Intuition and Marriage

A number of years ago, I had a long, fairly involved conversation with a social conservative activist, one who was particularly involved (behind the scenes) in stopping the legalization of same-sex marriage. We talked a lot about his various current projects, about the unfortunate fact that many of those on his side did seem to harbor fairly strong anti-gay sentiment, about the various new online tools that were just becoming available to political activists, and about how important it was for defenders of traditional marriage to make a strictly secular case. What we didn’t talk about much at all, as I recall, was why, exactly, one should oppose the legal recognition of same-sex marriage. One reason why, I suspect, was that at the time I agreed with him.

The only time the topic came up was when he asked me, offhandedly, why I had come to believe as I did. The response I gave him, though, wasn’t much of an answer at all: I told him that I’d grown up in a strongly religious community, that my family was fairly active in our church, and that, in the end, it was a position that just intuitively made sense. Marriage was the union of a man and a woman. I understood this, and I felt confident — both because of then-current polling and my own sense of how others approached the issue — in saying that most other Americans understood this as well.

He smiled, clearly both pleased with my response and accustomed to hearing it from others, and agreed with me. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right. It just makes sense. You know it. I know it. And so does most of the public. And that is why I’m sure we’re going to win.”

Yet in the years since that conversation, his side has been losing ground — not just in courtrooms, but in nationwide polling. No doubt there are many contributing factors — one of which is that activists who’ve opposed same-sex marriage never actually bothered to come up with a truly convincing secular argument, despite widespread understanding that such an argument would be necessary. Instead, just as I did in my response, they relied on their intuition, their background, their instantaneous sense of discomfort with the idea. And, like the activist I spoke to, they firmly believed that it was that particular intuition, frequently (though not always) grounded in religious upbringing, that would eventually win the argument for them.

But it hasn’t. And so they’ve slowly attempted to come up with ways to justify their case. But as we saw earlier this summer in California, even professional advocates have, under thorough questioning, struggled to articulate clear reasons for their beliefs:

At oral argument on proponents’ motion for summary judgment, the court posed to proponents’ counsel the assumption that “the state’s interest in marriage is procreative” and inquired how permitting same-sex marriage impairs or adversely affects that interest. Counsel replied that the inquiry was “not the legally relevant question,” but when pressed for an answer, counsel replied: “Your honor, my answer is: I don’t know. I don’t know.“…

During closing arguments, proponents again focused on the contention that “responsible procreation is really at the heart of society’s interest in regulating marriage.” When asked to identify the evidence at trial that supported this contention, proponents’ counsel replied, “you don’t have to have evidence of this point.”

Is there any more damning moment for an advocate than when he admits that he not only does not know how to justify his own position, but that he believes it is so obvious, so utterly self-evident that it does not need justification at all? For the diehards, intuition is not just enough, it is everything.

But for the majority of the public, that will likely not suffice — not forever, anyway. It didn’t for me. In the months after that conversation, I found myself repeatedly questioning my own position, and found, after some struggling, that I could not support it. The best reason to worry about a change in how the state defines marriage was the fear of unintended consequences, of long-term ripple effects that could subtly but surely reshape society. But what might those consequences be? No one knows, or indeed if there will be any at all. Reduced to its essence, that fear is just another way to express one’s gnawing anxiety at the prospect of social change. It is an intuition about what marriage should and shouldn’t be, and I do not think that any intuition, no matter how strong or widespread, is enough to deny either a special classification or a set of state-defined benefits to a particular class of people.

Same-sex marriage opponents are no doubt failing in part because of their own inability to express a compelling rationale for their position, one that starts with the existing public understanding of what marriage is and should be and then argues that such an understanding is best served by keeping out same-sex couples. But in the long term, I suspect that the fight for equal marriage rights will succeed because millions of Americans will struggle with their intuitive opposition and decide, as I did, that they can not justify it to themselves.