Conservatism emerged as a defense of tradition. Edmund Burke, universally acknowledged as the founder of modern conservatism, famously defended tradition as a source of social safety and stability, a bulwark against the corrosive effects of an unfettered rationalism. To be sure, neither Burke nor his later followers have defended a blind adherence to traditional social forms. As Burke noted, a state incapable of change is a state without the means of its own preservation. Tradition must often be altered and adapted to new circumstances. Nevertheless, for the conservative, if tradition is not always to be preserved, it is at least always to be given the benefit of the doubt. As the most eminent of American Burkeans, Russell Kirk, once said, "if it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary not to change."
The same-sex marriage movement is surely a great challenge to conservatism. The success of the movement would represent a great repudiation of tradition; in fact, it is almost impossible to distinguish the victory of the same-sex marriage movement from a complete repudiation not only of the traditional definition of marriage, but of the social authority of tradition as such. Consider the following points.
First, the traditional understanding of marriage as a union of a man and a woman is not unique to American civilization. It is rather the understanding of every civilization of which we have knowledge. Even this formulation, however, states the case too weakly. That marriage is a union of a man and a woman has in fact been the belief of every human society—civilized, barbarian, or savage—in history. Whether they have lived in immense communities governed by bureaucratic structures and the rule of law, or in tiny bands ruled by the traditional authority of an eldest male, no human beings of whom we are aware have ever, before now, entertained the idea that marriage was anything other than a heterosexual union. Thus the heterosexual conception of marriage is not a tradition of this or that society but a tradition of the entire human race.
Second, the departure from tradition urged by the advocates of same-sex marriage is simply gratuitous. There is no necessity compelling it. One can hardly contend that society as a whole is suffering from the lack of same-sex marriage. Nor can much of a case be made that homosexuals themselves suffer seriously from having no opportunity to marry each other. Many homosexuals have no interest in marrying. Among those who do, the specific rights that they seek—such as rights to dispose of their property according to their own judgment, or to be visited in the hospital by people of their own choosing—can be guaranteed without redefining marriage. What remains, then, as the basis for the argument for same-sex marriage—and what is in fact pressed most insistently by its advocates—is the claim that, without marriage, homosexuals are being denied the same recognition that heterosexual couples receive. Put bluntly, without marriage, homosexuals are made to feel that society does not value their unions as highly as heterosexual ones. This is hardly a compelling case for tinkering with the foundations of human society.
Third, the argument for same-sex marriage is advanced without any effort at a sympathetic understanding of traditional notions and what could be said in their defense. For the proponents of same-sex marriage, institutions that treat different people differently are immediately suspect. That is to say, these proponents argue like egalitarian ideologues. Thus, they are steeped not in the thought of the past, but in the dominant intellectual reflexes of the present. Apparently, traditional understandings of foundational concepts like both marriage and equality are not worth a second thought. Indeed, tradition is to be not only rejected out of hand but even demonized. It is a source not of wisdom but of oppression, and its defenders—those who merely want to preserve the society as it has been handed down to us—are not merely wrong but are bigots.
In sum, what was thought to be obvious by all people, not just in our society but by all human beings from the dawn of humanity until just a few years ago—that marriage is a union between a man and a woman—is to be rejected out of hand, as irrational and unjust. It would be difficult to conceive a more complete repudiation of tradition’s authority. The society that takes this path is not just refusing to be ruled by the past; it is refusing even to listen to the past.
Well, the proponents of same-sex marriage may ask, what’s wrong with that? Why, after all, should we listen to the past, and even tend to defer to its authority? Traditional conservatism, the conservatism of Burke and his followers, would offer the following answers.
First, a society that is deaf to tradition is more likely to err in social policy and do inadvertent damage to itself. Burkean conservatism contends that society is an intricate web of relationships, institutions, and mores, the whole of which is too complex to be grasped by the reason of any individual, or even of any single generation, even one claiming for itself extraordinary enlightenment. It is impossible, on this account, to make any changes in society without causing unintended and unforeseeable consequences, consequences that may be, for all we know, harmful to society. According to traditionalist conservatism, any functional society, whatever its imperfections, has, by standing the test of time, earned a certain deference for its traditional social arrangements. This argument has been repeatedly made by conservatives over the last two centuries, repeatedly ridiculed by social engineers of all kinds, and repeatedly vindicated by the course of events. Every experiment in social engineering, from extreme versions like Soviet communism to mild ones like the Great Society, has brought in its wake socially damaging, or even devastating, consequences that were not foreseen by its authors but that conservatives warned about.
Second, traditional conservatism warns that rejection of the rule of tradition is an invitation to oppression. As Burke noted in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, a society that will not be ruled by tradition will be left with no law but “the will of a prevailing force”—that is, the will of the most powerful present faction. Liberal social reformers, preoccupied with the various ways that they think tradition oppresses the weak, forget that tradition very often also imposes restraints on the strong. Spokesmen for the left frequently complain about being ruled by the “dead hand of the past.” They too often forget that the alternative may be the rule of the very much alive, and very powerful, hand of the present—a hand that is necessarily wielded not by the whole society buy by some members against others.
Of course, the defenders of same-sex marriage might respond that we don’t need tradition to prevent tyranny, because we have a written constitution. Such a claim offers cold comfort, however. It is not clear, after all, why a society that rejects a universal tradition that has existed time out of mind will pay any greater respect to a document written just a few generations ago by a handful of people. Indeed, if same-sex marriage comes to America as a whole community, it will owe its victory in large part precisely to the reinterpretation of the Constitution in light of “contemporary values.” There is, after all, no way to contend seriously that the framers of any constitutional provisions had anything like gay rights, much less same-sex marriage, in mind. But such a radical reinterpretation of fundamental law on the basis of contemporary values leaves us in precisely the predicament of which Burke warns: the dominance, unrestrained by tradition, of a currently “prevailing force” in the society.
In fact, however, same-sex marriage has so far advanced to a considerable extent by means of court decisions that either lacked majority support or that were even issued in the face of majority opposition, expressed in previously enacted law. This is likely to be the means of its future advance as well. Thus, the reinterpretation of fundamental law according to “contemporary values” will not have been achieved by the current generation, but by a small subset of it comprised primarily of lawyers and judges. In our case, then, it seems that the death of tradition will result not so much in majority tyranny as in the manipulation of the majority by cultural, political, and legal elites.
Carson Holloway is the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity.