A Conservative Case for Same-Sex Marriage

Conservatives and liberals will never agree on gay marriage. This is not because there is no right answer, but because they are having two totally different conversations at the same time, one about equality before the law, one about the definition of marriage. Proponents rightfully claim that marriage is a civic institution with legally recognized benefits and responsibilities and as such must be a concern of some level of government and should be applied equally to gay and straight couples. Opponents, like Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George, the authors of the recent book, ‘What is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense’, rightfully object that this over-simplification ignores the heart of the question: that marriage does have and should have a specific definition, one that enshrines and defends the attributes that make marriage a worthwhile civic institution.

Conservatives certainly are discriminating in the strictest sense of the word. Claiming that the marital relationship has specific characteristics, and failing to recognize relationships that don’t qualify as marriage is a perfectly reasonable thing to do. A marriage is distinct. It is not a business partnership, a child-parent relationship or a casual romantic relationship. It is something. Proponents of gay marriage are putting themselves at a severe disadvantage if they ignore this objection. Unless we confront this question, we make ourselves vulnerable to the laundry list of so called ‘slippery slope’ arguments. ‘Well if a man can marry a man, what’s next? His dog? His toaster?’, some ask. These arguments are ridiculous and deeply offensive. But we must be able to articulate exactly why. In other words, to win on gay marriage, one must make the argument in conservative terms.

In a webinar hosted by the Heritage foundation on the aforementioned book, Girgis charged that those supporters of gay marriage who do offer a definition, describe marriage as a purely “emotional union”, and in doing so, make the three main characteristics of marriage, monogamy, exclusivity and permanence, unnecessary and ignore the crucial social purpose of raising children. If emotional intensity is the only criterion on which to build a marriage, then it follows that marriages should only last as long as the desire, making ‘slippery slope’ arguments very compelling. The traditional, “conjugal” definition involving one man and one woman he argues, does a much better job of accounting for the essential characteristics and social function of marriage. And he’s right. His definition does do a better job than the ‘emotional union’ one. The problem is, those aren’t the only two options.

Only recognizing marriages biologically capable of producing children, while perhaps consistent with certain religious teachings, would be an egregious and inappropriate abuse of state discretion. Requiring sexual complementarity excluding gay couples would easily justify requiring a fertility examination excluding barren couples. An individual unable to biologically reproduce with their chosen life partner is not denied a civil marriage in the latter case. Why should they in the former? The tenets of monogamy, fidelity and permanence and participation in the customary social practices of sharing assets and raising children can and should continue to define marriage as an institution, but from them no principle of sexual complementation can be drawn. If same sex marriage fails to conflict with this customary definition, it can not possibly pose a threat to the institution.

Conservatism is not an ideology with prescribed religious or cultural preferences but rather a prejudice towards what is known. To be skeptical of change is one thing, to reject change when prudent and just is quite another. The LGBT community has been and always will be a part of our society. The burden of proof has been sufficiently met by the countless gay couples expressing interest in pledging their lives to one another, and giving a committed portion of the community the ability to marry will not weaken, but rather strengthen marriage as an ancient and well defined institution.

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