Conservatives and Gay Marriage

Yesterday’s California ruling is generating a predictable set of responses. I’d like to suggest a different conservative response. Or at least a different conservative political response at the federal level.

It seems to me that conservative objections to gay marriage fall into two buckets: (1) it’s just wrong, or (2) it will ultimately lead to undesirable social outcomes.

It’s easy for cosmopolitan elites to dismiss the first objection snidely by putting on a fake southern accent, but as I have argued before, it’s not so simple. Ultimately, any view of morality must inevitably rely on axioms which are based on intuition, and not subject to rational debate.

The political question, however, is what should we do when 100 million or more Americans are on either side of a passionately-felt moral debate. Increasingly, this is the case with gay marriage. According to polls, about 55% of Americans oppose gay marriage, but about 55% of Americans support civil unions. The American population is pretty much split down the middle on these issues; though it’s obvious to everybody that public opinion has been moving in favor of gay rights. Opposition to gay marriage has declined to 55% from 65% in 1996. It’s hard to find data going back much further than that, as the idea of gay marriage seemed so bizarre in, say, 1960, that nobody thought of doing a poll on it. Growing acceptance of gays is partially driven by some adults changing their minds, and partially by the increasing proportion of the population that has been raised in an environment that is more benign for homosexuals. 75% of 18 – 29 year-olds support either gay marriage or civil unions, while this is true for only about 45% of those over 65.

George Will once said that for those in his then 26 year-old daughter’s age cohort, the status of being gay was about as morally problematic as the status of being left-handed. Among 26-year-old artists in Williamsburg Brooklyn, this is likely a majority view; among 26-year-old homeschoolers in Plano, Texas, likely not. Support for civil unions is more like 65% in the East and West, and more like 45 – 50% in the South and Midwest. This geographic distribution of attitudes opens the way to a practical approach to finding a working compromise. I think we should view federalism, and more generally, subsidiarity, as the preferred political approach to this problem. If individual conservatives want to make a persuasive case to change minds about homosexuality, more power to them, but in the meantime we should embrace the idea of different states and localities behaving differently.

If subsidiarity is a working compromise designed to accommodate differing moral views, I think that it is a positive good in addressing the second type of objection: that gay marriage will ultimately lead to undesirable social outcomes. I am skeptical that gay marriage is part of a process of social breakdown, but lots of people disagree with me. We have differing theories. I accept that I might be wrong, or at minimum wrong for some times or places. It seems to me that the best way to answer this question is not to yell at each other, or even to see who can write the most elegant and persuasive books, but to let different groups of people voluntarily try different approaches and see what actually happens.

Americans have a healthy aversion to telling other people how to live. Only about 30% of Americans support a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Why don’t we try letting people live how they want to live, and let others try to impose uniform national rules on a heterogeneous population of 300 million people?

( cross-posted at The Corner )