Friday, November 09, 2012

The conservative case for gay marriage

My post at Commentary’s Contentions blog on Wednesday, calling upon Republicans to “drop their opposition to same-sex marriage,” occasioned a lot of commentary, much of it quite angry. For the record, I have publicly supported gay marriage for three years now, and privately for longer than that.

The post was not written out of political expedience or disingenuousness. Over at the Daily Beast, Megan McArdle explains what the GOP would look like if it simply threw in the towel:

Gay marriage is going away as an issue, because the advocates have won. (And in the legislature, not in the courts, as they should). Not all the dominos have fallen yet, but they're lined up the right way; it's just a matter of time. Young evangelicals either don't get energized about the issue, or are actively pro. The GOP knows they're eventually going to moderate, which is why you see these fumbling, ham-fisted attempts to reach out to GOProud and the Log Cabin Republicans.What I hold is that a strong case for gay marriage can be made according to conservative principles. The heart of my argument is this line from my post yesterday: “If marriage is everything we conservatives say it is, why should we want to deny its moral benefits to gays?” What I did not do yesterday, however, was to spell out what we conservatives say marriage is. I want to do so now. My conviction is that nothing in a moral account of marriage necessarily excludes gays.

In proposing this line of argument, I realize that I am setting myself against the late James Q. Wilson, who offered perhaps the most powerful case “Against Homosexual Marriage”:It would make more sense to ask why an alternative to marriage should be invented and praised when we are having enough trouble maintaining the institution at all. Suppose that gay or lesbian marriage were authorized; rather than producing [what Andrew Sullivan calls] a “natural foil” that would “not eclipse the theme,” I suspect such a move would call even more seriously into question the role of marriage at a time when the threats to it, ranging from single-parent families to common divorces, have hit record highs.I suspect the opposite—that gay marriage would strengthen the institution. The enormous social pressures on marriage, ranging from the sexualization of popular culture to the casualness of no-fault divorce, have not caused the institution to buckle, but to be reconstituted as a well-fortified refuge. As Pascal Bruckner observes in his newly translated Paradox of Love (Princeton, 2012):The fact that we can choose between traditional marriage, cohabitation, and a free relationship, that in the course of our lives we can encounter several forms of interpersonal connection, is ultimately a major step forward. We have not destroyed the institution of matrimony, we have, like hermit crabs, adapted it to our needs, bent it to our will to the point of making it unrecognizable. The old fortress has not collapsed and remains desirable for many people.Traditional marriage is counter-cultural. It may be only one of the choices available on the sexual buffet, but it is a choice—a choice to stand at cross purposes to the very culture that, in Wilson’s words, threatens the institution. In my view, traditional marriage needs all the allies it can get. One of the most prominent voices raised against same-sex marriage is the gay activist Michael Warner, who argues in The Trouble with Normal that marriage will have the insidious and unwelcome effect of making gays normal. He’s right. That’s the whole point of marriage.

The best account of traditional marriage is Denis de Rougemont’s classic L'Amour et l'Occident, first published in French in 1940 and translated into English in 1956 as Love in the Western World. A history of the literary idea of romantic passion, the book is especially good for my purposes because it ends, as George Woodcock noticed in reviewing it for the Sewanee Review, by coming down “in favor of Catholic orthodoxy.” No more conservative a case for marriage, in short, has ever been made. (Full disclosure: I am an Orthodox Jew.)

De Rougemont argues that much of the confusion in our emotional lives comes about as a result of having inherited two different moral systems—one that values sexual passion, the Stendhalian experience of being swept away against one’s interests, and the other that demands a plighting of a troth, in the wonderful old-fashioned phrase—a promise to stay. “Passion and marriage,” de Rougemont writes, “are essentially irreconcilable.” The one wants “irresistible love,” the heady sensation of losing all control and surrendering to ecstasy; the other prefers being in a state of happiness, which requires self-mastery and the ability to give to someone else what everyone expects in his day-to-day life, what even the passionate man hopes to return to after a bout of rapture—a “sense of constancy.” Too often, though, the desire for romance becomes the basis of marriage. The mistake is tragic. De Rougemont explains:Romance feeds on obstacles, short excitations, and partings; marriage, on the contrary, is made up of wont, daily propinquity, growing accustomed to one another. Romance calls for “the far-away love” of the troubadors; marriage, for love of “one’s neighbor.” Where, then, a couple have married in obedience to a romance, it is natural that the first time a conflict of temperament or of taste becomes manifest the parties should each ask themselves: “Why did I marry?” And it is no less natural that, obsessed by the universal propaganda in favor of romance, each should seize the first occasion to fall in love with somebody else.Traditional marriage is not the denial of passion, but its mastery. A “man does not control himself owing to lack of ‘passion’ (meaning ‘power of the libido’),” de Rougemont says, “but precisely because he loves and, in virtue of his love, will not inflict himself.” He will not force himself upon his lover, because to love means “to accept another being for his or her own sake, in his or her own limitations and reality, choosing this being not as an excuse for excited elevation or as an ‘object of contemplation,’ but as having a matchless and independent life.” Thus de Rougemont’s definition of traditional marriage, in which he underlines every word: it is the institution in which passion is “contained,” not by morals, but by love.

