By Joe Lopresti ’15
On October 5, 2011, Prime Minister David Cameron addressed a Conservative Party conference to affirm his commitment to implementing gay marriage in the United Kingdom by 2015. Said Cameron, “Conservatives believe in the ties that bind us; that society is stronger when we make vows to each other and we support each other. So I don’t support gay marriage in spite of being a conservative, I support gay marriage because I am a conservative.” Such a statement may seem bizarre to the average American conservative. For any number of reasons, though generally for religious ones, the American right wing has tended to oppose expanding rights to include gays and lesbians. However, as the recent controversy over the inclusion of organizations like GOProud, a group of gay conservatives, at the Conservative Political Action Conference has demonstrated, many in the conservative movement have started to challenge this tendency, and rightly so. Support for marriage equality for gays and lesbians is a conservative position, and American conservatives ought to embrace it accordingly.
While support for gay rights remains a minority position in the Republican Party, this minority is not nearly as slim as it was ten, or even five, years ago. Prominent conservatives such as Dick Cheney and Ted Olson, who represented George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore and who now represents the plaintiffs in the case Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which aims to overturn Proposition 8, support gay marriage. A case brought forward by the Log Cabin Republicans, an admittedly more moderate group in the GOP, helped advance the repeal of the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy, which passed in the lame duck session in 2010 with help from many Republican Senators, including conservatives such as George Voinovich of Ohio and John Ensign of Nevada. This reflects a trend in the population at large; in an unprecedented shift, surveys taken within the last year by a number of major polling firms have started to show that a majority, albeit a slim majority, of Americans support same-sex marriage. Numbers are even stronger for support of civil unions; a CBS News poll taken August 20-24 of last year found 70% combined support for gay marriage and civil unions. And as one may expect, these numbers are especially strong among young voters, a notoriously weak demographic for conservatives.
This changing tide of opinion helps support the idea that conservatives ought to reassess long-held assumptions about gay marriage, but it does not, in and of itself, demonstrate why that reassessment ought to result in a change of opinion. The arguments of this article will not be of a demographic nature; the potential political gains are not a reason why conservatives should support gay marriage, although they are certainly a welcome side effect. The conservative case for marriage equality is entirely philosophical and ideological. In fact, marriage equality allows conservatives to realize many of their most vital goals: protection of individual liberties from an overly intrusive government, support for strong families that can raise healthy and well-adjusted children, affirmation of religious freedoms and the better nature of Western values, and, of course, equal rights as mandated under the United States Constitution.
The first and last of these points are clearly intertwined. While rights do not come from the Constitution, the enshrining of certain protections in the Constitution ensures that, at the very least, the most important rights are explicitly laid out such that they cannot be violated. These rights are especially important to Americans, and doubly so to American conservatives. The conservative belief in a government with as little intrusion as possible into one’s life serves as the springboard from which all other conservative views flow. For this reason, conservatives support a free market and the ability for one to enter into contracts. The idea that a government could invalidate a mutually beneficial contract that harms no one simply because it disagrees with some aspect of the exchange is abhorrent to conservatives, and rightly so. These views extend to many personal decisions as well; most conservatives have decried efforts by many politicians to limit certain types of (generally unhealthy) food, most notably through trans fat bans. Of course, in comparison to marriage, one of the most important decisions in one’s life, these rights are miniscule. More than anything else, especially in modern life, marriage is a contract, one that binds two individuals in a number of ways, both intangible and tangible, personal and legal. The federal government provides married couples with a number of abilities. By denying to two adult individuals of sound mind the right to enter into a mutually beneficial contract that grants them these abilities, this most crucial conservative belief in Constitutional protection and equality under the law is violated.
Critics of legalized gay marriage also miss the idea that it is possible to support the legalization of gay marriage while not necessarily feeling personally supportive of the idea. Those with religious objections cite Scripture as a main source of their disapproval. However, a prudent conservative recognizes the fact that policy ought not come from the beliefs of one particular religious group; for logically, if one’s own religion can legislate its beliefs, a different religion can pursue legislation against the original person’s beliefs. This is the reason that the Constitution expressly prohibits the establishment of religion. Put simply: no twenty-first century conservative would want to see blasphemy outlawed, and thus, similar logic ought not be used to advocate against same sex marriage.
