Conservatives often speak of the left’s quest for same-sex marriage as a kind of threat — say, to marriage itself, or even to society as a whole. Proponents of same-sex marriage often react to such arguments with complete dismay. How, they ask, can someone’s marriage be a threat to anyone else’s marriage? For that matter, how could an extension of marriage be a threat to society? Don’t conservatives think marriage is a good thing? If so, shouldn’t gays be allowed to marry and so to realize the benefits of marriage for themselves and for the community?
At Public Discourse, Matthew Franck has a review of Michael Klarman’s new history of the same-sex marraige movement that points to answers to these questions.
In the first place, Franck’s argument makes clear that conservative opponents of same-sex marriage do not regard such marriages as a threat to anybody’s marriage in particular. I have often heard liberal heterosexuals scoff at the idea that allowing gays to marry would present any threat to their own existing heterosexual marriages. Here, however, they are scoffing at an argument that nobody is making. The point, rather, is that same-sex marriage threatens the traditional definition of marriage. As Franck notes, marriage was traditionally understood as a union undertaken with a view to generating and nurturing new life. But homosexual unions are by their intrinsic nature incapable of generating new life, and, in any case, all the arguments for same-sex marriage turn on other supposed purposes and definitions of marriage: as a source of social approval, as a source of legally provided material benefits, etc. The point that conservatives are trying to make, and that many liberal insist on not getting, is that there is no way to “extend” marriage to gays without at the same-time redefining what it is. And conservatives think this is a step that should give any reasonable person pause, given the fundamental importance of marriage to society.
In the second place, Franck emphasizes the rather surprising recentness of the movement for same-sex marriage and its rapid advance toward success. Proponents of same-sex marriage often try to compare their cause to the campaign for civil rights for African Americans. There is, however, this superficial but perhaps important difference: the original civil rights movement lasted a long time, which means that it had deep roots in our culture. Even when slavery existed, many Americans knew slavery was wrong. Even while segregation was tolerated, many Americans sensed that it was unjust. In contrast, the idea that justice requires same-sex marriage is very recent. Hardly anybody, including people committed to gay rights, thought it was a matter of right even as recently as two decades ago.
This, to me, points to one of the ways in which the movement for same-sex marriage is a threat to society: it is almost unprecedented in its disregard for tradition. It insists that we regard as bigoted and ignorant the understanding of marriage that prevailed until just the last few years. Of course, traditions can be unjust, and you could not have a rational and just society if we did nothing but accept our own traditions uncritically. On the other hand, however, it is hard to see how a society with radical contempt for its own traditions can even survive. How can it even remember what it has learned?