A nuanced look at conservatives and gay marriage

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Since President Obama personally came out in favor of it Wednesday afternoon, the debate over gay marriage has dominated the news. This is interesting for a variety of reasons, including the fact that (as the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza pointed out) when Gallup recently asked Americans what their number one issue is, “[l]ess than 1 percent named ‘gay rights issues.’”

Regardless, the media has generally portrayed the debate in the most simplistic manner possible — as if it is a binary choice. As usual, the real debate is much more interesting than that. For one thing, despite the typical portrayal, conservatives are not monolithic. Some, like Dick Cheney, have personal or familial reasons for supporting it. Others make both pragmatic and principled arguments for supporting or opposing it.

Consider, for example, conservative Jonah Goldberg, who in the past has made the argument that the very notion that homosexuals want to engage in “bourgeois” institutions like monogamous marriage proves that conservatism has, in a sense, won. He’s not alone in this thinking. A lot of conservatives secretly believe that married, gay suburbanites would vote for low tax rates, etc.

Meanwhile, libertarian-leaning conservatives argue that the government should be out of the marriage business altogether — meaning government should not be involved in sanctioning gay or straight marriages — that marriage is a religious ceremony and that government shouldn’t intrude either way.

This worldview, of course, raises other questions. For example (and this is not meant to be a straw man or a cloaked “slippery slope” argument against gay marriage), if our government isn’t going to favor a traditional marriage paradigm, why should polygamy remain illegal?

This is a serious question. Why shouldn’t Mormons (or anyone) have the right to enter into religiously sanctioned unions with multiple partners? Why is it legal to have multiple sex partners, but not to officially commit to them? If one is to truly committed to the libertarian position, the logical conclusion seems to be that they should be allowed.

Most traditional conservatives would oppose either redefinition of marriage, a point which may indicate they are more interested in preserving the traditional institution than in depriving gays of their rights.

To be sure, anti-gay bigots do exist. Somewhere. But my guess is the vast majority of traditional conservatives who oppose gay marriage would also favor de facto civil unions (for example, I don’t know anyone who opposes hospital visitation rights, etc.). Their philosophy is simply that there is something special about traditional marriage — and that society should preserve a special designation for it.This may be right or wrong, but it is not inherently hateful or bigoted.

This, of course, is going to be one more divisive debate pitting Americans against each other. Unfortunately, that is the nature of politics and public policy decisions. But the truth is that this is a very complex debate, and there are many crosscurrents. And there are reasonable arguments to be made which transcend the convenient pro-marriage/anti-gay paradigm we have been sold.

Matt K. Lewis