I think I finally understand the (non-religious) conservative case against gay marriage—and, simultaneously, why it has remained so maddeningly opaque just what the real argument is. I was thinking back on an old argument with Maggie Gallagher in which we’d reached the familiar point where the gay marriage opponents try to explain why the idea of a vital link between marriage and procreation is supposed to count against gay marriage when: (1) We allow sterile couples, couples past reproductive age, and couples with no intention of having children to marry, and (2) Gay couples can, of course, adopt children and (in the case of lesbians) bear them via artificial insemination. More generally, it remained unclear why asserting procreation and childrearing as an important function of marriage should imply that it was the only function. Here’s the nut of what Gallagher had to say on that front:
But the way marriage cultures work is quite different: by separating out a certain kind of sexual unions–husbands and wives– and surrounding these unions with special legal, familial, religious and cultural support. Because the way it works in reality is, the more people attracted to the opposite sex who enter such unions, the better off children will be.
I think I finally get what the argument is, why it’s usually so opaque, and what all the ancillary business about the supposed “natural complimentarity” of the genders had to do with it. Gallagher ultimately conceives of marriage as a sort of Noble Lie: Her argument seems incoherent because if the rationale for structuring the institution in a certain way is stated explicitly, it ceases to function, which is why she becomes so oblique when she reaches what ought to be the core of her case.
Gallagher’s core concern is that people both see marriage as intrinsically desirable and automatically connected to childbearing and childrearing. This is, in essence, the only reason she thinks it’s a matter of public or governmental concern. The problem is that to state explicitly that marriage is about regulating sexuality for the purpose of childrearing evidently gives people insufficient incentive to take part in it. So you need a broader mystique of marriage—one that makes it about love and fulfillment as well.
This sets up a tension. I think Gallagher’s view is something like this: If you’re too explicit about marriage (as a civil, legal institution, anyway) being just about regulating procreation, it loses the mystique that pulls people into it. So you can’t just reserve the institution for people who have or are having children. Marriage, on this account, is a little like the “here comes the plane, flying into the hangar” game you play with an infant when you want him to eat his strained spinach. If you’re too overt about the function of the game, it won’t serve that function.
On the other hand, if you allow too explicitly that marriage can also be centrally about love between two adults, it becomes obvious that this may not be best served by marrying the first person you have a child with. What Gallagher and company want to preserve, in other words, is an ideal that links personal romantic fulfillment and childrearing. If we start analyzing too closely, of course, it become apparent that these things won’t necessarily go together. The function of marriage, then, is to create the illusion of a necessary unity between two logically distinct elements: one functional or utilitarian, the other romantic or spiritual. And the reason gay marriage opponents so seldom put it in quite this clear a fashion is that to speak openly about the importance of preserving an illusion is precisely to concede that it is an illusion, which is what you were trying to avoid.
In this light, the obsession with “redefining” marriage, to the point where it can “mean anything” also becomes a little more intelligible. Again, the premise is that consciousness of the functional social role marriage serves provides insufficient incentive for people to take part in it. So, again, gay marriage opponents want two contrary things: On the one hand, they want the state to sanction marriage, give it the imprimatur of public approval, and so on, for what are basically public policy reasons. But they need marriage not to be perceived as just an instrument of public policy, but rather as a sort of transcendent destiny, something that’s inextricably and eternally bound up with our natures, even if (though they won’t say this too loudly either), marriage has in fact changed continuously over the centuries and is, along many dimensions, something of a novelty in its current form.
The problem is not really that if we open marriage to homosexuals, it will be polygamy and incest and bestiality and people marrying their coffeemakers next. Rather, it’s that significantly changing marriage, even for the best of reasons, highlights its status as a human invention, which is sanctioned for specific reasons, disturbing that illusion of an invariant and transcendent destiny. To talk about reasons for marriage—not for marrying a specific partner but for having it as an institution in this particular form—makes it contestable, even (God forbid) optional. Once we are permitted to discuss what marriage is for, instrumentally, and why it ought to have this shape or that, it ceases to be a kind of external Platonic ideal exerting a necessary teleological pull on each of our lives.
As I hope I need not say, I think this would be a repugnant and condescending way to think about social policy even if it were true. I’m reminded of a an article by Ron Bailey, which concluded that conservative intellectuals tend to be hostile to evolution not so much because they’re convinced that it’s false, but because they fear the hoi polloi will run amok without the guiding myth of special creation. On this, Bailey quotes Irving Kristol:
There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people….There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.
Still, even if we were to grant that there’s something to this notion, opposing gay marriage would really only make sense if the battle could be won decisively. Of course, it won’t be: Unless they are willing to reverse the trend of diminishing stigma around homosexuality, the demand for equality will persist and grow louder. The longer we contest marriage, the more the contestability of marriage is affirmed. Seems like by their own logic—if this is their own logic—they should surrender quickly, brush the whole thing under the rug, deny that this was anything like as significant a change as they once claimed, and encourage gay couples to start adopting or inseminating post haste.