A “Conservative Disposition” and Same-Sex “Marriage”



A new flag flies in America’s capital


Despite the absolutely predictable efforts of a few of my most deranged critics to portray me as a vicious gay-hating bigot, I’ve had very little to say over the years regarding homosexuality-related political issues.  Truth be told, they haven’t interested me much.  That is to say, I have lots of other interests that rank higher on my priority list.


But it’s true that I do have reservations about the current rush toward redefining marriage — among them what I, and others, regard as a troubling tendency, yet again, for self-anointed “progressives” to legislate through the courts, as well as the elitist disdain and, sometimes, the pure furious hatred directed at those who dissent from newly emergent orthodoxy on the matter (and who, ironically, are often pronounced purveyors of “hate” by those who actually do purvey hatred).


I’ve had little to say, but, given the topic’s prominence in the news, I’m likely to be reading and saying a bit more about it in the future.  The subject is, as might have been expected, moving slowly up on my list of priorities.  Which, I know, will earn me the virulent contempt of some out there and will cement my image as an angry “hater” in certain other circles.


Nonetheless, here are a few links on the subject that I consider worth sharing:


The always provocative Mark Steyn, on and about same-sex marriage:




But then, see this item, which (among other things and, in my view, rightly) questions the very term “same-sex marriage”:




And notice how, for the umpteenth time, there is an attempt to marginalize, even banish, those who dare to dissent from the new view of marriage:




But there’s no question, in any event, that opponents of the redefinition of marriage are losing the debate right now, and badly, in the so-called “court of public opinion.”  Mona Charen reflects on why this is so:




Incidentally, I’ve heard several commentators on the radio and television lately who have noted that gay “marriage” has been legalized in various states and European countries, and that, nonetheless, “the sky has not fallen.”  (That phrase has recurred so often that I’ve wondered whether it might not be part of somebody’s “talking points memo.”)  But this response refutes a straw man, a caricature.  I don’t know that there was anybody out there — no reflective, serious thinker, anyway — who imagined or predicted that “the sky” would immediately “fall.”  No, the concern is about long-term societal trends.  The kind that are likely to appear only after at least a generation or two, but which, when they appear, could be very difficult to reverse.


In this respect, I share the “conservative disposition” of the late English political philosopher Michael Oakeshott:  He liked to describe himself as a “skeptic,” by which he meant the skepticism of St. Augustine and Montaigne regarding human pretensions to succeed in “the pursuit of perfection as the crow flies,” to create a heavenly kingdom on the earth by their own unaided powers,  to predict, control, and manage the contingencies of human existence.  I’m very skeptical about aspirations to “immanentize the eschaton,” as Eric Voegelin expressed it.


We should have learned humility by now.  (See my earlier thoughts on “Humility and Gay Marriage.”)  We simply cannot foresee and control all of the rippling and ramifying effects of our actions.  We intervene in the economy, and, by doing so, create all sorts of problems in the market that require further interventions to solve them, and these new interventions create all sorts of new problems in the market that require still more interventions.  We arm the mujahidin in Afghanistan in order to fight the Soviets and, a few years later, find them flying airliners into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center.  We eliminate wolves around Yellowstone, and are then obliged to reintroduce them when we discover that they’re actually necessary in the balance of nature.  We use antibiotics to combat a certain pathogen, almost entirely eradicating it, only to find that we’ve helped its surviving representatives to mutate into something still more dangerously lethal.


The ancient Greeks had a very useful concept that is relevant here:  hubris.


We can’t altogether refrain from acting, of course, but we should be very, very conscious of our limitations, and, where there are concerns, we shouldn’t hastily override them.  Not on such fundamental matters as the definition of marriage.


Some are giddy at the prospect that, when the older generation dies off, there will, they think, be little or no resistance to the wave of support that efforts to redefine marriage are currently riding.  Now, I don’t need to be reminded that we’ve made social progress against resistance on many fronts over past decades and centuries (e.g., the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, and the establishment of black equality before the law).  I’m fully on board, too, with the idea that youthful idealism can be a very good thing.  But it can also be a very dangerous thing (think of the Hitlerjugend and Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” and the very young, gun-wielding idealists of the Cambodian killing fields and of various African genocides and civil wars.)  I simply object to the fatuous idea that older people are superfluous, that they have nothing to offer in current debates about social policy and cultural attitudes.


