It may not be a foregone conclusion that gay marriage will one day be a legal fact in all 50 states, but an awful lot of people seem to think so. The Republicans in the “inevitability” camp—and there are plenty, especially in blue states—tend to tolerate their party’s supposed backwardness on the issue on the assumption that politicians live by the old Chicago maxim, “Don’t make no waves, don’t back no losers.” At the moment, endorsing gay marriage would make waves; that doesn’t mean the real players in the GOP don’t know which side of the argument will lose. That’s what most college-educated Republicans believe, anyway.
This complacent self-assurance was given a jolt in May when Richard Grenell resigned from the Romney campaign after several socially conservative writers accused him of being a gay-rights fanatic (the word used in National Review was “unhinged”). Their case against him was shaky: Grenell is an openly gay man who has made pro-gay-marriage statements on Twitter, some of which were intemperate; but he is also a former member of John Bolton’s United Nations staff and was hired by Romney not to do gay outreach, but as a foreign-policy spokesman. The campaign asked Grenell to stay on, but he stood by his resignation. Moderate Republicans drew the obvious conclusion: Anti-gay activists wield more power over the GOP than they thought. These disillusioned moderates—who had assumed that everyone in the Acela corridor, at least, was on the same page—were forced to ask themselves whether the impression they’d gotten from their schooling, their peers, and network television wasn’t simply wrong.
It’s quite wrong, actually, on both counts: Gay-marriage opponents are not a weak fringe, and gay marriage is not an inevitability. In 40 years, when the issue has been thrashed out to a stable-enough conclusion, gay marriage might be the law of the land. Or it might just as easily be the law of only part of the land, with some states recognizing gay unions and others not, some companies extending benefits to gay partners and others not, and religious denominations sorted out along the spectrum between the Roman Catholic church and Wicca. This outcome would please no one, but it would do for a status quo.
All of this is a long way of saying that the Republican party’s eventual position on gay marriage has not been predetermined by the forces of history. Circumstances may have already decreed that New York and Vermont will have gay marriage and, on the other hand, that Republican political operatives will judiciously hype the issue during campaigns as long as it gains them social-conservative votes. But when it comes to the question of how much actual support to give the anti-gay-marriage agenda, Republican lawmakers could, if they wanted, do whatever they think to be right.
That’s the conversation that David Lampo wishes to join. The title of his book makes Lampo’s position obvious, even to readers who don’t know that he is a Log Cabin Republican who works for the Cato Institute. His place of employment gives a better clue to the contents than his sexual orientation; the text does carry a whiff of personal crusading, but the author’s crusade is for libertarianism. This makes for some tendentious reading, much of it familiar to anyone who has read a libertarian manifesto: an overlong section on the Founders’ religious skepticism, gratuitous swipes at “theocrats,” and repeated assurances that the American people are flocking to libertarianism in droves. These tics are irritating but largely extraneous, and there is plenty of content left after the nonlibertarian reader has thrown out the soapbox sermons. An author with a dubious thesis to flog will often write a good book regardless, and the rule for reading such a book is simple: Keep the data points, lose the trend line.
Alas, Lampo’s data points are not very good, either. His history of conservatism seems to have been written by someone who reads newspapers but not books. The GOProud controversy at CPAC 2010 is neatly described, but everything before 1990 is treated in the most simplistic terms. He does not seem to realize that there were confirmed bachelors present at the creation of the conservative movement, or that Florence King exists. He also chides socially conservative organizations for being “obsessed” with homosexuality while ignoring heterosexual threats to family values. That may well be how it seems to him, but the Christian right has hardly neglected problems like divorce and single motherhood. Focus on the Family, for example, does plenty of anti-divorce ministry; its marriage-counseling hotline is open 6 a.m. to
8 p.m. every weekday.
For a book that claims to be addressed to conservatives as well as to libertarians, A Fundamental Freedom contains very few arguments that traditionalists would find interesting. Many open-minded conservatives are willing to consider embracing gay marriage, but have two main questions they would need to see answered: First, whether gay parents are bad for children; and second, whether granting marriage to gay couples would really make their relationships more conservative in the family-values sense. Lampo shortchanges one question and ignores the other.
“There is no evidence that gay parents are any less effective or loving than heterosexual ones,” Lampo argues—or repeats, anyway. The only kind of argument he makes on this point is from authority, which is a problem because there are many reasons to doubt the American Psychological Association line on this. Studies of gay parents often draw their research samples from sperm-donor clinic lists, which are biased toward lesbians (obviously) who are white and upper- or upper-middle-class and who, moreover, tend to define emotional well-being in the same way academics do—all of which results in their favor, sometimes in amusing ways. (One parenting study downgraded straight households for reinforcing gender roles, e.g., by saying that boys shouldn’t wear nail polish—this was considered a hardship for the children.)
It is also possible that the quantifiable measurements favored by social science are not sensitive enough to detect the problems that children of gay parents face. Children conceived through sperm donation by single mothers, for example, may not fail eighth grade or knock over convenience stores, but they do experience confusion, resentment, and other emotional problems (as explained in My Daddy’s Name Is Donor). It’s odd that Lampo is not more skeptical: He repeats, uncritically, the very recent consensus that children of single mothers are disadvantaged by their fatherlessness, while seeming utterly confident that the same disciplines that flubbed that issue for so many decades (and for similar politically motivated reasons) have got it right this time.
As for the argument that marriage would impose values like fidelity, stability, and commitment on gay couples, Lampo doesn’t bring it up. Somewhere around half of long-term gay couples admit to having a mutually agreed-upon arrangement for circumventing monogamy, so there’s some reason to doubt the optimists. Is the gay community’s tendency to nonexclusivity just a hangover from the dark days of closets and cruising, or is it an intrinsic side effect of sex that is largely consequence-free? (The lesbian comedienne Lynn Lavner once joked, “The Bible contains six admonishments to homosexuals and 362 to heterosexuals. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love heterosexuals. It’s just that they need more supervision.” It’s true, and pregnancy has a lot to do with it.) Social conservatives suspect promiscuity is a permanent feature. If Lampo disagrees with them—and maybe he doesn’t; he could regard nonexclusivity as a salutary innovation—he should explain why.
Lampo has obviously put a lot of thought and effort into this book, and it is helpful to have such an up-to-date picture of gay rights laws and poll numbers. (Pop quiz: How many states permit gays and lesbians to petition for legal adoption of their partner’s children from a previous marriage? Answer: 28.) But like many libertarians, he is far too simplistic in his view of politics. He seems to think that by labeling gay marriage a type of “freedom,” he can end the argument. A truly conservative case for gay marriage will have to address more factors than that—and it will have to wait for another book.
Helen Rittelmeyer is a writer in North Carolina.