I know my fellow social and religious conservatives don’t like to hear this, but Daniel McCarthy explains why we can’t win the gay marriage fight. The reason? It’s only a skirmish in a much broader war that we’ve lost. The essence of the problem? The collapse of Christianity as the foundational bulwark of our civilization — something that happened long before anybody had the slightest interest in promoting same-sex marriage, or the Sexual Revolution. Dan quite rightly points to the sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman’s brilliant historical analysis in Family and Civilization, which I can’t recommend strongly enough to conservatives who wish to understand the present moment.Excerpts from Dan’s essay:

Same-sex marriage will not lead to civilizational collapse; the social atomism of which it is a symptom is more likely to do that. But there are tough questions about how nondiscrimination and public-accommodations laws will be applied against religiously affiliated institutions, even if churches themselves are exempt from having to participate in the public status of same-sex marriage. Traditionalists are right to be worried: religious liberty too is treated as an exception to liberalism, one for which powerful arguments must be made and which always faces an uphill battle. But the key problem here may not be whether or not there’s gay marriage, but the reach of non-discrimination and public-accommodations law.

Social conservatives have a hard time tackling those concerns, however, because of the inherited guilt they feel over the retrograde views that many past conservatives held about legal equality for racial minorities. Social conservatives are also fearful of being demonized as racist in the way that the libertarian Congressman Ron Paul and his son Sen. Rand Paul have been when they have made arguments against nondiscrimination laws. (Barry Goldwater once made much the same arguments.) This is a difficult knot, since conservatives who are not comfortable taking the Goldwater-Paul position against all nondiscrimination law must again make an exception to argue that it shouldn’t apply where homosexuals and their marriages are concerned.

But this the pot in which social conservatives are being boiled. They have made enough concessions to the reality of political life in 21st-century America—to the principle of legal equality and the need for some nondiscrimination law—that they’re left making largely unsympathetic and unconvincing arguments for exceptions. Over time they may feel compelled throw their full electoral weight behind the libertarian principle of tolerance even for intolerance as the only viable alternative to a futile authoritarianism or outright surrender to liberalism. From libertarians they might also take the lesson that just because something is enshrined in law does not mean it has thereby acquired a higher moral status.

I have been arguing for the last few years that this part of the culture war is lost to the religious and social right, and we would be far better off putting all our intellectual and legal weight behind building defensive fortifications for our institutions — in other words, the libertarian solution. I am not a libertarian, but I honestly don’t see any other achievable goal for religious conservatives on this issue.

More from Dan:

For the better part of 2,000 years the meaning of marriage was stable because the authority of Christianity was constant. In an age when the Church no longer supplies the institutional framework for family life, the definition of marriage has become radically uncertain. Into this fluid environment—in which individualism or atomism is once again rising to the fore, as in the Roman Empire—the new fact of homosexuality was gradually introduced. The result, same-sex marriage, has shocked conservatives. But this innovation has moved so far so quickly only because it is not at all out of step with the institutions and ideas of our time.

That’s the bitter truth traditionalists have to somehow swallow. Maybe it’s a generational thing, but I think it’s progress that gay folks aren’t stigmatized as they once were. I don’t want to live in a culture in which they are persecuted. I am pleased that gay people can live openly, even in my small town, without fear — and if I saw someone being persecuted for being gay, I would speak out against it. In my experience, very few conservatives who have actual experience with gay friends and gay folks in general fear and loathe them, as many did in the past. I know I move personally within a pretty narrow group of religious conservatives, but my guess is that most of us share the Church’s moral teaching on homosexuality (which is within a context of a broader teaching on what human sexuality is for), but we know and like gay people, and don’t feel the visceral hostility towards gays that some on the Right do. I think this is a generational thing, mostly. This, in my estimation, is what it means to be tolerant.

The problem is tolerance is not the goal here; mandatory affirmation is, to the point where individuals and institutions who won’t affirm are to be marginalized and punished. The other day I saw a tweet in which someone said that Ross Douthat, a Catholic who articulately defends the teachings of his Church on human sexuality, ought to be thought of as suffering from a psychological disorder. This is how religious and political disagreement becomes a matter of pathology — not a moral argument to be grappled with, but a disease to be cured. This is where we’re headed. It would be wise for conservative Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others to quit fighting a battle they (we) lost a long time ago, and start figuring out how to defend, constitutionally, our religious and cultural institutions from the coming legal assault. Ironically, if we traditionalists are going to be able to hold our ground, we’re going to have to function as libertarians.