Jonah on Marriage

In today's Corner, Jonah Goldberg posits himself as the true conservative on an issue like gay marriage, contrasting his moderation with yours truly. Money quote:

I favor civil unions and it's my guess that gay marriage is ultimately inevitable. And yet, I still oppose it. Why? Truth be told, my primary — but not sole — objection isn't Jonahcover religious. Rather, it's that, unlike some relevant advocates of same-sex marriage, I am humble and skeptical about the extent of what I can know. I work from the Hayekian assumption that there is a vast amount of social-evolutionary knowledge and utility embedded in traditional marriage that should be respected even if I cannot tell you what it is... Sullivan's argument for gay marriage is a Progressive one at its core (though of a conservative bent). He wants to use the insitution of marriage to change gay people. And in truth, that's always been the most persuasive argument for gay marriage in my opinion. In short, my objection to gay marriage isn't primarily principled in the sense that my objection really has nothing to do with my attitudes toward homosexuality per se. It has to do with my views toward the pace of change itself. Gay marriage is a very, very, new idea. My view/hunch is that implementing it too quickly is a bad idea (for all sorts of obvious and unobvious reasons).

Now Jonah has read my book, and so he knows, I think, that my position and his are close to identical. The Conservative Soul, despite some claims on the right, has a mere handful of paragraphs about gay marriage in 300 pages. But they're worth citing here. I speak first of the emerging social and cultural fact of more openly gay people, gay couples, and so on, in the last three decades. This is one of the largest social changes in recent times. It cannot be denied. What's a conservative to do? Here's my take:

A conservative in government expects such changes in society as time goes by. His job is to accommodate them to existing institutions. He might come up with some solution Tcscover_21 like civil unions; or, worried that setting up a less demanding institution might undermine marriage, he might argue for coopting gay couples into the existing social institution in one fell swoop. He might think it's wise to try this out in a few states first. But he will understand that some adjustment is necessary, because the world changes; and the job of the conservative is to adjust to such changes as soberly and prudently as possible.

Notice what this isn't. It's not a declaration about the ultimate morality or otherwise of marriages for gay couples. That is left to the churches or synagogues or mosques or university seminars. It's not an assertion that gay couples have a God-given or naturally-required "right" to marry, as some liberals might argue. It's simply tending to a felt social need by an imaginative political adaptation. It is a conservative move. A radical may want to abolish or privatize civil marriage. A fundamentalist will assert, as president Bush did, that civil marriage is a "sacred" institution, ordained by God, and that the civil laws, regardless of social reality, must conform to Biblical revelation. A conservative will escape both traps.

My book is a statement of classical conservatism in this respect. (You can also judge by this passage whether its tone is "shrill," as Jonah claims.) Jonah also knows that I have never argued for judicial imposition of marriage rights across the whole country. I have argued for federalism, while believing, as he does, that marriage rights are indeed inevitable. I have preferred legislative action to judicial power, but, unlike some on the right, I also believe that courts have a role to play in protecting the rights of minorities. This messy acceptance that both courts and legislatures have a role to play in forwarding this debate is also, I'd argue, well within the conservative tradition.

Now, as a gay man who went through the AIDS epdidemic and saw the human wreckage that the lack of civil marriage compounded, I have some personal passion on the subject of gay integration. I don't want to see another catastrophe among my brothers. I don't think, by the way, my opponents begrudge that or fail to realize why it makes me sometimes sound like a progressive on the subject. But given my passion, my insistence on gradualism, moderation and federalism seems to me the sign of a strong commitment to conservatism, even when it doesn't give me all I want. Given my passion, my defense of federalism, and my support for a president who opposed marriage rights in 2000 are telling in my defense, I think. Yes, I drew the line at a federal constitutional amendment. But that was a conservative line, not a gay one. Ask all the other straight conservatives who opposed it as a step too far. That Bush went there proved to me he was a religious radical, not a political conservative.

Some on the right are portraying my book as somehow extreme or angry. It is neither. While being honest about my own biases and personal history, it's a constructive attempt to go back to conservative first principles and re-imagine a conservative future. If you're a conservative wondering where this debate goes next, I hope you give it chance.