If I were not such a big Tina Turner fan, this piece could have just as easily been titled, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Or, if I wanted to alert the headline glancers as to what this column was really about, “What Conservatives Talk About When We Talk About Marriage Redefinition.”
Contrary to what many had predicted, this summer’s historic Supreme Court decision on gay marriage did not put the issue to rest, as evidenced by the controversy earlier this year surrounding a Kentucky county clerk, Kim Davis, who refused to issue a marriage certificate to a same-sex couple. Because the issue continues to pop up in the news, and because I still hear many of my friends discuss it, I think it is a good moment to adumbrate what I believe are the two strongest conservative arguments both for and against gay marriage. In doing so, I hope to accomplish two things: one, to show my liberal friends that it is possible for a conservative to oppose gay marriage on non-religious grounds, and to do so without being a bigot, and two, to show my conservative friends that there is a genuinely conservative argument to be made in favor of gay marriage.
To understand either argument—as well as the title—one must first understand that the principled conservative objection to gay marriage, as it has been argued for in the United States, is that marriage should not be only about love. That is, the state’s interest in marriage is not love, but rather stability and continuity. The reason the government is in the marriage business at all, we conservatives say, is to encourage the creation of stable social units in which important values can be inculcated: Marriage partners learn to delay gratification, both for the sake of each other and for their children; spouses learn the importance of going without, both by promising to forgo potential future sexual partners and by obligating themselves with children. Taking care of a young child emphasizes the inevitability of monotony, and, possibly, drudgery, and thus tempers people’s more mercurial passions. It is not hard to see why the state takes an interest in promoting these values.
Of course, this is not to say that love is unimportant. Instead, all I mean to point out is that when one thinks of why a theoretical state got involved in the marriage business in the first place, the answer probably is not to promote ephemeral and subjective feelings, but to support an institution that can force young adults to settle down, perpetuate culture through producing children, and teach those children society’s mores and habits.
The conservative argument against gay marriage, then, should be that it redefines marriage not from a union of one man and one woman but from a union premised on commitment to one premised on love. Gay marriage cannot be about stability and continuity, a conservative with this argument would say, because, until recently, gay couples did not need to worry about having children; the union is entered into only for sake of the respective pleasures of those involved (love, of course, being the chief ingredient in that pleasure). As I will get to soon, there is a good reason for conservatives to expostulate.
The great danger of this reorganization is that love is a subjective experience, subject to change, and in great danger of dissipating. To ground a foundational social institution in love is to leave it forever vulnerable.
Honest conservatives do not believe that gay marriage is the cause of this marriage redefinition. It has been going on gradually, in culture and in law, for decades—no fault divorces (California passed the first one in 1969) are another culprit. However, many conservatives believe that nationalizing gay marriage under the slogans “love wins,” and “love is love” will accelerate this shift away from traditional marriage (that is, marriage for stability) or irrevocably end it.
The conservative response to this is that gay marriage, far from being the nail in the coffin of traditional marriage, reinvigorates it. What gay marriage does, this argument goes, is it allows a new population of people to enter into a life of commitment, responsibility, and stability. For the first time ever, gay Americans nationally (with the exception of those in Mississippi) are allowed to adopt children. Thus, gay Americans can now get married not just because they love their partners, but because they want to start a family. A same-sex relationship can begin, just like a heterosexual one, where the ultimate goal of both partners is a committed family life. In other words, marriage among homosexuals will serve the same stabilizing and traditionalizing role that it does among heterosexuals.
There is no reason to suppose that a gay union will be any more or less family-centric than a straight one. Gay Americans at least deserve the same chance at family based responsibility that straight ones do. In short, we should not support gay marriage despite being conservative, but because of it.
I do not necessarily subscribe to either of these arguments, nor have I created them. Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and Sherif Girgis in their book “What is Marriage?” have made the best articulation of the anti-gay marriage argument, while the best pro-gay marriage argument has been made by Andrew Sullivan (particularly in his book “Virtually Normal”) and British Prime Minister David Cameron. I have merely sketched the arguments these men have made, and could not avoid glossing over certain points or failing to address potential counter arguments. For a more complete and infinitely more eloquent presentation of these points, read the sources I listed above. Lastly and most importantly, this should be read as a labor for the sake of tolerance: It is plain wrong to assume that whenever people oppose gay marriage they are bigots, just as it is plain wrong to assume that whenever people support gay marriage they are not true conservatives. As we enter into a new election cycle where the rhetoric is unfortunately bound to get nasty, these are important points to keep in mind.
Isaac G. Inkeles, ’16, lives in Leverett House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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