Tell me, because I do not understand, why gays are excluded from this beautiful and moving account—unless you think that gays are disqualified, simply by virtue of loving someone of the same and not the other sex, from the experience of self-mastery and keeping faith. The moral acceptance of another human being is not dependent upon his or her gender. If you agree with James Q. Wilson that “we are having enough trouble maintaining the institution,” I would think you’d want the help of anyone who also seeks to maintain it. Conservatives who believe in traditional marriage have no reason not to bring gay marriage under their belief.


Jonathan said...

Dr. Myers,

Your Commentary piece, discussed here, was just referenced on Canadian public radio (CBC). In a discussion of media coverage of the election, your post was put forth as evidence that, post-election, Republicans were capable of addressing the demographic shift.

The program is called Q and is available as a podcast.

Best wishes,


Unknown said...

Isn't it true that Leviticus includes censorious language about homosexuality? Would that not argue against gay marriage? How does Orthodox Judaism reconcile Leviticus with gay marriage?

D. G. Myers said...


I have discussed Leviticus on homosexuality here.

Paul said...

This a thought-provoking and quite lovely affirmation. An affirmation of what, exactly, I'm not sure I could articulate, but I don't think its "traditional marriage."

"The institution in which passion is 'contained,' not by morals, but by love." In the Abrahamic tradition, the covenant of marriage is first and foremost a relationship between God and his creations, and it is a matter of moral imperative. In the more secularized version, traditional marriage is a benignly hegemonic institution re-enforced through social and legal means -- a little carrot, a lot of stick.

Because here's the rub: the institution of marriage you describe here cannot exclude gays because it cannot exclude anyone. It is entirely a relationship between two individuals. And while you've ostensibly offered a critique of romantic love, you've not only reproduced one of its central tropes -- the Platonic contrast between the devilishly charming heart breaker and the easily overlooked suitor whose steadfast constancy wins out -- you've also completely elided the issues of procreation and sexual regulation and. You've essentially elided all the elements of traditional marriage that don't usually appeal to a contemporary culture that has thoroughly imbibed the idea of romantic love.

Traditional marriage is counter-cultural. It may be only one of the choices available on the sexual buffet, but it is a choice—a choice to stand at cross purposes to the very culture that, in Wilson’s words, threatens the institution.

The ability to choose your romantic partner or whether to marry at all is a historically novel and still emergent phenomenon. Kathryn Jean Lopez still waxes nostalgic for the days of "shotgun marriages" at National Review. But if marriage is not an authentic choice - if it is not "self mastery" but external coercion, if passion is rather emphatically contained by prescribed "morals" and not self-abnegating "love" - is it a real marriage? Is this not a cynical perversion of the ideal marriage that you describe? And more pragmatically, is it not a social convention destined to erode the institution of marriage from within?

It is not a coincidence that the states with the lowest rates of divorce are the most culturally liberal; the corollary is true as well. Marriages are weakest when they become the pathway to guilt-free sex or the default scenario for every romantic relationship that manages to last for two years. Marriages are strongest when they are freely chosen by experienced adults who invest the ritual with all the gravity it deserves.

The marriage that you describe is in no way proscribed by the sexual politics of Michael Warner. While he is more likely to defend the "deviant" sexual practices of BDSM, the proposition that an individuals can contingently surrender a part of his autonomy to another person.

But if I disagree with you on the details, it's only because I find the central proposition so compelling -- and so tragically absent from the discourse of the sexual left and right both.