I grew up in the California of the sixties.  We were told that virtually all of those in authority were “pigs,” and never to trust anybody over thirty.  I never bought such nonsense then, and I don’t buy it now.


Both youthful enthusiasm and older restraint are necessary, it seems obvious to me, for there to be even a chance of a balanced society.  A properly functioning automobile needs an engine, yes, but it’s also helpful to have functioning brakes.  There’s a reason why Plato said that the right age to begin studying philosophy was fifty.  There’s a reason why, at the height of the American economic bubble, some writers were cautioning investors to seek out older advisors who had been through a downturn rather than young ones who had never experienced bad economic times.


I’ve always been struck by the fact that, in Arabic, the word for “innovation” is bid‘a — and that precisely the same word is used for “heresy.”  This equation seems to indicate a strong preference for the past, which is precisely true in the sense that the ideal model for Muslims is the Prophet Muhammad and the “pristine Medina” of seventh-century Arabia.  It’s easy for Westerners to criticize such a mindset as regressive.  But, in the West, aren’t we prone to the equal and opposite error?  When we wish to praise something or someone, we often use the word innovative.  But, just as innovation isn’t always evil but can be good, it’s not always good, either.  It can be unwise, imprudent, stupid.  The uncritical embrace of innovation (“change!”) is no more justifiable than its uncritical, knee-jerk rejection.




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  • Jeremy Parker

    I have but one issue with this piece and it is that this should be viewed as a stand alone issue and the result viewed in isolation from other legislation which overturns over 100 years of Christian law in America and abroad. That each new act of divergence must be viewed and weighed in isolation and not as a part of a cumulative effort at supplanting religious morality with secular humanist ethics, is a no win game for those that support the foundations of law and order in America.

    If the question is viewed from that perspective there is little if any doubt that the nations moral decay in it’s laws and social customs has had tremendous and horrible consequences well established, well documented and unquestionably proven. Look at each act separately and we might as well try mass suicide and await the results…

  • Michael P.

    This might be the most thoughtful piece I’ve read on the subject. Thank you.

    “Which, I know, will earn me the virulent contempt of some out there and will cement my image as an angry “hater” in certain other circles.”

    I’m pretty sure you’re already there. Don’t sell yourself short!

  • Eric Davis

    Don’t you think these particular remarks are a little late on this subject?
    By that, I mean a decade ago, and up to about 4 years ago, the question was: Should we redefine marriage, and what will be the ramifications for society?
    That was a decade ago. That’s not even in question anymore. Marriage for gay couples has already happened in many places around the world, and is now legal in 9 states and DC. Other states, including Illinois, Colorado, Nevada, and New Jersey are presently experiencing movement in the same direction. Marriage equality across the entire United States has already become an inevitable certainty. The only detail remaining is: when will each remaining state jump on board?
    The question of “should we redefine marriage?” is no longer relevant. And even if it were relevant, marriage has already been redefined several times over the last several thousand years of history. The common modern conception of “traditional” marriage, where a man and woman fall in love, and where the woman gets to choose to say “yes” or “no” to her suitor, has only been in existence for about the past 100 years or so. Prior to that, a marriage meant an exchange of property between two men. If your marriage proposal did not consist of giving your father-in-law three cows and an acre of grazing pasture, then we have ALREADY REDEFINED MARRIAGE.
    Instead, the question we should be asking is: How are we each going to adapt or evolve our own worldviews to survive in this new conception of modern society? Daniel, I’m sure you are old enough to remember a time in which a majority of Americans thought it “evil” and “unnatural” for couples of mixed race to marry. Lobbyists in the 1960′s were using many of the same Biblical-based arguments against their marriages, as have been used in recent years against gay couples. Fast forward 50 years. How many people in our society today have a beef against interracial marriage? And how would they be viewed by the rest of society if they did have a beef against it? 20-30 years from now, marriage of gay couples will be commonplace, and just as regularly accepted as that of interracial couples. So the question is not, “should we allow it?” but rather “how am I going to adapt to live in a world where it already has been done?”
    If you can’t find a way to adapt to this new reality, then yes, you will continue to be further and further marginalized until your views are no longer relevant to the rest of civilization. And yes, you may even be targeted as a hate-monger, in the same vein as racists.

