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A Few Good Men

Are there any conservatives who still believe that the gay-marriage battle can--or even should--be won?

9:00 AM, Jul 14, 2003 • By LEE BOCKHORN
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And this, in fact, is precisely what the argument against same-sex marriage has always been about. For centuries, our laws have understood and promoted marriage (though it pre-dates government recognition) as an institution that channels adults' erotic desires into the productive pursuit of rearing children, who must be formed into adults capable of sustaining self-government. It has also been understood as an institution necessarily based on mutual fidelity, sacrifice, permanence, and, crucially, the sexual complementarity of men and women. But this understanding, already weakened greatly by the sexual revolution, must now be gutted further in order to legitimize same-sex marriage--or any other combination of bodies that consenting adults can devise. Protecting the interests of children must now take a backseat to ratifying diverse and infinitely elastic "expressions of commitment" between adults, whatever their effect.

WHAT'S BEEN AMAZING since the Lawrence decision (and even before it, actually), is the loss of backbone among many conservatives.

To take just one example: In the current issue of National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru has penned a defeatist piece on the near-inevitability of gay marriage. Ponnuru argues, rightly, that it is no longer sufficient to count on the "ick" factor to successfully oppose gay marriage. He also notes, again correctly, that slippery-slope arguments about polygamy and incest, true though they may be, concede too much. Such arguments imply that same-sex marriage is not "self-evidently objectionable, but [has] to be condemned because it would lead to other, more objectionable things."

But Ponnuru then concludes that the only rational ground on which conservatives can oppose gay marriage will offend most Americans. "If the argument [against gay marriage] is made openly, and cast as a case for traditional sexual morals in general, a large part of the public will flinch," he writes. Why? Because the logic of the argument against homosexuality, and thus against gay marriage--that sex cannot be severed willy-nilly from its ties to male-female complementarity, procreation, and marriage without doing tremendous harm to our social fabric--"now implicates the behavior of a lot of heterosexuals" in post-sexual-revolution America.

It is indeed true that the argument for traditional sexual morals implicates the behavior of many (perhaps most) Americans today. In response, I simply say: So what? For decades, conservatives have been shouting from the rooftops, bearing witness to the societal chaos created by the new understanding of sex and marriage--the broken homes and traumatized children, the resulting rise in divorce rates, crime, illegitimacy, teen pregnancy, and on and on. So why should conservatives shrink from making this argument now? If anything, the imminent judicial imposition of gay marriage might finally awaken some heterosexuals to the real damage that the sexual revolution has wrought. On the other hand, if this argument fails, it will merely reveal that marriage is in even deeper trouble than we thought, regardless of the outcome of the gay marriage struggle. Thus, the argument over gay marriage is not strictly about saving marriage as traditionally understood; rather, it is to determine once and for all whether that vitally important understanding even still exists.

In the upcoming battle, defenders of marriage must find a public voice--someone (probably, though not necessarily, a politician) who isn't afraid to suffer the disdain of the cognoscenti or be smeared as a "homophobe"; someone both able and willing to set forth the reasoned arguments and crucial distinctions that a successful defense of marriage will require; someone with the patience and fortitude to argue tirelessly that we can respect the dignity of homosexuals while still maintaining the institution of marriage as the union of one man and one woman. And last but not least, we need someone resolutely unwilling to accept gay marriage as inevitable.