As my last post on this topic sparked a spirited debate here in our right-wing echo chamber, where no dissent is ever brooked and we all walk in ideological lockstep in order to oppress minorities and the poor through racism, sexism, nativism, and homophobia — all while looking to poison the air and water and cause suffering in autistic children and the elderly in pursuit of a constant, monocle-clad greed — I figured why not continue the discussion by introducing the kind of debates that don’t necessarily feature mewling, poisonous indictments against opponents of same-sex “marriage” presented in mannered baby talk.
To that end, here’s Ryan Anderson, the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at The Heritage Foundation as well as the editor of Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, New Jersey and co-author (with Sherif Girgis and Robert P. George) of the new book, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, attempting to situate the debate over redefining marriage into what he calls its “proper context”:
Some people wonder why conservatives choose to focus exclusively on same-sex marriage. The answer is simple: We don’t. First, conservatives always did—and still do—make other social and political efforts to strengthen the marriage culture. The push for same-sex marriage was brought to us. Second, now that this is the live debate, we can’t ignore it, for its outcome will have wider effects on the marriage culture that really is our main concern.
Long before there was a debate about same-sex marriage, there was a debate about marriage. It launched a “marriage movement,” to explain why marriage was good for the men and women who were faithful to its demands, and for the children they reared.
Articles in mainstream magazines such as Barbara Dafoe Whitehead’s 1993 cover story for The Atlantic, “Dan Quayle was Right,” documented how family fragmentation was wreaking havoc on society. In 1996 Mike and Harriet McManus launched Marriage Savers to combat marital breakdown, and in 2001 Wade Horn championed the Healthy Marriage Initiative for the Bush Administration. Their targets were high divorce rates and the rising birthrate for unmarried women. From pre-Cana programs to various fatherhood initiatives, examples could be multiplied ad nauseam.
Same-sex relationships weren’t on anyone’s radar. (It may be hard to remember, but until just recently same-sex marriage was inconceivable to almost everyone.) The marriage movement leaders’ concern, like that of today’s leading conservative scholars and activists, was much broader.
So it’s not surprising that the leading opponent of redefining marriage today, Maggie Gallagher, was active throughout the ’80s and ’90s in this marriage movement. She wrote a book in the late ‘80s on how the sexual revolution was “killing family, marriage and sex” and “what we [could] do about it;” in a 2000 book she made “the case for marriage,” showing the many ways that marriage is better for couples than cohabitation.
The question of whether to redefine marriage to include same-sex relationships didn’t take center stage until 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court claimed to find a constitutional right to it. Those who had been leading the marriage movement for decades had to ask themselves: Would recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages strengthen the marriage culture, or weaken it?
They saw that redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships was not ultimately about expanding the pool of people eligible to marry. Redefining marriage was about cementing a new idea of marriage in the law—an idea whose baleful effects they had spent years fighting. That idea—that romantic-emotional union is all that makes a marriage—couldn’t explain or support the stabilizing norms that make marriage fitting for family life. It could only undermine those norms.
Indeed, that undermining already had begun. Disastrous policies like “no-fault” divorce, too, were motivated by the idea that a marriage is made by romantic attachment and satisfaction—and comes undone when these fade.
Same-sex marriage would require a more formal and final redefinition of marriage as simple romantic companionship, obliterating the meaning the marriage movement had sought to restore to the institution.
Anderson’s argument mirrors one I’ve made in a more general sense in my discussions of social conservatism as a kind of natural alliance with libertarianism / classical liberalism — particularly as regards the way federalism is supposed to operate within our constitutional republic. As Anderson points out here, it wasn’t the “social cons” who chose this battle, nor is it the social cons who were necessarily focused on same-sex marriage, which they see as a relatively new social agenda being pushed by the very same people who had in earlier incarnations had pushed an agenda for, eg., cohabitation, no-fault divorce, non-traditional child-rearing relationships, etc.
