Debating Ross Douthat on Gay Marriage

Are we "giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization"?

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Ross Douthat's position as The New York Times conservative columnist often seems an unenviable one. Frequently criticized by the right as too moderate and malleable, to the left, he's simply seen as a conservative pundit who adds an intellectual sheen to arguments they view as flawed.

In his latest article, The Marriage Ideal, Douthat carefully tip-toes around Judge Walker's Proposition 8 ruling before reaffirming a belief in the "distinctive and remarkable" nature of heterosexual monogamy. Here is the crux of his case:

Gay-marriage critics who fret about a slippery slope to polygamy miss the point. Americans already have a kind of postmodern polygamy available to them. It's just spread over the course of a lifetime, rather than concentrated in a "Big Love"-style menage. If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. ...

But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.

...which quickly drew fire from bloggers, particularly on the left:

  • His Argument Is Wrong and Misguided reproaches libertarian firebrand Glenn Greenwald at Salon. Judge Walker wasn't espousing the moral superiority or equivalency of gay marriage; that's not the state's job. Instead, "Judge Walker's ruling concerns exclusively secular questions and does not even purport to comment upon, let alone resolve, the moral and theological questions which Douthat frets can no longer be 'entertained' in a society that affords legal equality to marriage," Greenwald concludes.
  • I'm Still Waiting for a Coherent Argument from conservatives on the Prop. 8 ruling, writes annoyed liberal blogger Steve Benen. Douthat's "best case" doesn't quite make the grade either. He writes: "So, two consenting adults who are in love and want to legally commit to one another should be allowed to marry, but only if Ross Douthat considers them a 'microcosm of civilization' and 'an organic connection between human generations'?"
  • Ross Douthat Appears to Be a 'Space Alien' because in his effort to over-intellectualize the gay marriage issue, his writing reads "like he's never met a person before," quips Choire Sicha at The Awl. "I found it an amazing experience. I won't spoil the actually stunning conclusion—I was actually stunned!...but in an incredible way, Douthat is literally unaddressable. Douthat really does want people to be happy, I think."

Update: Matthew Yglesias at ThinkProgress weighs in on Douthat's piece: "The solution seems to me to be fairly clear—a separation of religious and quasi-religious ideals of marriage from the civil/legal aspects of marriage. You should have a defined legal state, that could be called “marriage” or “civil union” or “civil marriage” or whatever else we want that’s recognized by the state on a non-discriminatory basis."

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