Reihan Salam

Waiting on the world to change

Reihan Salam
Apr 1, 2013 17:00 UTC

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.

Are we having the wrong marriage debate?

Reihan Salam
Oct 19, 2012 21:34 UTC

The marriage debate is entering a new phase. As recently as 1996, a Gallup survey found that 68 percent of Americans opposed civil marriage rights for same-sex couples. On May 8 of this year, Gallup released a report which found that only 48 percent were opposed to same-sex marriage while 50 percent were in favor. The next day, in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News, President Barack Obama announced that he too favored the legal recognition of same-sex marriage, a move that delighted social liberals, many of whom believed that the president’s previous tepid opposition was rooted in political concerns rather than real conviction.

Even in the months since, the legal and political ground has continued to shift in favor of same-sex marriage. Just this week, a divided panel of the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a law that limits federal recognition of marriages to couples consisting of one man and one woman, is unconstitutional. Meanwhile, ballot initiatives aiming to uphold laws authorizing same-sex civil marriage are leading in Maine, Maryland and Washington. Perhaps most strikingly, a re-energized Romney campaign has made little effort to capitalize on opposition to same-sex marriage.

Opponents of the practice have no intention of throwing in the towel; nor is it inevitable that the legal and political efforts of advocates will continue to succeed. In November, Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson are releasing What Is Marriage?, a vigorous intellectual critique of the case for same-sex civil marriage that has attracted wide attention in traditionalist circles. Moreover, opponents have achieved a number of political victories at the state and local level, most notably in North Carolina in May of this year.

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