Home/Rod Dreher/‘Where I Might Be Wrong on Gay Marriage’

‘Where I Might Be Wrong on Gay Marriage’

Detail from a 1486 edition of Boethius' 'The Consolation of Philosophy' (POP/Flickr)

You think there’s nothing new to be said about same-sex marriage, and you’re mostly right, but the editors at the conservative online magazine The Federalist have come up with something worth reading. Half of them are for gay marriage, the other half against, and they’ve asked contributors on both sides of the issue which aspect of your own position on the issue gives you the most pause. The results are pretty interesting.

Mollie Hemingway, who opposes SSM but believes, libertarianishly, that the government should get out of regulating marriage, says that the more she thinks about it, the more she realizes that “getting the government out of marriage” will make a bad situation worse. Heather Wilhelm, who also wants to get the government out of marriage, similarly fears that the government taking a hands-off position, while satisfying to libertarians like her, avoids more difficult issues, such as protecting the liberties of dissenters.

Jody Bottum, a conservative Catholic who caused a huge blow-up when he endorsed SSM a couple of years ago, says what keeps him up at night is fear that the theocon pessimists were right about what’s going to happen to religious freedom under the new order. It’s already happening, he points out, and he hopes that this trend is stopped before it goes too far. Excerpt:

I suffered in my profession for supporting same-sex marriage. Not much, in truth, but a little, and having already been through all that, why would I change my position now? Still if the day comes that no one is allowed to speak or write against same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior—if the day comes when, across the nation, people lose their jobs, lose their businesses, lose their voices—then I pray to God I will have the strength to join the other side.

Eric Teetsel, who heads up the traditionalist Manhattan Declaration organization, shares my concern as a marriage trad: that our position is unfair to same-sex couples who ought to be able to expect some kind of help from the government in forming stable households. But my position for years now has been that some form of civil union should be permitted under law for exactly that reason, but it has been clear since California provided civil unions but got sued anyway that civil unions would never be accepted because they would be seen as separate but equal. So I’m not really troubled by this today, though I was a decade ago, when I was trying to decide if a marriage trad could in good conscience support civil unions.

Ben Domenech, who is an Evangelical Christian and a libertarian who supports SSM, says that his greatest concern, like Bottum’s, is that now that SSM is about to become the law of the land everywhere — as he believes it should be — precious few people will care about religious liberty. Domenech writes:

From the perspective of the secular Left, the fight over gay marriage in our political scene was merely a prelude to what they truly want to achieve: the destruction of all family units and the elimination of publicly practiced religion. No families and no God but only the state. All the while, they have dismissed the concerns of religious Americans as absurd. As Ayn Rand wrote, “The uncontested absurdities of today are the accepted slogans of tomorrow. They come to be accepted by degrees, by dint of constant pressure on one side and constant retreat on the other — until one day when they are suddenly declared to be the country’s official ideology.” Refusal to honor that ideology by religious Americans creates an inevitable clash in the courts and the culture, and libertarians must be prepared to defend the liberty of religious citizens just as they stood with gay citizens.

Read the entire symposium.

On this comment thread, I would like you readers to do the same thing that the Federalist writers have done: think about which part, or parts, of your position on SSM gives you the most pause, and articulate them.

It’s hard for me to figure out how to answer this, because I’ve become such a fatalist on the issue. For at least seven years, I have been saying that SSM was going to become the law, and it was going to become the law not so much because the media, academic, legal, and corporate elites wanted it to — though they certainly do — but because it makes perfect sense to ordinary Americans, given what we have come to think about the meaning of sex and marriage. My only hope for these years is that religious liberty means enough to the courts — because in the end, they are the only institutions that matter to this question — to carve out a place respecting the religious liberty of the dissenting minority.

I have not been hopeful about that, in part because I am a natural pessimist, but mostly because I have spent most of my professional life around people who cannot imagine why anybody would have a problem with same-sex marriage, except that they are the kind of hateful bigots who deserve to be driven to the margins of public life, and who are owed no consideration at all. I expect the worst, and expect this issue to eviscerate churches in ways that most church leaders don’t anticipate.

