Friday, June 03, 2005

Conservative Same-Sex Marriage 101 -- A response to Katherine Kersten's Star Tribune column

Posted by Craig Westover | 12:12 PM |  

My comments in this fisk of Katherine Kersten’s June 2, column on same-sex marriage appearing in the Star Tribune is based on the context addressed in this post and an interview I conducted with University of Minnesota law professor Dale Carpenter, which will be posted around June 8.

The gist of my criticism is that Kersten tears apart a liberal argument for same-sex marriage, but doesn’t provide a conservative response; she merely supplies an inverse liberal answer -- We have the power; our values rule.

There is a conservative approach to same-sex marriage. It’s embedded in Kersten’s column; she’s just unaware of it. Maybe this fisk will help. She begins --
DFLers at the Legislature want us all to take a siesta on the proposed amendment to the state Constitution that would define marriage as being between a man and a woman. Once again this year, the amendment -- which would prevent judges from redefining marriage in Minnesota -- passed the House but received no vote in the DFL-controlled Senate.
Ironically, the first misconception that Kersten attacks in her article is not a DFL misconception, but a conservative one: Specifically, that the proposed Defense of Marriage amendment is a response to judicial activism. It is not, nor is it a conservative response to the issue of gay marriage.

In the first case, if the amendment were merely a response to judicial activism it would not attempt to supply a definition of marriage, nor would it be so broad as “Any other relationship shall not be recognized as a marriage or its legal equivalent,” a phrase that practically begs for judicial review.

If the concern were really activist courts, all that is necessary is an amendment that says state courts shall exercise no jurisdiction over the decisions of the legislature regarding the gender requirements of marriage -- or words to that effect. If that were the language, that would leave the legislature and the people free to decide in the future if the state wants to have gay marriage, but take the courts out of it. That’s what conservatives should support, not an exclusionary amendment.
Minnesotans' opinions on gay marriage have shifted over the past year, but not in the direction that its supporters might wish. In May, a Star Tribune poll found that 52 percent of adults oppose gay legal unions, while 38 percent favor them, an increase in opposition of 10 percentage points in the past year. Across the nation, the trend has been the same.

Nevertheless, supporters of same-sex marriage seem to believe they're on the right side of history. They view the issue through the prism of civil rights, as the 2005 equivalent of getting black Americans out of the back of the bus.
Related to the point above, the feelings of the majority at any given point in time are the proper province of the legislature -- not the courts and not a constitutional amendment that binds the future to a whim of the present. Even if one accepts Kersten’s point that same-sex marriage is not a civil rights issue, there is a lesson to learned from the civil rights movement.

A tactic of those opposed to integration and civil rights was to attempt constitutional amendment to thwart judicial integration rulings, which as assuredly as an activist judge’s rulings takes decision-making out of the hands of future legislators. That is not a conservative position.

Same-sex-marriage proponents employ a "commitment" definition of marriage, which sees marriage merely as society's way of giving its stamp of approval to an intimate, lasting relationship between two individuals.

If this is all marriage is about, giving gays and lesbians the right to marry each other is merely extending to homosexuals a right that heterosexuals already have. It's a simple matter of justice.

People who hold the commitment definition of marriage see themselves as an enlightened vanguard and reason that other folks will eventually come to accept same-sex marriage, just as they came to see the injustice of racial discrimination.

Kersten is right on with her analysis and argument. What she misses however is that the “commitment” argument is irrelevant to the conservative political justification for gay marriage. The refutation of it is a logical exercise, but equally irrelevant.
But most Minnesotans don't see the marriage debate as a replay of Selma, Ala., in 1965. They understand the nature and purpose of marriage very differently than same-sex-marriage advocates do.

Marriage -- the union of one man and one woman -- is about much more than individual rights, with only the happiness of two individuals at stake. It's a universal, cross-cultural social institution that is critical to the common good.

Make note here that Kersten is making a conservative argument that I don’t believe she recognizes -- marriage is critical to the common good. In the paragraphs that follow, she backs that contention with support for opposite-sex marriage.
Why does marriage exist? Because sex between men and women makes babies: the next generation. Getting men and women to stay together to raise these children is a tricky business, but the long-term survival of society depends on it.
Men and women tend to complement each other in vital ways. Both common sense and long tradition tell us that marriage is the best way of binding fathers to the mothers of their children, for the benefit of all.