The second, and quite possibly the most important, reason that conservatives ought to support gay marriage concerns stable families that can raise healthy and well-adjusted children. Today, the United States faces a crisis of failure to form families, especially for children who need them. In many cases, children remain in foster care until they age out rather than being adopted. Certainly, these problems strike at the core of conservative beliefs about the family. Of course, the ideal for any child is to have two capable, loving parents who demonstrate commitment to the child and to one another through marriage. Many gays and lesbians would be more than happy to help resolve these problems. The 2010 US Census found that about one quarter of gay couples were raising children. And contrary to what some on the fringes of the conservative movement say, this is a positive development for these children. The American Academy of Pediatrics published a study in 2002 that confirmed, after collecting data over several decades, that there was “no systematic difference between gay and nongay parents in emotional health, parenting skills, and attitudes toward parenting.” The desire for gay couples to marry and raise children demonstrates exactly what David Cameron meant when he referred to “conservatives [believing] in the ties that bind us… [and] vows to support each other.” Homosexuals clearly wish to join the more traditionally conservative fold through marriage. Conservatives, rather than resisting, should provide enthusiastic support.
The third point, recognition of religious freedoms and of Western culture’s better nature, may sound like a textbook argument against same-sex marriage. Somewhat unexpectedly, however, these ideas point squarely in favor of gay marriage. Critics adhere to the idea that churches would be forced to perform gay marriages in the event of legalization. Of course, no religious institution is required to perform any service that violates its beliefs; it is the reason why churches are not forced to perform marriages, including for people who are not members of the church’s faith. However, some religions, such as Reform Judaism and the Episcopal Church, permit gay marriage, but cannot practice it under current law. Thus, legalizing gay marriage would strengthen religious freedoms, not weaken them.
Continuing in this vain, there are some who claim that gay marriage would fundamentally redefine a “sacred” institution. However, while homosexual acts were disapproved of throughout the history of Christianity, unions of two individuals of the same sex have existed in many Western societies. In medieval France, there existed an arrangement called affrèrement, under which two men would pledge to live together and jointly own property. Historian Allan Tulchin of Shippensburg University argues that there is “considerable evidence that the affrèrés were using affrèrements to formalize same-sex loving relationships… [The affrèrés] loved each other, and the community accepted that.” Thus, the idea that gay unions are without precedent in Western society runs contrary to historical evidence, and by extension runs contrary to conservative views of developing policy.
To close these arguments, it is prudent to examine what may be the most compelling issue regarding gay marriage: the idea that legalization would change the definition of marriage. If that is the case, then perhaps the definition ought to change. Conservatism is not opposed to change when it is warranted. It was, after all, a Republican appointee to the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren, who wrote the unanimous opinion in the last major change in the definition of marriage, Loving v. Virginia. While Warren may not be a conservative in the eyes of many, his opinion in the case, which legalized interracial marriage across the United States, made a conservative argument, framing the decision as one protecting Constitutional rights. Wrote Warren, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.”
Note that Warren’s opinion was not the will of the majority—which, it is worth stating, is often the left’s favorite source of legitimacy. At the time of the ruling, only about a quarter of Americans supported interracial marriage. This opinion came from the central idea of conservative ideology: the rule of law. Occasionally, the fundamental underpinnings of American law, generally inalienable rights, demonstrate that certain minor laws do not stand on firm moral or legal ground, and thus find themselves abolished. For all of the fundamental reasons stated above, conservatives ought to recognize that the minor law that prohibits gay marriage is illegitimate. American conservatives would be wise to heed David Cameron’s words. While the practical political rewards of demographic expansion are palpable, the more valuable moral and philosophical rewards of supporting the logical conservative position in favor of gay marriage are vital for the conservative movement if it wishes to stand on solid footing in the years to come.