With liberals aggressively saturating the media with talk of same-sex marriage’s inevitability, much of the Right seems uncertain how to proceed. Social conservatives remain undaunted, but establishment commentators can barely contain their desire for the subject to go away. And while the Republican Party as a whole is unlikely to follow Rob Portman and Mark Kirk’s lead and outright flip-flop (if for no other reason than to avoid alienating religious voters), they’re not exactly eager to take on a fight they fear would fuel perceptions of Republicans as out-of-touch bigots.
The desire for a new course is strong, and a small but growing chorus of conservatives think they’ve found it: “get government out of the marriage business.” Sen. Rand Paul wants to “make the tax code more neutral so it doesn’t mention marriage.” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker talks about the younger generation asking him “why the government is sanctioning [marriage] in the first place.” The idea’s popped up in every corner of the conservative blogosphere.
Abolishing civil marriage licenses, the theory goes, would satisfy everyone: individuals and churches would get to define—or refuse to recognize—marriage however they choose, while government’s job would simply be to equally enforce whatever contracts individuals make for themselves. The state would endorse neither heterosexuality nor homosexuality, avoiding both the moralizing that liberals despise and the relativism conservatives fear. Everybody’s happy, right?
Wrong. Their case may be superficially appealing, and it’s certainly true that the thousand-plus federal provisions pertaining to marriage contain much that a responsible limited government would eliminate. But privatizing marriage entirely would be a disaster on both substantive and strategic grounds.
For starters, it completely forgets the reason government sanctions marriage in the first place: binding men and women together for the sake of whatever children they bear. Our Founding Fathers unanimously understood that, as Benjamin Franklin put it, “only a virtuous people of capable of freedom. In John Adams’ view, “private families” were chief among those institutions upon which “the foundations of national morality must be laid”—a stable, monogamous household where both parents instill in future citizens traits like responsibility and integrity. And despite marriage redefiners’ junk-science claims, we know that mothers and fathers are not interchangeable.
It’s not as if marriage only became government’s business due to some Progressive scheme; it was recognized as such by those the Founders looked to for building our constitutional order. John Locke observed that the “father, who is bound to take care for those he hath begot, is under an obligation to continue in conjugal society with the same woman longer than other creatures.” Montesquieu wrote that marriage arises from the “natural obligation of the father to provide for his children,” important for the “propagation of the species.” According to William Blackstone, marriage was “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.”
If the substance of the privatization push is shortsighted, its assumed political gains are outright delusional. On the Right, it’s far from certain that evangelicals and other socially conservative voters, who have invested so much of their time, money, and passion in the cause because they consider it essential for healing our culture, would settle for “no comment” as government’s ultimate answer to the question.
The idea’s even less likely to draw supporters from the Left. Liberals hysterically refuse to back modest reductions, let alone outright privatization, of any government functions, yet they would go along with completely abolishing civil marriage? Gay activists who campaign tirelessly for recognition of same-sex unions as marriages would suddenly decide they don’t really want it after all, just because straight people don’t get it either?
As much as some might pine for an escape hatch from the culture wars, we’re stuck with them. The Left chose this fight, is hell-bent on seeing it through, and will only be emboldened by weakness. Fortunately, surrender isn’t our only option.
The first step is recognizing that same-sex marriage’s “inevitability” is exaggerated. When polled, respondents tend to overstate their support for redefinition because they fear being seen as homophobic. This is still a country where 39 states reject same-sex marriage. And while its support may be strongest among young voters, it’s hardly set in stone—almost definitionally, youth views impressionable, temporary pit stops on the road to maturity.
Second, be proactive in clarifying what preserving marriage does and doesn’t mean. For instance, it’s astounding that, with the current Defense of Marriage Act challenge sparked by a widowed lesbian who got saddled with estate taxes because the federal government didn’t recognize her Canadian nuptials, it hasn’t occurred to Republicans to point out that they’re the party under whom nobody would pay estate taxes. It would be a relatively simple matter for states to guarantee gay couples’ rights to hospital visitation, power of attorney, etc. without redefining marriage, and conservatives could take the lead.
The last step is deceptively simple: make the case. To the extent that popular support for same-sex marriage has risen, it’s because Republicans have given its proponents a monopoly on the conversation, either dodging the subject entirely or halfheartedly repeating vague generalities about “tradition” and “personal belief.” With the most visible opposition that limp, of course emotional appeals to “fairness” will resonate.
Be confident in your convictions, show that we can defend marriage without depriving gay Americans of their rights, and put in the effort to actually explain marriage’s meaning and societal function, and you will awaken the instincts that have kept the country from succumbing this long. That defending it is challenging doesn’t necessitate, or justify, throwing marriage away