Social science bears out common sense here. Kids with a married mom and dad have the best chance of flourishing on every conceivable measure, from avoiding juvenile delinquency and out-of-wedlock births to forming successful marriages themselves.
Note the word “best” and note the pathologies that marriage helps kids avoid.
Some advocates of same-sex marriage insist that family structure isn't important. So long as a child has support from two loving adults, it doesn't matter if they're a mom and a dad or two moms.

Tell that to Star Parker, a black social commentator with a special interest in our ravaged inner cities, where traditional marriage has broken down. "Most children in the inner city," she says, "have two loving adults: a mom and a grandmother. Two loving adults aren't enough. Kids need a mom and a dad."
Okay, it’s time to make the rubber hit the road on this issue. What is actually being proposed here? The reality is gays exist. Gay couples exist. Gay couples with children exist. That might not be the best environment to raise kids -- two parents of opposite genders is better. No argument. But what are Kersten and Parker proposing?

Should we remove all children from gay households and redistribute them through adoption to opposite-sex families? Should we deny all gay people child custody and guardianship? That’s a logically consistent position although incredibly cruel. But if it's "best"?

Okay, we’re not going to do that. But that doesn’t make gay relationships -- gay relationships with kids -- go away. So where is the benefit to society -- the conservative political reason for state support of marriage -- of denying a percentage of kids the security of a family in which the parents are formally committed to one another?

If social science tells us that “kids with a married mom and dad have the best chance of flourishing on every conceivable measure, from avoiding juvenile delinquency and out-of-wedlock births to forming successful marriages themselves,” then what does it tell us about kids that are denied married parents because the parents are of the same gender? They may not have the "best chance," but wouldn't they have a "better chance" than children whose parents weren't married?

Two opposite-sex parents might be the “best” way to raise children. But unless one advocates removing children from the custody and guardianship of gays, then one is left to explain why it is better to deny those children the protections afforded by married parents that to allow their parents to marry.
But how will Tom and Ed's marriage hurt Sue and Bill's?

Obviously, I won't divorce my husband if same-sex marriage becomes legal. But a radical redefinition of marriage -- recasting it as a matter of "love between individuals" rather than the social institution that preserves the nuclear family -- will change what's been called our "marriage culture," with major consequences for our children and grandchildren.
Kersten is the mark here once again, but once again, the conservative political justification for gay marriage has nothing to do with the rationale that two people love each other. Gay marriage does not destroy the nuclear family, it extends it. Why? Because stable families are good for society.
Society has encouraged marriage with norms and reinforcements because it's hard to do the things that men and women need to do to maintain strong, stable families. It's tough to stay faithful to a spouse, to stick together through the ups and downs of child-rearing. Married couples are much more likely to do these things if they know that society expects them, and if they see that it values their sacrifices and rewards them with unique benefits and reinforcements.
Kersten is absolutely correct here. But if opposite-sex marriage is “hard to do,” doesn’t stand to reason that maintaining a same-sex relationship is equally hard to do? Wouldn’t same-sex couples be much more likely to stick together if they knew that society expects certain behaviors of them -- if they see “that it values their sacrifices and rewards them with unique benefits and reinforcements.” Where is the benefit to society of marginalizing a segment of the population that shares the conservative value of stable, committed relationships?

If we adopt same-sex marriage, we'll be sending our children the message that "family structure doesn't matter" -- that kids can do without moms or dads. Instead of encouraging traditional marriage, we'll be offering them a smorgasbord of "life-style options," and telling them their choices are merely a matter of personal taste. Here's the message that will be reinforced in our schools, on television and in the movies: Society has no special stake in any family form. Do just as you please.

And if society doesn't care what arrangements people choose, why should they strive to stay faithful to a spouse? Why should they get married at all? It's much easier not to tie yourself down.

Here Kersten is confusing the liberal message with the gay reality. Yes, there are gays who support a negative view of traditional family structure, and they are sending that message right now without gay marriage. There are also other liberal “victimization” constituencies sending that message. The message has nothing to do with gay marriage.

