‘The Onward March of Social Liberalism’

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Parliamentary social conservatism is dead.  

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I n 2018, social liberals (many of whom decried the unravelling of four decades of integration between Britain and the European Union) were outraged by the case of Tini Owens who was told by the U.K. Supreme Court that she would have to wait until 2020 to divorce her millionaire husband of 40 years. Then, British law required that if one party contests the divorce (as Mr. Owens did), a waiting period of five years must ensue. The exceptions are desertion, adultery, and unreasonable behavior; none of which were applicable. But this is set to change after last week when the conservative-controlled parliament moved to introduce the Divorce, Dissolution and Separation bill, instituting a long-awaited policy of “no-fault” divorce.

Most conservatives would agree that liberalizing divorce is more a symptom than a cause of the demise of marriage. Nevertheless, shouldn’t they be concerned that their own government delivered this latest blow?

It wouldn’t be the first time. After he introduced gay marriage, former British prime minister David Cameron, received the “ally of the year” award by PinkNews, a LGBT news site that’s now mainly preoccupied with imposing transgender authoritarianism. (It was also a conservative government who introduced some of Britain’s more liberal transgender laws, which they have recently backtracked on under pressure from liberal women’s rights groups.) Cameron explained that he supported gay marriage not in spite of being a conservative but “because” he was one. His argument was a superficial one: As “conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other.” But is it also “because” conservatives believe in the “ties that bind us” that they want to make them easier to wriggle out of? Cameron’s position was not conservative at all, but liberal. But then, it was also the most politically viable.

In Britain, conservatives introduced gay marriage in 2013 with almost no debate and minimal fuss. Not so in the United States. When Supreme Court struck down all state bans in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, Americans didn’t get a debate, they got a culture war. One in which one side was presented as educated and tolerant, while the other ignorant and prejudiced. Anti-homosexual activists became the focus so that, by the time the most reasonable case for traditional marriage had been made (namely by the likes of Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George in What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense) the dominant cultural narrative was that this was about whether or not to exclude homosexuals from a social institution (a hard sell). Better expressed, the conservative defense of traditional marriage was about whether or not to redefine a social institution.

In other words, and in terms of the law, the proposal was whether to replace the “conjugal” view of marriage (as defined by Girgis, Anderson, and George) — that of a comprehensive “union of will (by consent) and body (by sexual union); inherently ordered to procreation and thus the broad sharing of family life; and calling for permanent and exclusive commitment, whatever the spouses’ preferences” — with a “revisionist” view: “a union of two people who commit to a romantic partnership and domestic life,” “enhanced by whatever sexual activity the partners find agreeable.” While the former inclines to bind spouses for life, the latter lasts for as long as the founding emotion is sustained. As the authors of What Is Marriage? pointed out, there was nothing specifically homosexual about the revisionist camp, since many heterosexual couples already saw their unions in such terms.

Besides, a broader change was afoot. In the 2017 annual British Social Attitudes survey, Roger Harding, Head of Public Attitudes at the National Centre for Social Research, noted the “onward march of social liberalism” with record levels of support for abortion (70 percent among the general public and 61 percent among Catholics) as well as majority support (64 percent) for same-sex relationships and (75 percent) agreement that pre-marital sex is “not wrong at all.”

Writing in The Atlantic, Helen Lewis suggests that “making divorce easier does not need to be presented as a defeat for social conservatives, for the simple reason that it isn’t one.” But this is only true because social conservativism was already dead.

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