The movement to legalize gay marriage has gained significant momentum in recent years. Seven states have legalized same-sex marriage since 2004, and the percentage of Americans who answer “yes” when asked if they support gay marriage has risen dramatically since pollsters first began regularly asking the question fourteen years ago. Conservatives, however, remain staunchly opposed to the practice, which many fear will undermine conservative values and principles. According to a USA Today/Gallup poll conducted last year, 80 percent of self-described conservatives oppose legalizing gay marriage — compared to only 23 percent of self-described liberals and only 46 percent of self-described moderates.
The lack of support for legalizing gay marriage amongst conservatives is surprising because the push to legalize gay marriage serves conservative aims.
The conservative case for gay marriage begins with Barry Goldwater’s landmark book, The Conscience of a Conservative—the manifesto that forms the intellectual foundation of modern American conservatism. As Goldwater put it, “the Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of the social order.” Legalizing gay marriage would do just that.
The argument that legalizing gay marriage would increase individual freedom is pretty straightforward: government regulation of who can and who cannot marry limits individuals’ control over their own lives, and thus decreases individual freedom. Therefore, the government should turn a blind eye to individuals’ sexual orientations, and extend the right to marry to the estimated 15 million gay Americans.
But for gay marriage to increase individual freedom isn’t enough, given Goldwater’s definition of conservatism. For legalizing gay marriage to qualify as a conservative political act, it must also “be consistent with the maintenance of the social order.”
Gay marriage does this too. For one, marriage benefits society by creating a safe, stable, and healthy environment for parents to raise children. Study after study has shown that children raised in wedlock are healthier, happier, and ultimately more productive members of society than children raised out of wedlock. And according to a study conducted by University of California, Davis professor Gregory Herek, this is as true for families in which both parents are members of the same sex as it is for traditional families.
More fundamentally, marriage is about binding two people together, permanently. This kind of formal legal commitment creates more stable households and settles people down. Married people are happier, healthier and more likely to be employed than non-married people, in large part because married people are sacked with the responsibilities inherent in marriage. People who have a spouse to support can’t afford to sit around all day watching TV. And married men are six times less likely to commit crimes than unmarried men, probably in part because marriage changes the costs of incarceration — instead of only having to worry about the effects of their incarceration on themselves, married men have to also worry about the effects of their incarceration on their spouses and children.