So how would I answer the question? At one point, I might have answered that by saying that I don’t give enough consideration to the possibility that maybe gay marriage will come to pass and things won’t fall apart. There too, though, I have come to terms with it. People who say, “Look, Massachusetts has had gay marriage for a decade, and things are rolling along just fine there, so what’s your problem?” — they’re not really interested in the real issue here. What conservative with more than two brain cells to rub together thought that as soon as SSM became legal, Massachusetts or any other state would go off the deep end? Not me.

SSM matters not because of simple cause-and-effect, but because it is a Rubicon of principle. It decouples marriage from its traditional meaning, or to be precise, it ratifies in law a decoupling that had been underway for decades. And it is about to be constitutionalized by the Supreme Court. Once marriage is commonly seen as solely a contractual, expressive social phenomenon — as it already is by most people, whether they realize it or not — then things begin to fall apart, as they have been for the poor and working classes for some time now.

If we did not have gay marriage anywhere, and it was on nobody’s radar, we would still be in just as much trouble now with marriage stability. But the principles we have accepted as applied to straights, but that make gay marriage conceivable and justifiable morally and legally, will prove over time to have been disastrous, I think. I lay out that case more or less here. 

We will see. I’m not worried that I might be wrong on this, because there’s no stopping it anyway, and we won’t be able to tell for another 20 years at least. The reason my interest in the issue has been about religious liberty for so long is because I don’t believe most Americans really care about it, despite what the First Amendment says, but I’ve hoped that when the rubber hits the road, a good number of Americans will understand how much their own churches, religious schools, and institutions may be negatively affected by constitutionalizing SSM, and demand some kind of accommodation.

I’m starting to doubt that will happen. That we recently had a Catholic bishop — Bootkoski of Metuchen — throw overboard a veteran Catholic schoolteacher because of a slightly intemperate Facebook remark about homosexuality, is a terrible sign. Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia has been terrific on the religious liberty issue, and has been for a long time. But I sense that the social pressure from lay Catholics on the bishops to conform to the Zeitgeist will be overwhelming. Many will resist it; many will not. This is what I mean by it eviscerating the churches. What we are about to see, I fear, is that a shocking number of American Christians don’t even believe in the religious liberty of their own churches, because they have bought into the narrative that to find homosexuality to be morally problematic is the same thing as being a racist. This is what happens when churches and Christian parents abdicate catechizing their children to popular culture.

I hope I’m wrong.

But look, I’ve digressed plenty on this question. I simply don’t know how to answer it for myself. If my position on SSM had a ghost of a chance of succeeding, I would know how to answer the question. But that ship has sailed.

How do you answer it for yourself? What is it about your position on same-sex marriage that bothers you the most?

UPDATE: I’ve re-thought about this to frame it in a way that makes more sense in fidelity to The Federalist’s question: What aspect about my position on religious liberty vis-à-vis gay marriage gives me the most pause? 

That’s easy to answer: that it would leave gays and lesbians subject to being unfairly fired or thrown out of their housing simply for being homosexual. I think our best hope as a pluralist democracy is to adopt something like Utah’s anti-discrimination statute, which gives protections both to LGBTs and to religious institutions. But that still doesn’t say what businesses can or can’t do, as far as I know.

I understand why a Christian wedding cake baker may believe that she cannot in good conscience make a cake for a same-sex wedding. I think it’s perfectly fine for people who find that to be discriminatory to take their business elsewhere. Though I am a conservative Christian, in most cases I can think of, I would choose not to do business with a merchant who refused to trade with gay customers. I think the reason this doesn’t worry me so much is because I think very few businesses operate like this, or would operate like this. Do you see a bakery refusing to sell pastries to gays? I don’t.

Still, I am concerned that to protect religious liberty to the degree I would like to see it protected would require having to sign off on giving some nasty people the right to mistreat LGBTs out of sheer meanness.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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