Prop 8: Three Options for Social Conservatives

The push for same-sex marriage is a push for the normalization of a sexual behavior that was once widely considered immoral and counter to the interests of society. It is one thing to say that people should not face discrimination on the basis of sex or skin color; it is another to say that the state cannot differentiate between different courses of action. Practicing homosexuals who seek marriage are defined not by something outside their control but by a voluntary set of behaviors and decisions, and the state should not be compelled to reward those decisions in the same way that it rewards the decision of men and women to marry. 

Second, make it abundantly clear that opposition to same-sex marriage, in general, is not a matter of fear or hatred. Christians in particular have done poorly in this area. As I have written elsewhere, we as Christians are existentially committed to the proposition that God loves and extends grace to all sinners -- and that we are each, like the apostle Paul, the worst of all sinners. We must profess with our words and show through our actions that we are absolutely committed to loving and respecting practicing homosexuals even though we believe that the way in which they are living their lives is contrary to the will of God.

This will require meaningful relationships, acts of extravagant self-sacrifice, and the kind of humility that looks first to our own faults. How many of those who oppose same-sex marriage have stood up for gays when they are the victims of hate crimes? How many have served gays who are in need? And how many have confessed our own sins against homosexuals? Since the voices of music, television, and movies ring loudly in the ears of the younger generations, proclaiming the message that opposition to same-sex marriage is a consequence of hatred or homophobia, dramatic counter-examples will be necessary. 

 Third, social conservatives should argue that they have every right to bring religiously informed moral convictions into the legislative and voting processes. Judge Walker categorically rejected every claim from the defense that the enactment of same-sex marriage would affect society detrimentally. One of the most baffling findings was that "The evidence shows beyond debate that allowing same-sex couples to marry has at least a neutral, if not a positive, effect on the institution of marriage." It is hard to imagine -- especially since same-sex marriage has not been legally established anywhere in the modern world for very long -- that same-sex marriage, "beyond debate," would have a neutral or positive effect. Once he had concluded that there was no pragmatic interest in restricting marriage to heterosexual couples, however, Judge Walker concluded, "moral and religious views form the only basis for a belief that same-sex couples are different from opposite-sex couples." Moral and religious views such as these, however, are "not a proper basis on which to legislate."

This is one of the most troubling assertions in the ruling. When did it become impermissible to write or vote on legislation on the basis of religious or moral convictions? Judge Walker is expressing a legal libertarian point of view -- that the only possible justification for a law lies in the pragmatics of preventing harm. Yet there are any number of laws, historically as well as presently, that give expression to the collective moral judgments of our society. The legislative process is a contest of competing pragmatic as well as moral commitments. Social conservatives need to press the point that the American people, and the inhabitants of particular states, have every right to shape their laws according to their most deeply held convictions, including their (moral and religious) vision of the good society. The Constitution protects certain fundamental rights and thus places a limit upon the laws we can legislate, but certainly this is the question: whether the law is constitutional, not whether it is formed on the basis of religious and moral convictions. Judge Walker's ruling is the consequence of religious privatism run amok, as though religious and religiously informed moral beliefs have no place in social discourse.

Conservatives in general need to make a more compelling case that the enactment of same-sex marriage will only hasten the continuing deterioration of the family structure, with all the deleterious consequences that we have already begun to see, especially in our inner cities. Yet even the individual who cannot prove beyond question that same-sex marriage will harm society has every right to oppose it on moral and religious grounds. 

 Fourth, social conservatives should keep their concern with the traditional definition of marriage in proper perspective, and should cease undermining their message through the faults of the messengers. Preserving the biblical and historical institution of marriage is certainly important, but it is not the only important goal for social conservatives. Proponents of same-sex marriage have successfully caricatured their opponents as obsessed with matters of the bedroom and blithely unconcerned with economic injustices or suffering overseas. It was never the case that social conservatives cared only about abortion and sexuality, but we can do a better job today of locating our concern for the institution of marriage within a broader vision of the good and just society.

Incalculable harm has come from political and religious leaders who opposed same-sex marriage but were later shown to have sexual or even homosexual sins of their own. Stories like those of Ted Haggard or Larry Craig or even Mark Souter make it all too easy for gay-marriage activists to portray our opposition as a manifestation of sexual repression.

8/6/2010 4:00:00 AM