The most effective gay strategy was not a political strategy at all. It was the choice of individuals to identify themselves openly as homosexuals. Scores of millions of Americans now have friends and relatives whom they know are gay. Perhaps as a strict matter of logic, that should not have affected their views on sexual morality. But logic and eros have never been easy bedfellows, have they?
It was perhaps impossible for social conservatives to resist a tide so strong. But their failure was partly of their own making. They were simultaneously too loving and too hateful. The second point is familiar enough to everyone. For the reasons outlined above, persuasive social-conservative rhetoric on gay rights is difficult to devise. But the rhetoric the social Right actually adopted had the additional burden of lending itself to easy caricature as spiteful, harsh, and obsessive — in part because it was not infrequently all of those things. The Religious Right’s love for gays, meanwhile, was not the sort that homosexuals could recognize. It took the form of wanting to save their souls. What religious conservatives wanted was for gays to become ex-gays. The unspoken wish of many other conservatives was for gays to re-closet themselves. Neither had any chance of happening in large numbers.
The proposed marriage amendment to the Constitution nicely illustrates the folly and weakness of organized social conservatism. The amendment will probably fail — most proposed constitutional amendments do. But it may very well be the only way to prevent the incremental judicial imposition of gay marriage. One would think that social-conservative groups would be working as hard as they could to enact it. Yet the Catholic bishops’ conference is divided about the amendment. The Family Research Council came out against it, and then declared itself neutral. The council objects to the amendment because, among other things, it would not bar a state legislature from creating same-sex civil unions. The failure of judgment here should be an object lesson for students of politics for ages to come.
When the Massachusetts supreme court brings full-fledged gay marriage to an American state for the first time, the issue will heat up. Anyone who expects President Bush’s storied quest for the Catholic vote to strengthen the hand of social conservatives has not been looking at the survey data. Catholic World Report recently commissioned a survey that suggested that students at Catholic colleges became more liberal during their time on campus. The freshmen were pro-life, and the seniors pro-choice. What was even more interesting was that a majority of Catholic-college freshmen already favored gay marriage when they got to campus. I suspect that even conservative Catholics who oppose gay marriage are especially sensitive to rhetoric that seems intolerant toward gays as persons.
After Massachusetts, will Republicans find a way to object forcefully to gay marriage and to push for the marriage amendment, without looking intolerant? That would be a tall order even for people who thought deeply about these matters. Social conservatives have not yet lost this battle, and their defeat is not quite inevitable. But that is the way to bet.
— This article first appeared in the July 28, 2003, issue of National Review.