Conservatism, Liberalism, and Marriage: A Response to David Will


The growing movement opposed to federal and state government recognition and subsidization of same-sex marriage is at once a socially conservative movement and a socially liberal one, while the movement pushing for the immediate and total expansion of state recognition of same-sex relationships is at once ideologically illiberal in its radicalism and practically illiberal in its activism.

What is conservatism? Natural conservatism is a skeptical attitude towards any proposals for change. It can be a fruitful attitude because it acknowledges the limits of human reason. Yet this attitude is not generally what is meant by conservatism. A more enlightening way to describe conservatism is as a conscious, positive disposition towards “the permanent things.” These permanent things are the order and structure in the world that arose independently of governmental central planning.

David Will’s article last month “Questioning the case against marriage equality” is helpful because it acknowledges that marriage and family are permanent things, which any conservative should be disposed to protect. He errs when he ignores the inherent structure of these things as they exist in the world and instead discusses them as they should be. A conservative does not think of the world as it should be without reflecting on the world as it exists. Will also misunderstands the modest point Professor Regnerus’ study established about social reality as it exists. Children generally perform best when they are brought up by their married biological parents, as opposed to any other family arrangement. What Regnerus showed was that compared to this best arrangement, parenting by adults in same-sex relationships is generally not as good for children. Unfortunately there are orphans who will never live in the best family structure, and so we need state policy or charities to help these children into families. But what distinguishes a same-sex relationship is that it can never result in the best family arrangement in which a child is brought up by her married biological parents, whereas even though a child with a stepfather is not in the best family arrangement this second marriage can result in the best arrangement for subsequent children.

Besides its inferior outcomes for children, same-sex parenting, as Regnerus notes and Will agrees, suffered in past decades on account of the instability of same-sex relationships. Rather than denying Regnerus’ research, Will’s spin is that the lack of legal recognition for these relationships caused their instability. As a conservative, he must appreciate how detrimental it would be to rely on the state rather than civil society to change the character of these same-sex relationships. Furthermore, he can speculate as much as he wants about the quality of stable same-sex parenting, but Regnerus did not find this arrangement in his random sample because it is so rare.

Ultimately, Will’s case for supporting same-sex marriage cannot be grounded in a conservative worldview. Yet considering his justification for legal recognition of same-sex marriage, there is a creeping suspicion that his case is even less liberal than it is conservative. That our opposition to same-sex marriage is conservative is unsurprising, but that we are the only liberal voice in this debate is a startling fact that even I find difficult to accept. Liberalism is the political philosophy that admits only one end for government: the protection of freedom and liberty. Freedom is that unique possession of persons, whose exercise gives our actions their meaning and moral character. Liberalism allows the curtailment of one’s freedom only insofar as it impinges on the freedom of another. The liberal state does not limit freedom for the sake of inculcating virtue, and this night-watchman state must itself be vigilantly watched lest by accruing power to itself (even if its laws limit nobody’s freedom per se) it become an unlimited state, which is the greatest threat to human freedom. Not only does liberalism fail to justify state support for same-sex marriage, it must be positively opposed to it.

Both sides appreciate how significant a step this recognition would be. In the course of this debate, we will decide whether the government can not only regulate social institutions but also completely change them. Marriage will be a different institution after we redefine it. Legally there will not be same-sex and opposite-sex marriages, there will be only one legally recognized form of marriage, which will then mean a consensual affective relationship between two persons. Even this new definition will be subject to revision as people realize how arbitrary the number of persons is. Similarly the sexual nature of these relationships would be an arbitrary aspect. Why should the state give benefits to people for this private relationship just because they happen to sleep together? If government can build and destroy any social institution (even one as fundamental as marriage), the limits to its power will have been undermined in principle.
Beyond this unleashing of the state, the marriage debate also revolves around the issue of religious liberty. Even if the Colorado baker who refused to serve at a same-sex wedding were a bigot, it is not the role of the liberal state to teach him open-mindedness. If his liberty is not respected, it is hypocrisy for the Left to mock the religious Right for using public schools to teach the virtues of piety and faith through school prayer. Will’s argument is particularly illiberal, since he believes that the state ought to recognize same-sex marriages partly so that gay people can be taught the virtues of fidelity and commitment, enabling them to raise children in stable homes. If the state can take the inculcation of moral virtue as a legitimate end, then what objection is there to the old sodomy laws?

This debate is not between conservatism and liberalism. Their principles of order and liberty are not naturally opposed, although they sometimes conflict. Yet in the marriage debate one cannot be truly liberal without also being truly conservative. This is a debate between the radical Left and the rest of us, both liberal and conservative. The methods of the radical Left are as illiberal as their aims. They are using both social and legal coercion to force public consensus on the marriage debate. The enforcement mechanisms of the civil rights movement still exist, and their full force will be brought down upon those whose conscience and religious convictions will not allow them to participate in same-sex weddings and marriages. The Left will not allow room for these people to co-exist, because one of their goals is the normalization of same-sex relationships. A “bigot” anywhere is a threat to this goal and so cannot be legally accommodated. Not only do their goals not allow religious liberty exemptions, but the radical Left’s methods for redefining marriage has been scandalously undemocratic. Rather than appealing to the American people first and having a consensus develop, which could culminate in revised state laws, they have worked primarily through the courts.

The debate today is not between liberty and tradition on the one hand and equality on the other. The equality that supporters of same-sex marriage promote is not the equality of persons before the law but the pretended equality of everything with everything. Human equality is a principle grounded in our common nature, but this nature is a given. There are desires we have that cannot be fulfilled because our nature limits us. Two men may desire to live like a husband and wife, but that transcendent act in relation to which marriage is defined—the conception of new life—is not the result of an endlessly malleable power. Every human is created equal, but not every sexual act is the same. If one denies the essence and limits of our nature, one denies that which grounds our equality before the law. To deny human nature is to undermine human equality itself. Their false egalitarianism must never displace that liberalism which is our great heritage.

The same-sex marriage movement has opposed itself to two of America’s greatest blessings: liberty and order. No movement that contradicts the liberal and conservative principles of this country can long survive, and so we have hope. There will always be fights between liberals and conservatives, but this debate is not one of them. Only when liberals and conservatives unite in defense of marriage can we succeed.

Finally, I described the movement opposed to government recognition of same-sex marriage as growing. Yet Will says that increasing numbers of Americans have changed their mind on this issue. We are both right. Fifty years ago nobody supported same-sex marriage, but at the same time, nobody opposed it either. The definition of marriage as between one man and one woman could be found in the dictionaries, the law codes, and the entire body of social thought. Yet since same-sex marriage was not even a concept, there could be no opposition to it, which also means there could not be any explicit arguments against it. It has only been with the rise of this radical movement that its opponents have become explicit about why same-sex relationships ought not to receive legal recognition. What was hidden and seen only dimly has become clear and reasoned through. What we knew by common sense is now confirmed by philosophy and social science. Where there were still waters there is movement.

So, despite the radicals’ successes, there are promising signs. Ten years ago, the Anscombe Society did not exist, but today there are more than twenty campuses with Anscombe-like groups. A couple years ago the March for Marriage began, and, like the March for Life, it will continue for decades. The traditional definition of marriage was always assumed by the law, but in the past two decades more than thirty states have written it into their constitutions. Those who oppose same-sex marriage today will not be as easily convinced as those who have changed their minds. It is now time for the long slog. We are battered, we are bruised, but we are not beaten, and we will never give up.

Ben Koons is a junior from Austin, Texas, majoring in the Philosophy Department. He can be reached at

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