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I’ve been meaning to put this up since Peter and James discussed it on the Ricochet podcast more than a week ago: I don’t think the controversy over gay marriage has been settled yet. Conservatives should not give up on it, and those who do may well find themselves apologetically backpedalling some years hence.
We need to remember that progressives are wrong when they suggest that culture always moves inexorably in one direction. Sometimes we flirt with stupid ideas for awhile, realize their folly, and then abandon them. Remember when open marriage was a thing? When getting divorced was best for your kids “because they won’t be happy if you’re not”? Remember Dan Quayle getting mocked for saying what is now completely conventional wisdom among liberals and conservatives alike — that single parenthood isn’t just a lifestyle choice? Social ideas and customs do shift back and forth over time. Sometimes we even learn things and make appropriate adjustments.
Given how quickly and non-democratically same-sex marriage has descended upon us, there’s every reason to think that some learning and adjustment could still take place. This is still a dynamic situation, with much to gain and much more to lose. Given that fact, it’s very disheartening to me that so many conservatives now view same-sex marriage as a settled fight from which we need to find a graceful exit. Their complicity is itself a pretty sad statement about conservative priorities.
The governmental process by which same-sex marriage has been foisted on us could hardly have been less democratic; this is the epitome of a case in which the elite have strong-armed ordinary people into relinquishing their views and way of life. Isn’t that something that should have us up in arms? Meanwhile, we’re told that same-sex marriage is now socially accepted, primarily because young people tend to have no problem with it. Because allowing your most ignorant and least experienced citizens to determine the future of society’s most central institution is generally the path of wisdom, right?
As I’ve argued elsewhere, young people really don’t understand marriage, and many of them actually want more guidance on the subject. Instead of treating them like the experts, we should be making broad-spectrum efforts to shore up marriage on all fronts. I’m not suggesting that opposition to same-sex marriage needs to be the primary focus of that, but abandoning the traditional view outright will make for some pretty serious handicaps.
It seems like I’m hearing a lot of people these days saying that they have no problem with same-sex marriage, only to turn around two minutes later and start discussing how we need to return to the ideal of marriage as a more child-centered institution. Surely you at least appreciate that there is some tension here? Same-sex marriage seemed ridiculous for the great majority of history, precisely because marriage was a child-centered institution. When we moved away from seeing marriage in that light, marrying gays or lesbians to one another started to seem like a cool idea. If we enshrine this practice in American custom, doesn’t it seem reasonable to worry that this will move us still further away from seeing marriage as a permanent arrangement intended first and foremost for the good of children? Bolstering marriage as an institution is going to be much, much harder if we feel obliged to kowtow to progressive understandings of what it is.
Finally, there is the issue of religious liberty. I know many conservatives are of the opinion that we should give in on same-sex marriage but bolster support for religious liberty. Here’s my question: is there any reason at all to suppose that would work? I think the people who make such suggestions generally do so in good faith, but when you appreciate the goals of the progressive movement, and the (already well-established) ruthlessness with which they are willing to pursue them, taking refuge in religious liberty seems like the epitome of a lost cause. If the traditional understanding of marriage is branded as bigotry, it won’t be protected. People will be forced to violate their consciences in serious ways. This is already happening somewhat here, and on a more egregious scale in Europe.
I’ve yet to hear a “religious freedom” conservative define a strategy for shoring up religious freedom that seems likely to work. We’re facing a tidal wave of progressive energy and, as a social conservative, it feels like the Republican Party keeps trying to throw us umbrellas.
Marriage defenders have clearly lost the most recent battle. But, as we’ve seen with abortion, major social issues like this make for long, complicated wars. Every good general knows that even a defeat can yield certain tactical advantages. Instead of throwing up our hands, we should be eyeing the road ahead and planning our next moves.