Opinion

The path forward for social conservatives on gay marriage

We're about to lose a big battle. That doesn't mean we have to lose them all.

Gay marriage is coming soon to all 50 states. Maybe — probably — in the form of a looming Supreme Court decision. Failing that, a somewhat longer process at the state level. Or perhaps some later high court decision.

But make no mistake: The political debate over legal recognition for same-sex couples is all but over. And paradoxically, that could be a good thing for social conservatives. It would let us move on from a fight we have already lost and focus on future fights we might actually win.

No, I'm not making a conservative case for gay marriage, or what seems like the thousandth such case since the issue was first debated in the 1990s. Like most social conservatives, I believe certain essentials of marriage depend on it remaining a "heteronormative" institution — that there is something fundamental and important about the procreative benefits of marriage being a union of one man and one woman.

I'm also aware, however, that arguments to this effect have persuaded precisely zero people in the decade since public opinion on same-sex marriage really began to turn. This is especially true of younger Americans, party because the claims social conservatives make about marriage are largely viewed as excuses to keep gay people out.

It's time that we social conservatives move on, and try to achieve our goals in a different way. To that end: What if our arguments about the essentials of marriage can be made again outside the context of denying benefits to same-sex couples, who will for the foreseeable future, at least, remain a small minority of married couples?

Many gay marriage supporters think that the traditional link between marriage and reproduction is a fiction. The liberal blogger Kevin Drum contended that the "procreation argument was introduced by opponents of same-sex marriage" and he doubted that it otherwise would have occurred to "most ordinary people" in the first place.

Jeffrey Rosen paraphrased Justice Elena Kagan dismissing arguments that traditional marriage is tied to "responsible procreation" among heterosexuals as "hard to credit because they are essentially made up for the purposes of litigation."

Even conservative Justice Antonin Scalia, surely one of the votes against a constitutional right to same-sex marriage, has argued that the fact that the "sterile and the elderly are allowed to marry" discredits the link between marriage and reproduction.

In fact, there are reams of references to marriage as a reproductive institution that far predate the same-sex marriage debate.

In his 18th century Commentaries on the Laws of England, William Blackstone described the relationship of "husband and wife" as "founded in nature, but modified by civil society: the one directing man to continue and multiply his species, the other prescribing the manner in which that natural impulse must be confined and regulated."

Bertrand Russell observed that "it is through children alone that sexual relations become important to society, and worthy to be taken cognizance of by a legal institution."

The California Supreme Court asserted "the first purpose of matrimony, by the laws of nature and society, is procreation" all the way back in 1859.

And much more recently, though before there was a same-sex marriage debate, the anthropologist Helen Fisher said, "People wed primarily to reproduce."

Not all marriages result in reproduction, just like not all businesses are profitable. But lots of features of family law and corporate law are based on the assumption of procreation and profit-making, respectively. Social conservatives can and should fight to preserve this definition of marriage, while conceding that same-sex married couples should have all the legal rights of straight couples.

Obviously, none of this has been sufficient to convince people without certain religious or moral presuppositions to oppose same-sex marriage. But if the rationale behind the conjugal view of marriage could be articulated without threatening the legal status of same-sex couples, perhaps more people would at least accept that James Dobson didn't make it up.

If anything, traditional Christian teachings against premarital sex and birth control are less popular than doctrines concerning homosexuality, yet also less likely to be viewed as a proclamation of hatred against people who don't follow them.

Even accounting for the infertile, the elderly and the intentionally childless, sex between men and women frequently produces children. As the Indiana Court of Appeals noted in 2005, same-sex couples only acquire children after "significant time, effort, and expense." That's not true of heterosexuals.

If marriage isn't about an ideal binding mothers and fathers to their children, some institution needs to be.

Given the numerical dominance of straight people, there is no inherent reason marriage can't do what it has traditionally done for heterosexuals while government simultaneously gives marriage licenses to same-sex couples. But that becomes hard to do if the old view of marriage as being between a man and a woman is seen as morally equivalent to racism.

When marriage advocate David Blankenhorn reversed himself on gay marriage, he concluded, "Instead of fighting gay marriage, I’d like to help build new coalitions bringing together gays who want to strengthen marriage with straight people who want to do the same."

I understand why my fellow social conservatives are skeptical. But is such a project really less likely to succeed than a push for a constitutional amendment overturning whatever the Supreme Court does on same-sex marriage?

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