This item by Ed Kilgore was originally published on May 28, 2009
With all due allowances for Jonathan Chait’s impressive logical and rhetorical skills, it’s still amazing how briskly he is able to dispatch the rational arguments made against marriage equality in The New Republic today, reflecting “a body of opinion held largely by people who either don’t know why they oppose gay marriage or don’t feel comfortable explicating their case.” So gay marriage advocates do tend to state rather than explain their position, or come up with assertions about the baleful effects of same-sex marriage that wouldn’t stand up in a high school debate.
Jon begins, however, from a premise that is broadly accurate about the rules of discourse in contemporary Western society, but that clearly isn’t embraced in its entirety among conservatives:
In a liberal society, consenting adults are presumed to be able to do as they like, and it is incumbent upon opponents of any such freedom to demonstrate some wider harm.
That’s another way of saying that the proper question about gay marriage isn’t “why?” but “why not?” And that is indeed the question Americans are beginning to ask more often, particularly as their circle of gay or lesbian acquaintances grow, and as same-sex couples come out of the shadows with no visible bad effect on anything other than the tender sensibilities of homophobes.
But the growing shabbiness of the “rational” case against same-sex marriage helps expose the extent to which gay marriage opponents actually depend on non-rational but still powerful arguments from Tradition and Revelation.
The case from Tradition, which you hear over and over from gay marriage opponents, is that marriage has always been defined as the “union of a man and a woman.” Sometimes in their exasperation they stamp their feet and enumerate how very long always is. The idea is that same-sex marriage is a dangerous act of (to use the term employed by the Catholic Bishops of Iowa in the statement linked to above) “social engineering” that challenges the settled wisdom of the ages. From this quintessentially conservative point of view, of course, the liberal presumption in favor of the rights of “consenting adults” has always been rejected, on this and every subject, in favor of what Chesterton called, approvingly, the “democracy of the dead.” Traditionalists typically try to deploy the rational arguments that Chait demolishes to buttress their case, but their case is essentially unrebuttable because it treats precedent as the only authority.
The main weakness of the Argument from Tradition, of course, is that much of what we have come to recognize as the Western Tradition in recent decades has reflected an Enlightenment-based revolt against much older traditions–in other words, that the liberal habit of mind that Chait cites has become, even though unevenly applied, the real Tradition that demands respect. Even the most rabidly inflammatory exaggerator of the impact of same-sex marriage would have to acknowledge that the emancipation of women has been a vastly greater change in the “traditional” way of life of the human species, and even anti-feminists are loath to suggest we were better off when women couldn’t vote or own property. In the long, long sweep of history, slavery has about as strong a pedigree as “traditional” marriage. So the “democracy of the dead” can and must be overturned now and then in the interests of the living.
Opposition to same-sex marriage based on religious “revelation” (either infallible scripture or infallible Church teaching) isn’t rational, either, and will probably be a tougher nut to crack. Prior forms of discrimination, of course, have appealed to the same “divine” sanction. Perhaps tomorrow’s conservative evangelical Christians will view the attention paid to the Bible’s scattered condemnations of homosexuality much as today’s scoff at their forebearers’ use of Scripture to sanction racial discrimination (e.g., via the Curse of Ham). And perhaps the hierarchies of the Roman Catholic and Latter Day Saints Churches will revise their teachings on same-sex marriage some day, much as the former revised the doctrine of the Jews’ collective responsibility for the Crucifixion and the latter revised the “precious doctrine” of plural marriage.
In any event, Revelation-based opposition to same-sex marriage is a relatively low priority for culturally conservative Christians, who are usually far more exercised about legalized abortion–another affront to both “Tradition” and “Revelation” that in their view represents state-sanctioned mass murder. Beyond that, among hard-core social conservatives, homosexuality is regarded as merely one among many abominations that reflect a general abandonment of the divinely ordained order of life.
In general, the weakness of rational arguments against same-sex marriage, and the inadequacy, in a semi-secular, semi-liberal, future-oriented modern society, of arguments from Tradition and Revelation, are best illustrated by the rise of defensive, circle-the-wagons “arguments” wherein opponents complain about persecution. This phenomenon was especially evident in the furor over Carrie Prejean, whose “innocent” answer to a beauty-contest question about same-sex marriage is being treated by conservatives as an act of Christian martyrdom. As Daniel Gilgoff recently noted, this reflects a general shift among same-sex marriage opponents to claims that giving all Americans the freedom to marry threatens their own freedom of religion.
It should be obvious that this sort of embattled-minority whining no longer reflects the psychology of a confident citizenry, backed by the testimony of the centuries and divine revelation, scornfully dismissing the radical agenda of sodomites and civil libertarians. Once you adopt the Prophetic Stance against the manifest wickedness of your own society–or, to put it in the secular language of the very first issue of National Review, you “stand athwart history yelling Stop!”–then your less-conservative fellow-citizens quite naturally tend to take umbrage at your opinion of them, and begin to identify themselves with the liberal presumption of equality. That could well be what’s happening with the dynamics of the debate over same-sex marriage, as Americans cast a skeptical eye towards the increasing hysteria of opponents, and ask: “Why not?”