While our attention has been focused on ObamaCare and our seemingly bottomless national debt, the Left’s cultural agenda has gained more territory at the state level. Most recently, bills recognizing same-sex marriage have passed the Illinois legislature and the Hawaii House of Representatives. As important as our economy, finances, and health care system are, conservatives cannot afford to neglect any one front for the sake of another.

We can start bolstering our defenses by understanding that the case for same-sex marriage is really two separate arguments: that gay couples are entitled to legal options such as power of attorney and hospital visitation, and that gay relationships deserve the same societal endorsement that straight unions enjoy.

You wouldn’t know it from liberal shrieking, but there is virtually no disagreement on the first point. Since 2006, Dr. James Dobson’s Focus on the Family, one of the nation’s foremost social conservative organizations, has supported legislation extending such benefits to gay couples. California’s much-maligned Proposition 8 limited marriage to man-woman unions, but didn’t touch the state’s domestic partner registry.

None of that has lessened the ferocity with which same-sex marriage proponents defame their opponents as bigots. Indeed, the sad irony of this debate is all the progress we could have made in a serious discussion about actual gay rights, but haven’t, because that’s not the Left’s goal.

Only total surrender will free us from the dreaded “discrimination” label. To liberals, same-sex marriage is non-negotiable because only that can fully validate the dignity of gay Americans’ feelings for each other. Conservatives have responded with extensive analysis of marriage’s civic purpose: incentivizing fidelity between procreative couples in order to guarantee their children the mother and father necessary to grow into good citizens, a function that simply isn’t applicable to same-sex intimacy.

However, conservatives haven’t sufficiently challenged the premise that government is there to validate anyone’s love. Which is remarkable, considering how bizarre and, frankly, unhealthy the notion is.

Certainly, marriage as a religious ceremony endorses love, as two people codify their devotion to one another in the eyes of God, family, and friends. But marriage as a secular, civil partnership is something else. Since when does government bless our personal lives or determine the worth of our deepest feelings?

It doesn’t. Government’s only real interest in such relationships is the welfare of children, not the fulfillment of spouses. As gay libertarian author Justin Raimondo acknowledges, without children marriage “loses its biological, economic, and historical basis, its very reason for being.” Absent procreation, personal relationships are entirely matters of private consensual interaction, which the state typically has no business in beyond protecting individual rights and enforcing contracts.

Those who are married or hope to marry recall or anticipate many aspects of matrimony with deep joy and meaning: the proposal, the vows, the dress, the ceremony, the reception, the church’s blessings, the shared happiness of their loved ones…but the state-issued license? How does that even begin to compare? How many people define the milestones of their lives according to what Uncle Sam thinks of them?

Expecting government to bless such personal affairs the way a church does is a byproduct of the Left’s broader understanding of man’s relationship to the state. Whereas conservatives see government as a limited means of achieving clearly-defined ends (protecting the people’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property), liberals see government as a paternalistic, all-encompassing apparatus with an open-ended mission to improve life in whatever ways happen to occur to them at any given moment.

In the words of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society vision, government serves “not only the needs of the body and the demands of commerce but the desire for beauty and the hunger for community.” There is nothing the state cannot do for you, no aspect of your life it cannot improve, no corner where it doesn’t belong.

Indeed, the mentality at the heart of the big-government vision is the same one behind liberals’ conception of marriage—so unless we’re prepared to fight it when it shows up in social issues, we shouldn’t expect to get very far in unshackling health care or transforming the welfare state back to its constitutional roots.

The end result of this mentality: Americans so dependent they can’t even be content in their own love lives without the state’s say-so. There is perhaps no greater testament to liberalism’s dilution of the human spirit.