SO, HERE WE ARE. After the Supreme Court's decision in Lawrence v. Texas striking down that state's anti-sodomy law, the question has been, Is gay marriage next?

Barring some unforeseen event, the supreme court of Massachusetts will declare homosexual marriage legal this week. The nation's legal machinery will then crank up, as other states try to decide whether they should (or must) also recognize these marriages. The debate over whether to make gay marriage legal nationwide will no longer be a theoretical matter but a real one, with enormous consequences hinging on its resolution.

Some Americans, demonstrating the aversion for cultural conflict that has become a hallmark of our Bobofied culture, would rather that this whole messy debate not take place at all. Take Michael Kinsley, for example. Adopting an idea touted for several years by libertarians such as David Boaz, Kinsley recently suggested that we sidestep the debate altogether by privatizing marriage. Get the state out of the business of defining what marriage is, he argues, and let people make whatever contractual arrangements they wish to call a "marriage," using whatever combination of number, rules, and duration they prefer. This would leave others (including religious groups) free to accept or reject these marriages, based on their own standards.

Kinsley calls this "think[ing] outside the box." Now, anyone outside of the corporate consulting world who uses that catchphrase should be punished with twenty lashes from a wet towel, irrespective of the merits of their thoughts. But more important, when marriage has already been pummeled as it has by the disintegrative social and sexual forces of the last four decades, is further diminishing it to bloodless, libertarian-style contract-making and the unbridled pursuit of self-interest really the answer? (For more on this question, see the excellent book by libertarian economist Jennifer Roback Morse, Love and Economics: Why the Laissez-Faire Family Doesn't Work.)

Kinsley claims that his solution "ought to satisfy both camps" in the gay marriage debate. What planet is he living on? Surely he must know that the public nature of marriage is crucially important to the most sincere gay marriage advocates, such as Andrew Sullivan. They desire marriage, among other things, for the legitimacy it will grant to homosexual behavior. (This is why Sullivan rejects mere "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships.") As for those who object to gay marriage, Kinsley believes his solution should suffice because "if you and your government aren't implicated, what do you care?" But defenders of traditional marriage aren't merely troubled by being personally implicated in government endorsement of gay marriage. They're troubled because they believe gay marriage will further weaken, perhaps irretrievably, an essential institution that's already on the ropes.

Nevertheless, having sufficiently demonstrated his cleverness, Kinsley goes on to describe why such a radical "privatization" of marriage is probably unlikely. Contra Kinsley, last week John O'Sullivan sketched a plausible pathway through which such a privatized system could gradually emerge. What's further, O'Sullivan believes that in this bustling marketplace of partnerships, the traditional/religious marriage ideal will ultimately triumph. But this seems willfully naive. Real marriage is demanding and difficult, and without a larger societal framework providing explicit support through its laws and institutions, it seems unlikely that marriage, among a smorgasbord of "lifestyle choices," would remain as strong or appealing as O'Sullivan thinks.

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.

Who will this person be? President Bush? Probably not. On cultural issues like this, the "uniter-not-a-divider" Bush usually emerges over the "bring-'em-on," "axis-of-evil" Bush. But make no mistake: The president, and every other politician in America, will have to take a position on the issue. It is no longer satisfactory merely to say, as so many do now, that "I personally oppose gay marriage and believe that marriage should remain the union of a man and a woman." This boilerplate answer simply invites obvious questions: What is one prepared to do to defend this understanding of marriage? If marriage is an institution essential to the well-being of children and the formation of citizens capable of self-government, what will politicians who personally hold that view do publicly to protect marriage from being diluted into something without form and void of meaning? For instance, will they support the ratification of the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment to the Constitution as the only sure means to prevent gay marriage from being judicially imposed nationwide?

These are questions that our political leaders, alas, cannot sidestep by adopting the cleverness of op-ed columnists.

Lee Bockhorn is associate editor at The Weekly Standard.

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