Writing in National Review in the hyperbolic language that social conservatives in the gay marriage debate so often adopt, Dennis Prager declares that “nothing as radical as redefining marriage to include members of the same sex has ever been publicly supported by a president of the United States,” and goes on to claim that it is “the most radical social experiment in modern history.” It isn’t uncommon to hear this sort of claim from gay marriage opponents, so it’s worth taking on.
I agree that this is an aspect of the gay marriage debate that is worth considering, although I don’t plan to “take it on” as Friedersdorf does. The hyperbole about the significance of gay marriage, on both sides, indicates how people twist the facts to suit a momentary political objective. Politics makes everyone dumber.
The particular point here is the myopia of conservatives who are against gay marriage. The debate over gay marriage is not a defining moment in our cultural history that will forever determine the fate of our society. Over the long haul, it is just a blip in cultural history, more of an effect than a cause. It was far more significant when employers started extending health insurance benefits to heterosexual “domestic partners”; when no-fault divorce became acceptable; when “illegitimate” children were accepted as heirs; when unmarried adults were accepted as adoptive parents; when married women were allowed to own property and take out loans separately from their husbands; when interracial marriages were endorsed by states; when “child” marriages were no longer endorsed by states; when polygamy was banned; and dozens of other legal and social events that impacted marriage and family relationships.
Friedersdorf only mentions one of those, because he doesn’t really want to get into the sociological, economic, and religious context of marriage. He thinks that the purpose of marriage is to encourage people to “practice sexual fidelity, give emotional support, and provide financial stability.” That’s pretty stupid and ahistorical, but it’s probably a fair summary of why a lot a people get married. To the extent that may be the popular notion of marriage, it is way too late to defend, save, or preserve a “conservative” notion of marriage. After all, a conservative, Biblical, 19th-century notion of marriage would encourage child brides, allow multiple wives, explicitly further a pro-natalist agenda, and actively discourage divorce. Friedersdorf could mock all these things, but then he would have to acknowledge the fact that marriage has not always been the smarmy, pseudo-romantic thing he portrays.
The problem for conservatives is not the issue that liberals sneeringly throw at them, about letting into the country club the tiny fraction of homosexuals who want an unchangeable lifetime commitment to a single, same-sex partner. Nor is it the issue that is implied by many conservatives, that legalizing gay marriage may encourage more homosexuality; because that is idiotic. The real problem is that marriage has not ever been the ideal form portrayed by conservatives. Maybe in the 1950s and 1960s they could pretend it was, but it wasn’t. The homosexual activists perceived this weakness a few years ago and decided to take advantage of it as an indirect path to social legitimacy for homosexuality. It worked because most people didn’t take marriage seriously, and we live in a representative democracy, where whatever most people believe becomes law for everyone else.
So, why did conservatives decide to draw the line in the sand here? I think it’s because it’s such a clear line, and it’s easy to get the support of people who otherwise have no moral sensibility, much less any respect for marriage. That’s the name of the game: building constituencies to swing public opinion polls and get people to vote for someone that they would otherwise despise. It has nothing to do with “rights” or “preserving the sanctity of marriage.” This just happens to be an identity issue that helps to mobilize segments of the electorate. And, as Friedersdorf notes, it is not all that radical.