A Very Silly Argument Against the Gay-Marriage Movement

A writer at the Claremont Review of Books misunderstands why a majority of Americans now favor marriage equality and makes several errors along the way.
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Writing about gay marriage, Christopher Caldwell asserts that "half the country cannot even fathom the logic of it." What a strange premise. Fifty-three percent of Americans now favor gay marriage. Are the 47 percent who feel differently all unable to understand the arguments made on its behalf? The scores of sophisticated debates I've witnessed on the subject suggest otherwise. 

"Gay marriage is advancing on the basis of something other than the expected rational arguments," he continues. "Certainly, reasons have been found to validate gay marriage post facto. But one wants to ask those who advance them: is that all you've got? The arguments tend to be non-sequiturs of one kind or another."

But writers like Andrew Sullivan and Jonathan Rauch were articulating internally consistent, rational arguments for gay marriage long before it became legal. And in the court battle over California's Proposition 8, it was opponents of gay marriage who had a difficult time articulating the rational basis for denying marriage rights to same sex couples.

Later Caldwell writes that gay marriage "is the single aspect of the 'gay agenda' to which mainstream Americans most strongly object." Now that a majority of Americans and more than three-quarters of young Americans support same sex marriage, isn't that the mainstream position?

Caldwell lays out these arguments in a Claremont Review of Books article on the newly released From the Closet to the Altar: Courts, Backlash, and the Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage by Michael J. Klarman. I haven't read the book, so I won't comment on it. But it evidently compares the same-sex-marriage fight to the civil-rights movement, a comparison to which Caldwell objects:

Civil rights movements are about liberation. The old campaigns for repeal of sodomy laws, while they hardly won majority approval, fit that description. They were at least intelligible to mainstream Americans who view the history of their country as a steady progress towards liberty. The gay-marriage movement works in the opposite direction. Marriage is a regulation. It recognizes one aspect of people's sexual lives as so important that authorities must monitor it. That aspect is the bearing of the next generation, a task to which homosexual relations are irrelevant. Marriage has plenty of mystical, communal, and spiritual associations. It may be a means to offer homosexuals recognition, or validation, from the wider society.

But not liberation.

It is more accurate to characterize the civil-rights movement as being about equality under the law than about liberation. (And almost no one in America favors a marriage regime in which authorities monitor childbearing.)

"Civil rights movements arise to defend the downtrodden," Caldwell continues. "But never since the Progressive Era has there been a social movement as elite-driven as the one for gay marriage." But gays were undeniably downtrodden when the marriage-equality movement began. As for recent social movements as driven by elites as gay marriage, here are a few: environmentalism, meritocracy, post-modernism, third-wave feminism, the Slow Food Movement, Nudism, transgender rights, the no-smoking movement, Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, and neoconservatism.

Says Caldwell:

The most troubling aspect of the gay-marriage movement is that, more than any social movement in living memory, more than feminism at its bra-burning peak in the 1970s, it aims not to engage in lively debate but to shut it down. Scurrility has become a norm. In April 2009, Miss California, Carrie Prejean, told a Miss America judge she thought marriage should be between a man and a woman and got called a "dumb bitch" for it on the judge's website. If it is now easier to call people dumb bitches, then it makes no sense at all to extol the gay marriage movement as a moral advance.

Okay, this is just silly. Come on, Claremont Review. First of all, Carrie Prejean was competing in the Miss USA pageant, not the Miss America Pageant. Second of all, the Miss USA judge in question was outlandish gossip blogger Perez Hilton -- "the judge's Web site" was PerezHilton.com. Caldwell would have us believe that Hilton calling Prejean a "dumb bitch" is evidence that, thanks to the gay marriage movement, "it is now easier to call people dumb bitches." And that the all-important "ease of calling people dumb bitches" metric, sure to be adopted any day now at the Vatican and UN, can alone determine if a moral advance has occurred. "Shutting down debate can be more effectively done now that the internet has solved the organizing problem of mobs," he continues, mischaracterizing the technological advance that has made shutting down debate much, much harder than ever before. There is actually a credible argument to be made that some gay marriage opponents are being unfairly stigmatized. The foregoing takes as strange a route to that conclusion as I've ever seen or imagined.

The piece concludes by musing on the real tension between anti-discrimination law and freedom of conscience. "Should a wedding photographer or a florist who opposes gay marriage on religious grounds be exempted from a state law barring discrimination based on sexual orientation in public accommodations?" he asks. I am not sure such a law would compel a photographer or a florist to work on a particular wedding. I would certainly stand up for their right to refuse, however wrongheaded I find their doing so. "Would a newspaper be prosecutable for hate speech if it referred to same-sex marriage as same-sex 'marriage'?" he asks.

The answer is clearly "no."

The piece ends with another very strange argument:

In a decade, gay marriage has gone from joke to dogma. It is certainly worth asking why, if this is a liberation movement, it should be happening now, in an age not otherwise gaining a reputation as freedom's heyday. Since 2009, if Klarman's estimates are correct, support for gay marriage has been increasing by 4 points a year. Public opinion does not change this fast in free societies. Either opinion is not changing as fast as it appears to be, or society is not as free.

Briefly, it is an equal rights movement, not "a liberation movement;" our age is in fact "freedom's heyday" when compared to much of American history; sodomy, premarital sex, and drug legalization are all areas in which public opinion has changed rather rapidly; and the notion that rapidly changing opinion on gay marriage would prove America unfree is totally unsupported.

Related: Here's my guess about why public opinion on marriage changed so fast.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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