That is, they see in the same-sex marriage push ulterior motives that have little to do with same-sex marriage per se and everything to do with, as Anderson puts it, “cementing a new idea of marriage in the law—an idea whose baleful effects they had spent years fighting. That idea—that romantic-emotional union is all that makes a marriage—couldn’t explain or support the stabilizing norms that make marriage fitting for family life. It could only undermine those norms.”
Here, a social conservative is framing the marriage question in several ways: first, placing it in the context of an earlier attempt to strengthen the institution of marriage by juxtaposing what they considered a healthy marriage culture against high divorce rates, single-parent homes, and out-of-wedlock birthrates. And second by noting that the attempt to change the marriage culture legally has a history that pre-dates the same sex marriage push, while sharing its goal — if indeed one buys the argument of marriage movement defenders that the goal is to weaken the hold traditional relationships have on societal organizations, affecting (in their view, and based on studies they cite) both the popular culture, the successful acculturation of children, and the relative health of a civil society — down to questions of criminality or educational success.
My own concern — and Anderson touches upon them here glancingly — have to do with the legal implications of any change. If marriage is no more than the idea “that romantic-emotional union is all that makes a marriage” — and this view takes hold legally and is established by SCOTUS precedent — the proverbial unintended consequences (which to some I don’t believe are unintended at all, because I believe they care less about same sex marriage than they do about destabilizing traditional “bourgeois” relationships) could be quite severe and far-reaching.
Conservatives tend to be cautious and prudent when it comes to decisions that perform, legally, an enormous break from long-standing social and political status quo (particularly if the status quo is and was successful). Here, what Anderson notes is that those same people who are opposed to same-sex marriage on definitional and compositional grounds were already critical of the changes to the marriage culture that preceded the same sex marriage movement — while at the same time laying the groundwork for it.
That is, they were already fighting what they believed to be assaults on traditional marriage before this latest attempt to redefine marriage and weaken its usefulness as a societal stabilizer for children and families.
The counter to this — which oftentimes comes from libertarians who promote what they call optimal freedom — is that the government should have no role in what comes to count as marriage. But that is itself a rather slippery rhetorical move. Because from the perspective of representative government, the only way “the government” gets to make that determination is though an edict of the court or some governmental official — while votes by the electorate in individual states pushed to establish an acceptable definition for marriage is really no more than allowing the people, not the government, to determine how they wish their states to run, with the government’s role then reduced to protecting the will of the electorate.
Which seems to me the federalist position and the libertarian position — provided you aren’t among those libertarians who believe “marriage” is a positive natural right, a position that commits you, were you to draw out the argument a bit, to allowing for all and any sort of consensual relationships to fit within the parameters of “marriage” once it is redefined.
These are difficult questions, ones that aren’t helped along by cheap appeals to consensus, or attempts to shame those who disagree with same-sex marriage by labeling them homophobes. In fact, the rejoinder to those kinds of arguments would be that sometimes adults have to make decisions that fly in the face of populist, media-driven waves because they are taking a longer view of the consequences of any legal changes that are not carefully thought through.
As I noted in my last post on the subject, I am fine with a state decided to change its definition of marriage — the states being the proper experimental proving grounds for new ideas in a representative republic run democratically and answerable to constitutional law on both the state and federal levels. But I reject the notion that because one state decides to change a definition, other states who disagree with those changes are thereby compelled by law to recognize that definition.
If civil unions — which create a new category for what is a new thing entirely — is an unacceptable compromise to same-sex marriage advocates, then surely the federalist solution should be.
That it’s not suggests to me that it isn’t the “social cons” who are trying to drive a blue-nosed theocratic agenda; but rather the obverse is true, where those who are bent on destabilizing traditional societal structures, for whatever their purposes and motives, are committed to using the law and the courts to try to legislate from the bench — something we on the right, be we libertarian or classical liberal or social /fiscal conservative, are supposed to denounce.