Long ago, in a world where Andrew Sullivan was still hauntingly conservative, there were supporters of gay Americans who disdained the push for gay marriage. On the one hand, scions of wilted flower power thought the institution as irredeemably alien to the gay identity as a Whole Foods Market in a quaint Southern town. On the other hand, some liberal activists thought it a distraction from more pressing concerns such as bullying, anti-discrimination policy, poverty, health care and a broader fight for “social justice.”
Now, on the eve of 2013 (assuming the world outlasts the solstice), gay marriage supporters have swept four electoral contests and the Supreme Court of the United States has agreed to hear cases in which gay marriage proponents have been so far undefeated. It seems history has accelerated into overdrive.
What should we make of all this?
For his part, Sullivan wrestles with the overriding conviction that gay marriage is right and SCOTUS should acknowledge it thus against the persistently cautious impulse that judicial overreach might undercut the triumph of a cause to which he and others have dedicated decades of their lives. I’m inclined to agree with Sullivan (pause a minute: you won’t see those words very often) and Jonathan Rauch in hoping and expecting that the high court will narrowly affirm the California ruling and strike down all or part of the Defense of Marriage Act without finding (or denying) a broad national right to gay marriage. But whatever my opinion, a broad ruling that nationalizes gay marriage is not unthinkable. In any case, recognition of gay marriage will expand in coming years, and we should contemplate (political) life beyond today’s vanishing opposition.
Before anybody cries “judicial activism,” let’s acknowledge something critical. Some ebb and flow notwithstanding, the tide will never return this ship to port in any generation. It took three decades — longer than most of my generation has existed — after Loving v. Virginia before a majority of all Americans supported interracial marriage. Without any comparable ruling from on high, and despite much public opposition, majority support for gay marriage has come in about half the time. If my peers grow — as I hope — rightward as they age, it will manifest in their endearingly nagging interest in their gay friends’ settling down in loving, committed families. So even if the final ruling is broad, any backlash that emerges will be fleeting. There will never be a marriage amendment, but there may be many policy fights and elections lost — with nothing gained in return — should enough Republicans insist on beating a decomposed horse.
Whatever path the Supreme Court takes, the challenge to conservatives is to figure out how to proactively incorporate the evolving consensus into our wholesome, freedom-in-values-minded vision for America. We appeal to small business owners without dismissing workers through free markets, responsible regulation and pro-growth governance. We appeal to parents without ignoring the childless by emphasizing digital-age education, efficient public policy and reasonable taxes. We appeal to lower-income voters without alienating the middle class (or vice versa) in demonstrating the necessity of a self-undermining safety net and an economic climate conducive to jobs. We can appeal to a gay-friendly young and multicultural America without rejecting traditionalists through an inclusive focus on family values that has long defined the conservative ethos.