Hello again. Judging by the response of some of you to this new Salon feature, I’ve certainly got you thinking. That’s good. And today’s question, I’m pretty sure, is going to provoke the most robust debate thus far.
Contrary to what many supporters of gay marriage seem to believe, the opposition to gay marriage is not motivated, as a general rule, in large part or small, by bigotry. I am aware there are many gay-marriage advocates who refuse to accept that there really can be a legitimate difference of viewpoint on the issue.
These are the same people who, let me suggest, are not so much concerned about how they live their own lives as they are with forcing other people to accept how they live, to validate the lives they have made for themselves. And that’s what inspires the first conservative objection to gay marriage, the one born out of respect for society and those social traditions that, over time, have demonstrated that they exist for everyone’s benefit.
Marriage goes in that category and is, indeed, one of the reasons that so much of the civil code is concerned with the idea of marriage. And by that I don’t mean marriage as we have come to believe it should be — two starry-eyed people mooning over each other, in love forever — but marriage as the best way to establish an enduring relationship between adults to best protect the interests of children and, to some degree, women. Marriage established a mechanism for the training and upbringing of children and provided for the disposition of familial assets in ways that protected the property rights of those who had a share in creating the assets in the first place.
Over two millennia society has concluded that the best way to do that is a sanctioned relationship between a man and a woman. And conservatives, as a general rule, have an interest in conserving those traditions.
Second, there is the consideration of what we might call “the sacred,” the truths that come from faith. Our social order — and our civil code — comes primarily from our religious institutions. For those for whom the sacred is of paramount importance, the acceptance of gay marriage into the social order, which would be greatly advanced by the imprimatur of state approval, should not be encouraged. These folks, regardless of what faith they profess, whether Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic or Pentecostal, are likely to be more intense in their opposition to gay marriage than other conservatives.
Religious conservatives also have another fear, one that I think is legitimate. They’re afraid that a change in the civil code will force a change in religious institutions. What happens if gay marriage becomes legal, and a particular creed or denomination, because of its own precepts, wants to opt out of performing gay marriages? (And I refer here specifically to actually performing the marriage, not whether or not the religious organization “endorses” or condemns gay marriage.) The legal recognition of gay marriage could threaten the independence and self-determination of those religious institutions that refuse to perform same-sex marriage ceremonies within their walls.
There is precedent for this, as in the way Henry VIII threatened the churches in England after his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. And there are real-world examples from today, such as the case of a Christian photographer who was forced by the New Mexico Civil Rights Commission to pay $6,637 in attorney’s costs after she refused to photograph a gay couple’s commitment ceremony.
Then there is the matter of individual liberty as relates to the coercive use of the power of the state to change beliefs. Even those conservatives who support gay marriage or who do not feel passionately about it one way or the other — and I find myself in this category — may still object strongly to the attempts to coerce them into accepting it.
Many conservatives I know take the position that what two adults want to do in terms of their own relationship is essentially a private matter. As the English actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell once said, “Does it really matter what these affectionate people do, so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses?”
Their objections to gay marriage center on the way the debate has unfolded. While agnostic on the idea of whether it is a good or bad thing, they take exception to the fact that a few unelected judges in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took it upon themselves to make this an issue that every American had to deal with.
This sentiment extends beyond conservatives. Consider that no presidential nominee of either major party has endorsed gay marriage, nor have the Republican or Democratic Party national platforms. And in every state that I can think of where the matter has been put to the people as a ballot proposition, the voters have affirmed the idea that the definition of marriage is and should remain something between a man and a woman.
I am aware that Steve Schmidt, who ran John McCain’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, came out last week in favor of ending the GOP’s opposition to gay marriage. But I question the wisdom of adopting political strategies proposed by the fellow who led a losing GOP national campaign, one that rejected conservative values as a general rule, and that couldn’t even win in a state like Virginia, which went to the Democrats for the first time since 1964.
I have yet to see a convincing argument that the effort to force gay marriage on the nation is effectively divorced from the effort to force people to change their views on homosexuality. As conservative writer, talk-show host and lesbian Tammy Bruce says, “Gays ultimately need to stop looking to government for unconditional love and approval of who we are.”
Looking to government to force states to legitimize gay marriage, Bruce continues, “gives the government and other people’s opinions far too much power over the quality of our lives and effectively eliminates our own responsibility for our happiness. “
I don’t know if Bruce is right or not when she attributes the ongoing political struggle to what she refers to as columnist Andrew Sullivan’s lament — “that it is only governmental recognition of who we are that will make us whole.” What I do know is that many conservatives’ objections to gay marriage have as much to do with the problem of overreaching state power as they do with what some people might call the moral aspect of the question.
I hope that helps.