Politics & Policy

The Bonds of Common Ground

Ten areas of agreement among conservatives on marriage.

The contending sides in the gay-marriage controversy often seem to talk past one another. They start from such radically different premises that it is hard to speak of genuine “debate” at all. One side says the issue is a matter of basic human rights; the other says it is about preserving a traditional form that is the basis for all successful human societies. On this issue, Left and Right differ dramatically on law, history, culture, social science, and philosophy.

But among conservatives, the debate is far more interesting and potentially more fruitful. Most conservatives oppose gay marriage. Indeed, the conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher says it means “losing American civilization.”

Conservatives are not unanimous, however. Beginning in the 1990s, a few prominent gay intellectuals like Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch began making what Sullivan called the “Conservative Case for Gay Marriage.” This “conservative case” has rested on the idea that marriage would benefit gays, generally by encouraging long-term commitment among gays and particularly by settling gay men. It would therefore benefit our whole society.

Since then, David Brooks, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, has publicly embraced the idea. George Will, a prominent conservative commentator, believes we ought at least experiment somewhere with gay marriage to see what effects it produces. A much larger number of American conservatives oppose a federal marriage amendment, maintaining that the issue ought to be left to the states to decide for themselves.

But it must be admitted that the idea has not exactly lit a fire of support under most conservatives. In the interest of advancing the debate a bit, let’s see if we can establish some common ground among conservatives on the subject of gay marriage.

There are ten premises in this debate that most conservatives, opponents and supporters of gay marriage alike, probably share:

(1) Marriage benefits society, and so anything that harms marriage harms all of us, whether married or not.

(2) Marriage directly benefits the individuals married.

(3) It is on average better for children to be raised by two married parents than to be raised by single parents or by unwed cohabiting partners.

(4) Because of the benefits identified in Premises 1-3 above, marriage should be encouraged by public policy and specifically should retain its privileged position in the law.

(5) It is socially preferable for gay persons to be in committed relationships than to be promiscuous.

(6) If any significant change to an important social institution like marriage is undertaken at all it should occur slowly and incrementally, state-by-state, rather than in one fell swoop (as by court-ordered, nationwide gay marriage), so that we can assess the impact of the change and adjust the direction of reform or completely halt the reform.

(7) Proposals for change in policy about an important social institution like marriage must take account of the social effects of the change, as observed or as reasonably predicted, not simply the “rights” and interests of those advocating the change.

(8) Proponents of change in an important social institution like marriage bear the burden of persuasion.

(9) Marriage should remain reserved for two adult persons not closely related by blood.

(10) Whatever public policy is adopted on the subject of gay marriage, churches and religious authorities must remain free to refuse to recognize such marriages if they wish to do so.

Note how much this common ground separates conservatives from the left, including the gay Left, much of which is suspicious of marriage and so might well disagree with at least the first eight premises and perhaps even with the ninth and tenth premises.

Of course, some of these premises are stated in a way that masks important areas of disagreement among conservatives. For example, pro-gay-marriage conservatives believe that the benefits of marriage to children identified in Premise #3 will also accrue to children raised by same-sex married couples; conservatives who oppose gay marriage doubt this. Also, some conservative opponents of gay marriage might argue that, regarding Premise #5, while gay monogamy is better than gay promiscuity, gay chastity would be preferable to either. We will have to address such differences.

But, stated at the level of generality at which they are stated above, I think most conservatives can agree with each premise as far as it goes.

Dale Carpenter is a law professor. He can be reached at OutRight@aol.com. Some of his other writing can be read here.

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