In the early 1980s, Midge Decter famously explained to an acquaintance surprised by her unapologetic embrace of American conservatism, “There comes a time to join the side you’re on.” One could say that last week President Obama followed—as so many of us have!—in Midge’s footsteps. He joined the side he’s on.
That side seeks to change the traditional definition—we would say the more or less natural definition—of marriage as the joining together of a man and a woman as husband and wife. That side seeks to expand—we would say transform—marriage to include the joining together of two persons of the same sex. It’s unclear what principle would restrict that joining to two people, as opposed to various combinations of consenting adults—but for now, that side is limiting its goals. In any case, that side now has the blessing of President Obama. The Democratic party will surely follow suit, adjusting its platform at its convention to endorse the transformation of marriage.
Mitt Romney and the Republican party now stand on the traditional side of this cultural and social divide, in defense of marriage as it has always been understood—and as most Americans, judging from their repeated votes at the ballot box, continue to understand it. And they will have no choice but to fight on this front. They may not be interested in the culture war, but the culture war is interested in them. And so the Romney campaign and the GOP will stand, however awkwardly and hesitantly, athwart History, murmuring stop, wincing at the scorn of their social betters and the ridicule of their cultured despisers.
They will need the encouragement and support of all who seek to defend marriage. Some defenders of marriage will base that defense on religion, others on their reading of Aristotle or Burke or Tocqueville or Oakeshott, and yet others will make their case based on history or sociology or anthropology or common sense. The intellectual defenders of traditional marriage will quarrel among themselves. And they’ll be vexed when the politicians on their side don’t make all the arguments they should, or as articulately as they might.
So it will be a bit of a mess. But the defense of civilization is always a mess. And out of this mess, the American people will decide in November.
Will victory in November guarantee prevailing over the long run? Aren’t the defenders of the traditional family—or as we would have it, the defenders of the family—destined to be swamped by the modern tidal waves of individual choice and sexual liberation? Possibly. In the civilizational struggle of an earlier generation, Whittaker Chambers thought he was leaving the winning side to join the losing side in the battle against communism. But you never know how history will turn out, as Chambers, once liberated from Marxist determinism, would have reminded us.
All one can ask is the chance to make one’s case. All the American people can ask is the chance to decide, rather than having an answer imposed on them by social or judicial elites. Thanks to Vice President Joe Biden, who spurred President Obama to stop “evolving” and to come forward and state his views like a man, there will be a clear choice this November between the candidates and the parties on the issue of marriage. Defenders of traditional marriage need to speak now, or forever hold their peace.