    • danpeterson

      Polls indicate a still very divided populace, with things very much in flux.

      I don’t think anything is set in stone. And, anyway, I’m talking about a consensus that has endured for thousands of years, not merely the past several weeks.

      • kaph

        In March of 2000 the people of California voted on proposition 22 (over a decade ago) to make it clear marriage is only a man/woman arrangement.

        The CA supreme court overturned it, saying it violated the CA constitution.

        Then the people organized Prop 8, which was specifically to amend the constitution to make it clear marriage is a man/woman arrangement. It passed.

        Now various courts have said it violates the US constitution, specifically stating that only such a measure could be conceived of by hatred of gays and therefore was irrationally exclusionary.

        The debate has been going on for some time. FYI, of all the states to vote on the issue, only three have voted yes. The few others that allow it have been state legislature actions. Far more states have amendments in the constitution with the traditional marriage definition than don’t.

        It’s not a settled question…

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    The “precautionary principle” is the watchword of the international environmental movement, the ethical standard, which many environmentalists seek to enact into law, that the burden of proof is on innovators to prove that their proposals will NOT have a negative impact on the environment. The classic embodiment of this principle in American environmental law is the National Environmental Policy Act, which prohibits all Federal agencies from undertaking any action until they have thoroughly considered all the alternative means of accomplishing their public policy goal, and assessing the impacts on “the human environment” of all the proposals and their alternatives.

    If the US Department of Agriculture proposed to allow the commercial distribution of a genetically modified animal that bore the risk of significantly altering the sexual behavior of 5% of its species, there would be immediate action seeking a court injunction against that action until all the impacts of that gene mod had been assessed, not only short term but also long term, and also cumulatively with other actions being undertaken by the government which might synergistically amplify those impacts.

    Yet here we are, with the President of the United States proposing we conduct an experiment on our human society, and in particular the children who are raised in our families, without even a formal attempt to ask the questions about what impacts this could have on children, families, and society. He has spent far more time delaying the utterly conventional activity of laying an oil pipeline across the central US than he has in considering these questions.

    Same sex marriage is indisputably an innovation, something never on the horizon of the Congress or the State legislatures as they ratified the Constitution and its various amendments. To claim that some part of the Constitution requires all states and all local governments, let alone the Federal government, to not only give legal recognition to same sex marriage, and also to punish people who speak against it or demur from supporting it with their labor, will be seen as an utter lie, a lie that is owed no allegiance by any American. If there are issues of equity and fairness, let them be considered by Congress and state legislatures, and protect the most fundamental right under the Constitution, of the people to govern themselves, which the entire structure is designed to preserve. To tell the people that their votes count for nothing against the decision of 5 of 9 lawyers, is to create the kind of tyranny that the Declaration of Independence was intended to eradicate.

    The Supreme Court is a poor vehicle for making fundamental decisions of this kind, because the assessment of the impacts of such a decision are utterly beyond the expertise and capabilities of the lawyers who sit on the court. The process they conduct is ill suited to making that kind of decision. All of the many interests iof all of the people who would be affected by such a ruling cannot be properly considered in a few hundred pages of briefs and a few hours of oral argument. And the ability to make corrections based on unforeseen consequences of the decision is not part of the process.

    Their injunction is to follow the Constitution as law, not a blank slate for them to write on. Their authority is derived from the Constitution, from the myriad agreements it represents of elected representatives of the citizens, and to the extent they depart from it and innovate, there is no basis for the citizenry to take their word seriously, to obey.

    It is absolutely clear that nothing in the original Constitution, or in its amendments since, including the ones enacted after the Civil War, ever contemplated the intent to alter the historical meaning of marriage to include homosexual relations. The assertion of same-sex marriage advocates, that any consensual relationship must be afforded the same legal recognition and enforcement by government as marriage, was clearly not the rule when the Supreme Court decided the Reynolds case, which affirmed the Edmunds-Tucker Act and its criminalization of polygamous marriage, at a time when the 14th Amendment was already part of the Constitution, created in the ascendancy of the Republican Party whose platform had considered slavery and polygamy to be equally barbaric. The rationale for same-sex marriage is also a rationale for polygamy and the government recognition of any other kind of sexual relationship, a point which was made by the dissenting justices on the California Supreme Court in the decision which Proposition 8 overturned. The term “LGBT Rights” includes Bisexuals, who could demand that they be allowed to have a spouse of each gender.

