The benefits of gay marriage, to the couples involved and to their families, are front-loaded and obvious, whereas any harm to the overall culture of marriage and childrearing in America will be diffuse and difficult to measure. I suspect that the formal shift away from any legal association between marriage and fertility will eventually lead to further declines in the marriage rate and a further rise in the out-of-wedlock birth rate (though not necessarily the divorce rate, because if few enough people are getting married to begin with, the resulting unions will presumably be somewhat more stable). But these shifts will probably happen anyway, to some extent, because of what straights have already made of marriage. Or maybe the institution’s long decline is already basically complete, and the formal recognition of gay unions may just ratify a new reality, rather than pushing us further toward a post-marital society. Either way, there won’t come a moment when the conservative argument, with all its talk about institutional definitions and marginal effects and the mysteries of culture, will be able to claim vindication against those who read it (as I know many of my readers do) as a last-ditch defense of bigotry.
But this is what conservatism is, in the end: The belief that there’s more to a flourishing society than just the claims of autonomous individuals, the conviction that existing prohibitions and taboos may have a purpose that escapes the liberal mind, the sense that cultural ideals can be as important to human affairs as constitutional rights. Marriage is the kind of institution that the conservative mind is supposed to treasure and defend: Complicated and mysterious; legal and cultural; political and pre-political; ancient and modern; half-evolved and half-created. And given its steady decline across the last few decades, it would be a poor conservatism that did not worry at the blithe confidence with which we’re about to redefine it.
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