Conservatives just keep sniffing the same old fire hydrants on the same-sex marriage (SSM) topic. It’s not getting us anywhere, and I contend that that’s because we’re talking about the wrong thing.
On Thursday, at PJ Media, Andrew McCarthy and Paula Bolyard had long, thoughtful pieces on SSM; in particular, on how to persuade social conservatives to accept a “compromise” that adheres to the Constitution. In principle, I concur with McCarthy’s “compromise”: America ought to simply follow her laws on this matter; the religious beliefs of all must be respected. Have same-sex marriage, if the people of a state vote for it. But don’t corrupt the rule of law to make it happen, and don’t attack the rights of those who believe it’s wrong.
Bolyard points out that there are a number of conservatives who have already embraced this compromise. She raises questions, however, at the end of her post:
I think most social conservatives — including religious conservatives — could accept this compromise as long as they were convinced that the GOP would fight to defend their religious liberties. The question is whether those on the other side demanding their rights will be willing to accept this “third way” compromise of letting the states decide while defending the religious liberty of conscientious objectors.
And there’s the rub. Bolyard is behind the curve. Her questions aren’t even the right ones. We know social conservatives can’t trust that their rights will be defended. We know that some (not all) of those on the other side – a noisy, litigation-prone contingent – will give no honor to such a compromise, and won’t rest until all opposition is stamped out. And we know that every trend of law and government favors them today.
McCarthy and Bolyard – both of whom I respect – appear to think we’re still in Kansas. They speak as if the “old consensus” status quo still prevails in America: as if there’s an unthreatened space in which the GOP has some means of fighting to defend the people’s religious liberties.
But the people can tell them that that’s not the case. The attacks are already underway, and they are already hitting their targets, and altering people’s lives. The price of seeing their rights upheld has become more than many people can pay. That means the shift has already happened.
If the price of upholding the right to not cater to same-sex weddings is that individuals have to accept life-altering financial loss, and years in court, then regardless of the outcome of a given case, those individuals’ religious freedom – or, more broadly, their freedom of conscience – has not been protected.
The GOP is in no position to make promises about protecting the people’s rights – and it has no plans to be. America has already changed so much that our rights are effectively without protection in a growing list of situations. Unfortunately, many Republicans and conservative pundits continue to speak and act as if that’s not the case.
Yet the main problem facing Americans today – the main concern of the great majority of conservatives – is the weaponization of government against us. It is fruitless to keep talking about instituting same-sex marriage, when our real and urgent problem is that, with our rights under siege, there is no way to safely implement any kind of “compromise” on that or any other matter.
The issues that are actually urgent
I, for one, don’t intend to talk about SSM in “old-consensus” terms anymore. The old consensus has already passed from among us. There can be no meaningful compromises on single issues now until we have some rules again, rules to which both sides of the political spectrum consider themselves bound.
Those rules will require a network of assumptions, none of which is in place today. Litigating people’s consciences, for example, must not be an option. No action of government should be taken on the assumption that some of the people are bigots.
The reason for making a new category of laws must be open for inspection. Government has a role in regularizing social institutions. But why should a properly constituted government give official recognition to people’s “sexual orientation,” or to any sexually defined relationships – as distinct from the single and only relationship that can be procreative?
Instituting SSM creates a new category of law. The premise behind it must be articulated – and must defend itself against the skepticism to which all proposals for new laws should properly be subject.
We must agree that government – the federal government, in particular – is the wrong tool for trying to “mainstream” niche social ideals (like same-sex marriage) that won’t mainstream of their own accord.
Our federal system does accommodate more government activism in this regard at the state level. But one of the functions of the federal government is supposed to be protecting the rights of the politically disfavored, when activists get up a head of steam within the states. That applies to classrooms and workplaces as well as to anywhere else.
These are just some of the public issues that are more important than SSM. It’s far more urgent that the United States respect liberty of conscience, and protect the people from government, than it is whether state governments confer privileges on particular sexual relationships or not.
America’s real political crisis is that we don’t respect liberty enough today to risk giving government a charter to regulate or endorse sexual relationships. We don’t have a common definition of tolerance that is adequate to the task. Our current, befuddled idea of the purpose of government is too corrupt – too susceptible to misuse – to administer the compromises needed.
The price of agreeing to the McCarthy compromise will have to be first establishing conditions that make it realistic. We have some fundamental deficiencies to repair in our body politic. It’s past time to recognize that, and make it the main thing we talk about.