    Should the majority of the Supreme Court issue a ruling that purports to overturn the laws and constitutions in the majority of states, which prohibit legal recognition of same sex marriage, the court could face open rebellion from many of those states. The vast majority of Senators and Congressmen represent those states, and know they will never be reelected if they allow Federal sanctions to be used to enforce such a judgment. And once people realized that they could defy tyrannical rulings by the Federal courts, their respect for any other ruling will be lost. The broad consensus that is the real source of the power of the Supreme Court will be broken. Such a ruling will not “solve” any problem, but will lead to judicial chaos. It will be a suicidal gesture by the Supreme Court.

  • Eric Davis

    My comments were intended as looking toward the future. I think it’s very safe to say that within 20 years the vast majority of US states will have fully accepted marriage for same sex couples (I suppose there may be a few states – Mississippi, Alabama, Utah perhaps – who are still lagging behind by then). My question was: How will each person be able to adapt to that very real probability? If you are just going to bury your heads in the sand and live in denial that it IS going to happen, well then you’ve already made your choice to be left behind by the rest of society.

    In order for polls to be “in flux” that would mean that there is noticeable movement being made in BOTH directions, not just one. Looking at every national poll taken over the past decade, shows an obvious trend in favor of marriage for gay couples. This is not a state of “flux”.

    Furthermore, what the majority of residents of one state did in 2000 or 2008, doesn’t apply for eternity. People change their views over time. And some of those who voted against something years ago have since passed away, and they are being gradually replaced by a generation that is overwhelmingly in favor of marriage for gay couples. I suspect that if California in 2013 or 14 had a ballot measure similar to Prop 8 again, it would easily be voted down (based on the recent trend in polls).

    Even if you DON’T BELIEVE that it will ever happen, in order to be intellectually honest with yourself, it is imperative that you at least consider the possibility that someday you COULD BE living in a world where same sex couples are married, and that it is accepted virtually everywhere. If you’re not at least considering what could happen then you truly are living in denial. So I will ask you again: How will you adapt your way of thinking to remain relevant to society?

    Finally, just because we attach a word “traditional” to a concept, does not necessarily make that concept better. Slavery was a “tradition” on this continent for at least 200 years. Could anyone today rationally argue that abandoning that “tradition” was bad for society? I don’t see how abandoning our traditional definition of marriage harms any person or our society. My marriage certainly has not been altered in the slightest over the past 8 years since same sex marriage was introduced in Massachusetts. Has yours?

    • danpeterson

      It’s possible, even probable, that same-sex marriage will be the law of the land in twenty years. Yes. That’s true. (Although I think that dissidents from the new orthodoxy are only just now beginning to present a serious case against same-sex marriage, and it’s conceivable, if unlikely — after all, the country has twice elected Barack Obama and seems resolutely unconcerned about our impending bankruptcy — that the electorate and perhaps even our judicial masters will listen.)

      How, if same-sex marriage becomes the nation’s policy, will I deal with it? The same way I’ve dealt with other political decisions with which I disagree. No big deal. But I don’t have to change my mind because 50%+1 of the population, let alone a single judge, holds a different view.

      Regarding most of the rest of your comment: I’ve already dealt with those things, or have posted links (in the very blog entry to which you’re ostensibly responding) to articles that do. I see no reason to repeat myself, and no reason to defend positions that I not only don’t hold but have expressly rejected.

    • kiwi57

      Eric Davis asks an interesting question. Assuming the widespread acceptance of gay “marriage,” he asks:

      “How will you adapt your way of thinking to remain relevant to society?”

      I wonder if Eric would care to explain what he means by being “relevant to society?” His question, as worded, seems to imply or assume that it has something to do with mere unquestioning acceptance of what is going on. Do only those who like what is happening have any chance of being “relevant?”

      I would also like to point out that Eric’s closing remark is an example of the fallacy of composition. The institution of marriage is more than the sum of all currently existing marriages. That his marriage is unaffected by homosexual couples calling themselves married is neither here nor there.

  • Eric Davis

    Fair enough, I should probably explain what I mean by relevant.

    In my first comment, I mentioned attitudes in the 1960′s regarding interracial marriage. Nowadays if anyone brought up a complaint against that marriage, it would not even be given the tome of day, in the mainstream. That kind of view is no longer relevant, because almost nobody supports it anymore.

