Saturday, January 25, 2014

"Hey, let's ban ALL marriage so we can keep the gays from having it!"

Faced with a federal ruling against Oklahoma's Constitutional same-sex marriage ban, some Oklahoma lawmakers have taken an attention-grabbing step: Propose eliminating legal marriage altogether in the state.

This is an interesting move, especially when one recalls that one of the key pieces of legislation blocking same-sex marriage rights for two decades was called the DEFENSE of Marriage Act.

The conservatives opposing extending legal marriage rights to same-sex couples have marshaled many arguments against it. Most of them, in my judgment, have been pretty awful. But the one that has always struck me as the most sensible, if ultimately unconvincing, is this one (reconstructed as charitably as possible):

Marriage is the bedrock social institution, one that societies across the world have relied on for most of recorded history as a basic way to promote social stability. While there have been variations in its structure, it has always had a heterosexual form, bonding men to women (if not just one man to just one woman). Extending marriage to include same-sex couples is thus a radical change in the design of the institution; and given how crucially important this  bedrock institution is to our social fabric, we should be very hesitant to make radical changes of this sort.

This argument is rooted in the very essence of conservatism: conserving established structures and ways of doing things in a society as much as possible, with a real hesitance to making abrupt changes unless the case for doing so has been shown to be highly compelling. And it hinges on stressing the significance of marriage as a social institution.

The current legislation on offer in Oklahoma is the very opposite of all of that. It proposes throwing out, at least at a legally recognized level, what conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have typically declared utterly essential to a healthy social fabric. (And if you think getting rid of legal marriage isn't such a big deal because people can still be married in churches--think again. Think about what would change in society if no church wedding was ever legally recognized, and no couples were recognized by the law as legal life partners.)

Andrew Sullivan has long argued that the best case for same-sex marriage is essentially conservative: Here is a basic social institution, one whose value in promoting stability and other goods in society has proved itself through long testing. Gays and lesbians, recognizing the value of this institution, also recognize that the service it does to the heterosexual community will benefit the gay community as well. To deny gays and lesbians that is to reject what has been a founding precept of American society--a core value that finds expression in the Declaration of Independence itself: the right of all persons to equal treatment under the law, with equal access to the social and legal conditions that promote life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Combine respect for the old institution of marriage with respect for a founding American value, and you have a case for same-sex civil marriage that is conservative through-and-through.

Have opponents of same-sex marriage started showing their true colors--and revealed that they aren't really conservatives after all? Have they revealed that denying the people they hate access to a basic social good matters more to them than preserving established institutions and values? Are current advocates of same-sex marriage more true to the conservative spirit than opponents?

Well, maybe not in general. But they're probably more true to the conservative spirit than the Oklahoma legislators currently proposing anti-marriage legislation.

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