On the other hand, there is a significant and growing portion of the gay community -- not the liberal margins but the conservative mainstream -- that desires gay marriage not to destroy the institution (that makes no sense) but because it believes in the traditional values that underlie it. Contrary to Kersten’s prediction, the desire of gays to marry and the effort they are putting in to achieve that end should be a lesson to our children of how valuable a stable committed relationship is. Would people put themselves through the public meat grinder to fight for something they held anything less than valuable and dear?

Today, in fact, the message we are sending to our kids is “You tie yourself down to a committed relationship and pay no attention to those gay people that seem to be having a heckeva lot more fun than you are.”
If same-sex marriage prevails, I suspect we'll see both a decline in marriage and an upsurge in out-of-wedlock births, as Scandinavia has.
I suspect the liberal attitude of Scandinavian countries has more to do with the upsurge in out-of-wedlock births that gay-marriage. But Kersten’s concern is still emotionally valid.

So what do we do?

Isn’t the proper conservative response let’s move slowly. It certainly isn’t beneficial to marginalize a significant portion of the population along with their children, but maybe full marriage isn’t the answer either. Let’s start with some kind of civil union or child protection measures for gay families and see what happens. If the sky does not come crashing down, let’s move a little further. Again -- that is the conservative approach to a reasonable need for change.
Here's what same-sex-marriage supporters should understand: Ordinary Minnesotans don't oppose same-sex marriage because they oppose civil rights. They don't think that believing children need both a mom and a dad puts them in the same category with people who believe the races should have separate bathrooms.

The agenda of traditional-marriage proponents is not negative -- fear or hatred of homosexuals. It's positive -- to protect and preserve marriage as the universal, socially supported institution that keeps mothers and fathers together to care for children.
Fifty/fifty on this argument. Kersten gets points for noting that ordinary Minnesotans (as opposed to “gay” Minnesotans?) don’t oppose same-sex marriage because they oppose civil rights. She might have correctly added that opposing same-sex marriage out of genuine concern does not make them bigots either. She loses points on the fear issue; conservatives are afraid, not necessarily of homosexuality, but of any change -- hence an amendment designed to end debate on the gay-marriage issue, not simply protect legislative authority from the courts.

If Kersten’s argument were truly a positive argument -- a conservative argument -- than while not necessarily accepting that a family headed by same-sex parents was the “best” type of family structure, she would be insisting that same-sex couples and their children deserve the same protection of a universally and socially supported instituion that keeps parents together to care for children. Why? Becasue it's good for society.
Minnesotans believe that gays and lesbians have a right to live as they please. But they don't believe that gays and lesbians have the right to redefine the institution of marriage for everyone else.
(To reinforce the point, gays are “Minnesotans” too.)

My final question would be, do Minnesotans really believe "gays and lesbians have the right to live as they please"?

Does that mean that while Minnesotans have a vested interest in promoting the stability provided to opposite-sex partners through marriage, Minnesotans have no vested interest in whether or not gays and lesbians are promiscuous? That lacking stable relationships they are less productive, less healthy, more depressed and have higher incidences of drug and alcohol abuse -- all the pathologies we associate (as social science generalizations) with unmarried heterosexuals?

In final analysis, Kersten’s argument is really an inverse liberal argument -- we have the power, our values rule. Even accepting the worst case viewpoint that homosexuals are evil people and gay marriage is an abomination in the eyes of God, the true conservative political argument, if one is not going to exterminate gays and/or take their children, is that it is more beneficial to extend the protections and stability of marriage to gays -- not all at once but in increments -- than it is to marginalize gay families and their children and consequently promote the pathologies that marriage is praised for preventing.

Gays -- conservative gays -- do not want to redefine marriage. The want to participate in it. And even if they didn’t, conservatives ought to be encouraging them to do so with the same vigor and for the same reasons we encourage our own children "to settle down and raise a family."

Update: My weekly column in the St. Paul Pioneer Press will discuss the conservative approach to same-sex marriage (Wednesday, June 8). In conjunction, I will post the transcript of my interview with University of Minnesota law professor Dale Carpenter.

Update: The column is now posted here. The Interview with Dale Carpenter is posted here.

Update: Blogdex ranked this post one of the most contagious on the Internet yesterday. Thanks all for stopping by.