    In order to have a view that is relevant, it should have at least enough support to make it noteworthy in public discourse.

    In 1992, Ross Perot carried 20% of the popular vote. Therefore he was a relevant third party candidate. In 2008, Ron Paul had less than 1%. He was not relevant to the election. The numbers may be arbitrary, but in my opinion something is relevant if it has enough support on its side to at least make an impact on how decisions are made, even if it isn’t the majority rule in each case.

    So my original point was that in X number of years, the question – should gays be married or not – will no longer be relevant, because by then there will not be enough dissenters to make it a worthwhile debate anymore.

    The question of whether the earth is round or flat is no longer relevant. It was decided long ago. Anyone who argues it is flat is not relevant, based on the vast majority who accept that it is round.

    I believe that within my life, marriage for same sex couples will be the accepted norm. So people can keep making as many arguments against it that they want, but eventually those argents will no longer be relevant, because they will no longer have enough support to make a difference.

    So again, how will people adapt to remain relevant in society? What I’m really asking is: What is the next stage in the evolution of this discussion? Or does having a relevant position matter to you?

    • danpeterson

      Being right matters more to me than being popular or even relevant. Weird, no?

  • Eric Davis

    Depends on your definition of “right”. If by right you mean which side of the political aisle you prefer, then yes, you are very right. If by right you mean that the factual evidence supports your beliefs, then according to your statement about preferring to be right, I foresee you making some significant life changes in the near future.

    • danpeterson

      I always respect others’ professions of faith.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Itis pretty clear that the adviocates of same-sex marriage want to ensure that anyone who does not support their viewpoint is officially declared “irrelevant” by society, and punished by the government for daring to withhold their support. It has already happened in Canada and in some states, where people have been prosecuted for criticizing same-sex marriage or for declining to sell services to a same-sex wedding. Here in my home town in Washington, where same-sex marriage was legalized by the legislature, a florist who has sold flower arrangements to a local gay couple for years declined to prepare floral arrangments for their wedding. The florist has knowingly been selling flowers to them for years, and does not hate homosexuals, but specifically declines being involved in providing a personal service, which would be identified with her, in apparent celebration of a kind of “marriage” that she believes is not sanctioned by God, regardless of the state of Washington. How are the gay couple harmed? There are lots of other florists in this community of over 250,000 people. They are only denied the florist’s personal emotional affirmation. There is hardly any special skill she has that is legally distinct from what they can get just down the street. Yet the local newspaper ran editorials condemning the florist and inviting its readers to condemn her, and ask state prosecutors if maybe she could be prosecuted for “discrimination” in not supporting same-sex marriage.

    The florist’s personal religious and moral views about her own involvement in what she believes is not proper is far more important to her and her conscience than the desire of the gay couple to enlist her talents in their own service. To the extent her service involves personal creativity, it is expressive conduct, conduct which is protected by all aspects of the First Amendment. Yet her rights under the Constitution were not even acknowledged by the newspaper or, more to the point, the state prosecutors.

    The lack of legally sanctioned same-sex marriage does nothing to prevent a homosexual couple from living together and using ordinary legal instruments such as contracts, wills, trusts and powers of attorney to share their economic lives and property. So the apparent goal of same-sex marriage advocates is the enlistment of government, with all its coercive power, not to support the freedom of homosexual couples, but to take freedom away from people who do not applaud same-sex marriage. I am not talking about the basic opportunities of making a living–food, housing, employment, health care, etc.–but activities, even commercial ones, that require personal supportive involvement, such as supporting a same-sex wedding with flower arrangements, photography, creating clothing, playing music, or other creative involvement. There are plenty of people, as Mr. Davis says, who are more than willing to sell these services to gay couples, so that gay couples do not suffer any real deprivation if other people, who could provide such services, decline to do so as a matter of conscience. Yet there is almost no accommodation made in the proposals for same-sex marriage legalization to recognize and balance those other important personal rights of liberty. And that goes double when the legalization is made through blunt force instruments like court orders.

    • danpeterson

      I don’t want to make it a habit, but could I possibly borrow this one, too? Excellent observations.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Dear Professor Dan: If you were asking for my persmission to reproduce my April 1 comment, you have it.