Magazine | November 3, 2014, Issue

Meaning and Meaningfulness

A federal judge struck down Alaska’s first-in-the-nation ban on homosexual unions. The law dated to 1998, which shows you just how recently it became worthwhile to even bother.

For most of the last few millennia, “same-sex marriage” was something like “the square root of –1” — one could grok each word in the locution but have no idea what they amounted to strung together.

But in the space of just a couple of decades, conservatives have gone from not having so much as a legal garrison posted to defend the turf to reeling from state to state and court to court as the forces of “marriage equality” complete the rout.

The linguistic trip in the three paragraphs above, from “homosexual unions” to “same-sex marriage” to “marriage equality,” recapitulates the tale. By the time the mainstream media began using the morally overloaded last phrase as a matter of course, the jig was up.

Sometime this year, we crossed the line at which more Americans lived in jurisdictions where same-sex unions were legal than did not. And it wouldn’t be fair to blame judicial activism alone. Impositions from the courts have accelerated the process, and the Supreme Court acted by omission in denying cert to a pivotal test case. But the redefining of marriage has proceeded via popular sovereignty as well as judicial meddling.

And even the judicial meddling has been greeted, increasingly, by silence on the right. The Supreme Court’s recent demurral prompted exactly one Mike Huckabee to threaten to leave the party if it did not “fight” on the issue, and not much else. That’s because all of a sudden, the revolution enjoys the support of a stable and growing majority of Americans, including a goodly number on the center right.

Recent national polls, for instance, show that some 40 percent of self-identified Republicans support gay marriage, as do 52 percent of GOP-leaning independents ages 18–49. Nor is it just the kids. According to data from ABC News and the Washington Post, between 2004 and 2013, support for gay marriage increased 20 points among Republicans ages 50–64, and 16 points among Republicans over the age of 65.

These numbers will grow. This bell cannot be un-rung.     

At this point, a confession: I have long been half-assedly in favor of gay marriage. My “evolution” on the issue (to borrow a phrase from every Democrat ever) started with the standard libertarian dodge — let’s return “marriage” to the realm of the sacred and let government deal exclusively in gender-neutral civil partnerships. But as critics on both sides of that proposition rightly argue, that sort of metaphysically separate-but-equal standard gets awfully messy where church meets state. So at some point I started to favor, on balance, legislative and popular redefinitions of marriage at the state level, and I’d have probably voted for gay marriage if it had come up in a referendum where I lived.

Still, beyond the odd defense of GOProud, I never felt the need to lend my little voice to the “marriage equality” crowd. If at this point, reader, you were to call me a weasel and accuse me of scrambling, ex post facto, to get on the “right side of history” in order to please my PC overlords and keep my place on the Georgetown cocktail circuit, I wouldn’t blame you.

But the fact is that I never wrote in favor of gay marriage because I didn’t think the issue was ever in doubt. I’m 30. My generation grew up among “out” homosexuals and in a culture that was mainstreaming them at a breakneck pace. To skip to the end: College and the banality of Ellen DeGeneres have vouchsafed the victory of gay marriage as Millennials age into maturity.

At the same time, to be conservative is to recognize the prerogative of the ages, and I angered and bewildered my gay friends by suggesting that maybe our traditional-marriage-reverent elders were entitled to man the tiller on the ship of state a little while longer. That even the liberalest court in history had counseled that an evil so big as Jim Crow be dismantled with all deliberate speed, so perhaps they could forbear the cumulative history of Western civilization a while longer before they put a ring on it.

In short, I thought that as soon as gay marriage became conscionable, it would become inevitable, and that that journey would probably take just as long as it needed to.

More vital, to me, than the question of whether gays would eventually be allowed to marry — they would, they are — was the question of what marriage would look like by the time they got there. And here I think there is room for supporters and dissenters to find common ground. Because what cultural conservatives truly fear is finally, decisively losing the idea of marriage as sacrament, as a vehicle of family formation, to the secular-materialist idea of marriage as a mere ritual affirmation of romantic love.

These two conceptions track closely with opposition and support for gay marriage because, so long as marriage was a covenant with the eternal, it was not just outside the purview of politics but logically prior to it. Conversely, when marriages are a bureaucratic stamp of approval for a very expensive party, a mere matter of tax-filing statuses and feelings, it seems petty to use the levers of the state to bless some and ban others.

But we don’t have to accept that dichotomy. It is possible and, considering where we now find ourselves, advisable for those of us who care about strong civil institutions to find some way to move beyond the fight over marriage’s breadth and redouble our focus on its depth.

Mr. Foster is a political consultant and a former news editor of National Review Online.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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