My NSU colleague (and SDP colleague) Professor Jon Schaff has a piece in the American News on gay marriage. He will probably post it here, as he usually does, but let me spoil part of the surprise: he presents no strong argument in favor of it. His column is clever and guarded, so much so that one can not exactly say he is against it either. But the column surely looks like a list of reservations.
As such it is very good, and I think I agree with everything he says. Consider this:
Is there a rational defense of traditional marriage? Marriage teaches
us to love someone who is truly an other, as someone of the opposite
sex is of a different sexual nature. Further, traditional marriage,
open to children, is obviously necessary for the continuation of a
civilization. Finally, marriage and family are the best institutions to
raise responsible citizens.
Same-sex marriage will perpetuate disconnect between marriage and children. Forty percent of all children in America are born outside of marriage. Children born in this situation are statistically more likely to be poor, struggle in school, get involved in drugs and crime, and suffer a number of other pathologies. Having a mother and a father in the home divides the work of parenthood and brings complementary gifts to raising children. When society endorses a view of marriage as self-fulfillment rather than self-giving, these familial habits get that much weaker.
As a defense of traditional marriage, this is very good. It represents the best side of traditional conservatism.
The trouble is, it doesn't add up to an argument against gay marriage. To be sure, traditional marriage pairs the only two kind of human beings who are biologically distinct, and it exists because, as Aristotle pointed out, men don't know who their children are. Marriage provides assurances to the male that these children are his children, thus encouraging him to invest in them. It provides both a mother and a father as influences for sons and daughters. But many traditional institutions get adapted to new purposes without the old ones being undermined. The use of Black churches as rallying points in the Civil Rights Movement comes to mind.
I think Professor Schaff is right on target when he criticizes "a view of marriage as self-fulfillment rather than self-giving," but it is not obvious to me why homosexual marriage necessarily involves or promotes such a view. Marriage is about mutual obligations more than self-fulfillment or rights. Anything short of that is not marriage, but something else. It is an unfortunate feature of the campaign for gay marriage that it has been almost totally oblivious to this fact.
But I see no reason why gay marriage cannot be defended on traditional grounds. Gay thinkers like Andrew Sullivan have argued (if I remember correctly) that marriage would promote more responsible sexual behavior among gay males. A "monogamous" same sex marriage would be a bulwark against veneral diseases just as monogamous heterosexual marriage is, when the partners honor one another with a sacrifice of fidelity.
I am not here arguing with Professor Schaff, as he takes no explicit position against gay marriage in his essay, but I think that his arguments represent the best grounds that conservatism (unassisted by Divine law) has for a rejection of gay marriage, and it seems to me that they are weak for that purpose.
* * *
The arguments for gay marriage are, in general, similarly wanting. As I have argued many times here, restrictions on marriage to heterosexual relationships do not violate equal protection for they are generally applicable. A homosexual man cannot marry another man, but neither can a non-homosexual man.
My cherished interlocutor, A.I., makes a good point in a comment that I believe I never got around to replying to. But I remember it: he asked about poll taxes. Poll taxes were fees that a person had to pay in order to vote. These were generally applicable; does that mean they are okay? No, I reply, it just means that whatever is wrong with them, it can't be selective application. Polls taxes were specifically designed to keep Black voters, who were disproportionately poor, from voting. Like laws against miscegenation, the purpose of poll taxes was to keep a certain subpopulation "discrete and insular." On in the words of the majority opinion in Plessy, to keep the races from "commingling."
By contrast, traditional restrictions on marriage cannot function to keep the homosexual population more isolated. If anything, such restrictions invite commingling. Similarly, such restrictions cannot be a violation of the right to marry whomever one wants to, since no such right exists or should exist. Lots of restrictions on marriage are valid. One cannot marry one's sister, or someone under age, or a third person, or a horse. Apart from racial restrictions, the Constitution offers no guidelines as to which restrictions are valid and so the question is political rather than legal. Courts that have ruled otherwise are merely writing their own political opinions into the law.
With no decisive arguments for or against gay marriage, I suspect that its eventual legalization is inevitable. But it seems to me that the gay rights movement and conservatives might find common ground on this one. Both have an interest in seeing that marriage means "self-giving" more than "self-fulfillment." I have little hope for this.
In the first place, it would split both sides of the chamber. Religiously motivated conservatives would never forgive more libertarian minded conservatives (like myself) for giving up, and a large part of the gay activist community is not the least bit interested in any sort of marriage that implies restrictions on behavior. Moreover, both the left and the right are probably less interested in the issue than they are in disappointing the other side. In the current climate, that means that conservatives lose twice. Gay marriage becomes a reality, and as Professor Schaff predicts, the institution of marriage is futher diluted.