In the pages of The American Conservative rests a thoughtful concession- by a conservative- that the war against marriage equality has been lost because, at heart, it made no sense if one was being a genuine (read: thinking) conservative. The whole article is a good read (and not just to see Senator Jim DeMint described as "guileless") and one it would be fun to read someone in the SCGOP- Wesley Donehue, for example- try to rebut.
Meanwhile the repressive approach favored by almost all Americans before the 1960s—it was hardly a distinctively conservative position—has collapsed in the face of reality. Medicalizing or criminalizing homosexuals away was never going to work: what would be achieved after all that effort—the therapy programs, the prison terms, the tax dollars to pay for everything?
Yet if homosexuals were not going to be under legal or therapeutic penalty, what would become of them? This is the question to which few conservatives can supply a satisfactory answer because the principles that conservatives affirm point toward policies that conflict with their wishes.
If a conservative continues to endorse the pre-1960s mentality—itself a modern mentality, quite different from that of, say, the 1760s—then opposing gay marriage and banning homosexuals from serving in the military is not nearly enough. How can such people be too corrupting to be trusted in the barracks or on the battlefield yet be deemed safe for schools? Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) was guileless enough to express this logic in a 2004 election debate: “We need the folks that are teaching in schools to represent our values,” he said, agreeing that this definition did not include homosexuals. (He later added, in a spirit of fairness, that it also did not include “a single woman, who was pregnant and living with her boyfriend.”)
Consistently applied, this perspective leads to the conclusion that anti-sodomy laws are of some importance, thus Lawrence v. Texas was not merely a moot exercise in judicial activism but a substantive blow to virtue and justice, and at a minimum homosexuals should be discriminated against in public and private employment. Yet this is more than many social conservatives are willing to contemplate, and it most certainly is not something that Republican politicians more discreet than DeMint are willing to voice.
The second consistent position that conservatives can embrace, however reluctantly, would be that of providing full legal equality. This could be seen as a capitulation to liberalism; it could also be seen as an acknowledgement of reality. The trouble with this position is that it doesn’t stop where most conservatives would like it to stop: the logic of legal equality certainly demands that homosexuals be allowed to serve in government, including in the military, and prima facie it demands that they be afforded equal access to the institution of marriage. Conservatives can try to draw the line before that point, but doing so requires making an exception to the principle of legal equality, and exceptions are, by their very nature, more difficult to establish than arguments that go along with general rules.
There is an argument that can be made against same-sex marriage on grounds that have nothing to do unequal treatment of homosexuals. Namely, the benefits to society that arise from the institution of marriage—the reasons we keep the institution around after a few thousand years—do not apply with much force to same-sex unions. Historically, marriage was the institution that conferred legitimacy, giving wives legal privileges above mistresses and concubines and according legitimate children rights to property and higher status than illegitimate ones. Vestiges of this ancient household basis for marriage still remain. But they aren’t much of an issue with same-sex marriage since children only arise in such contexts from very deliberate plans—which cannot be said about the appearance of children in heterosexual relationships.
The broader social interest in limiting promiscuity and encouraging bourgeois life doesn’t apply to gay marriage for reasons having to do with the differences between the sexes themselves, not differences in sexual orientation. Men, heterosexual or homosexual, are generally promiscuous. Women, heterosexual or homosexual, tend to be less so. Heterosexual marriage reduces promiscuity precisely because it applies the less promiscuous nature of the wife to limiting the promiscuity of the husband. Two men cannot on average be relied upon to check one another’s promiscuity. Many notable homosexuals are quite honest about this; the writer and activist Dan Savage, for example, who wishes to make monogamy less essential to marriage for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike, last year told the New York Times, “The mistake that straight people made was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous.”
Two women, by contrast, do not need the legal force of marriage to maintain a monogamous relationship: lesbians are already more monogamous than heterosexual couples. In practical terms, so far as checking promiscuity is concerned, marriage is superfluous for lesbians and not very effective for homosexual men. To the extent that marriage serves as a brake on promiscuity at all, this is owing to the sex differences of the spouses.
The weakness of this argument is that it’s still exceptional: does it present a strong enough case for making an exception to legal equality? Probably not for most Americans, who cherish the sentimental side of marriage—the individualistic and emotive side—over its institutional and biological basis.
Social conservatives are caught between two worldviews, each of which they are reluctant to endorse fully. And with good reason: neither is a genuinely traditional because the traditional world—the Christian civilization to which social conservatives look as their ideal—has already given way to something radically new, leaving traditionalists with a choice between modern alternatives of left and right, neither of which is wholly in accord with the old values.