It is an odd fact about American culture and the gay marriage debate that while conservatives are winning (at least for the moment) the public opinion battle, they are losing the intellectual war. While I have hope that this will be reversed, Jonathan Chait’s article offers a devestatingly accurate characterization of many conservative politicians’ arguments against gay marriage. But no wonder. Arguing against gay marriage is not simply difficult: it requires challenging the legal and political assumptions of both the left and the right.*
As an aside, consider one such argument against gay marriage, which states that state sanctioned gay marriage would impinge upon religious freedom. In her essay, “Soft Despotism and Same Sex Marriage” (available here), Seana Sugrue argues persuasively that same sex marriage would weaken religion by pitting the state against religion, but fails to demonstrate how such a development would undermine religious authority. She may be right that “the moral authority of religious institutions is undermined in the eyes of the public” as a result of state recognized gay marriage, but the evangelical response to this can only be a shrug. The religious authority is not, nor ever has been, derived from the political and if it is seen as such in public, so much the worse for that public.
This is not to say that the conservative position is wrong. Indeed, the most persuasive defenders of traditional marriage–and here I must include Sugrue, whose article is otherwise compelling–all defend a conservative metaphysic which acknowledges the pre-political nature of heterosexual marriage as being tied (biologically-the metaphysic follows the physics) to the procreation and nurture of children. Contemporary attempts to recreate this relationship all exist on another plane–they are either technological or legal attempts to replicate what exists fundamentally and originally in heterosexual relationships.
This metaphysic, I would suggest, cuts against both the liberal and conservative politics and jurisprudence, which rest upon notions of individual rights that are granted and maintained by the state.* Most public arguments for traditional marriage rest upon–tradition, that is, the political tradition. Even the label for the position betrays the argument, for the traditions that keep the body politic together are not a firm enough foundation. On this score, then, conservatives are attempting to conserve the wrong thing.
It is no wonder, then, that most younger evangelicals are gravitating toward the notion that the state should get withdraw from sanctioning any sort of unions, civil or otherwise. It is an attractive argument that purports to solve what seems to be an intractable social dilemma.
Yet it too is problematic. John Schwenkler, of course said it better, but it needs repeating. For one, the evangelical insistence on the utter separation of spheres unfortunately collapses–as our friends at Article Six blog have repeatedly shown–into the privatization not simply of our views of marriage, but of our religious beliefs completely. Francis Schaeffer’s rejection of such a division inevitably leads to his politics (let the evangelical understand).
This presupposes that the Church is the sort of thing that exists above and beyond the body politic, rather than within. I would submit, however, that 1 Peter, Romans 13, and Jesus’ teaching about paying taxes to Ceasar, and 1 Timothy 2:1-4 all entail that Christians are citizens of another world living in this world.
Not only that, but if anything it is marriage that ties us to this world and its institutions-as Paul, I would submit, argues in 1 Corinthians 7. Its status as a pre-political reality does not deny its presence in the political order. Rather, it simply raises the question of its proper position. Heterosexual marriage is pre-political precisely because it forms the logical foundation to the political arena. It is the family, not the individual, who the state governs (one thinks, of course, of the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity). As Schwenkler puts it,
We’re political animals, and like it or not this means that the laws and common understandings of the polities we inhabit have deeply pervasive effects on the ways we live our lives. And so when marriage becomes, as it would if its status were relegated to the fast-shrinking sphere of the “religious”, not an aspiration for all humankind but instead simply a special kind of inner state, a move in a private language game that only a god can divine, marriage then becomes nothing at all; it has not just been redefined, but defined away, made trivial in its faux-“sacredness” because of course we know that trivial is exactly what the supposedly sacred is.
The conservative case against gay marriage is possible, but only if it challenges the governing orthodoxy of contemporary (political) liberalism, which encompasses both the left and the right. On this issue, a conservatism that simply conserves is not enough: it must look forward and reshape the political conversation around a metaphysic that is grounded in a reality deeper than the individual will, and then offer viable public policy solutions that are both rooted in this reality and offer justice to all.