Republicans are in a world of hurt. Many analysts believe that the old coalition of social and fiscal conservatism doesn’t sell, at least not well enough to win national elections. The culprit, many think, is “certain social issues,” as a recent GOP national report delicately put it. Charles Murray was more explicit at a gathering of conservatives: “With gay marriage I think the train has left the station.”
We’re seeing more and more conservatives coming out in favor of gay marriage. After Mitt Romney’s defeat, former Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal making what he regards as a conservative case for gay marriage:
What could be more conservative than support for more freedom and less government? And what freedom is more basic than the right to marry the person you love? Smaller, less intrusive government surely includes an individual deciding whom to marry. Allowing civil marriage for same-sex couples will cultivate community stability, encourage fidelity and commitment, and foster family values.
Mehlman led the way in preparing an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which limits marriage to a man and a woman.
Ohio senator and GOP stalwart Rob Portman recently came out in favor of gay marriage as well, reiterating Mehlman’s argument. Yes, marriage is important, and, yes, it provides the basis for a functional social order that allows us to limit the size and scope of government, but there’s nothing about gay marriage that further undermines our already weakened culture of marriage. Therefore, the line of argument continues, there’s no principled conservative reason to oppose gay marriage. Republicans can adjust to new social attitudes toward sex, marriage, and family without betraying their ideals.
We’ll hear this argument again and again in the future, so it’s worth taking a close look. The fundamental claim is libertarian: getting the government out of moral questions is a gain for limited government. That seems tautologically true. If the government isn’t telling you whom you can or can’t marry, then the zone of government power contracts and individual freedom expands. But a closer look suggests otherwise.
As Edmund Burke recognized, the form of liberalism that understands liberty as requiring limited government (as opposed to understanding liberty as empowerment, which almost always involves pumping up the power of government as the agent of empowerment) also requires morality, culture, and tradition. That’s a Burkean separation of powers, as it were. Governing power is dispersed rather than concentrated, because morality, culture, and tradition embody independent authorities that shape and order our lives. They’re something the government power must respect rather than superintend, must work around rather than steamroll.
For example, the wrongness of murder and the sanctity of property both limit the scope of government power. The law may specify how to try and punish murder, but government does not invent or define murder. Instead, the law recognizes a moral truth prior to law and politics. That’s why late-term abortions are so scandalous. Nobody is confused about the humanity of the seven-month-old child in the womb, and yet our law refuses to see killing him or her as murder.
Religious truth also limits government, as our Constitution recognizes. Theology is beyond the competence of politics, and for that reason Congress is not to make laws establishing (endorsing) or limiting the free exercise of (condemning) religion. Our religious convictions are practices beyond the purview of politics.
Redefinition of marriage to allow same-sex unions undermines the proper separation of cultural and governmental power that is so important for a liberal regime. Marriage is an institution as fundamental as religion and morality. It is more primitive and ancient than anything resembling organized government. It has varied historically and culturally, of course. But male/female complementarity and its procreative potential is universal, however diverse the forms. Government has always treated marriage like murder—a moral fact recognized rather than a policy formulated, a given truth framed in law rather than something to be fed into the machinery of political debate.
As marriage gets redefined we’ll see an expansion of government. That’s because gay marriage won’t just happen if government “gets out of the way.” It requires creating a new possibility that will not come to pass if traditional institutions and moral traditions are left alone. Government must intervene. Our moral traditions must be subjected to what activists think of as corrective surgery. With gay marriage we’re sure to get legislation redefining what it means to be a parent, and what it means to be a child, as is already the case in California. In the way of these redefinitions will come programs to “reeducate” John Q. Public to the “new realities.”
Here as elsewhere the progressive project is always political. It sees a problem: The pre-political institutions and traditions of society are violating rights and creating inequalities. Then it reaches for the ready tool for redress and correction, which is almost always the power of government—coercive force.
Large government and its threat to freedom aren’t only a matter of size; it’s also a question of the scope of its claim to authority. Gay activists are consistent when they focus on “rights” and “equality,” the first of which must be guaranteed by government coercion, and the second of which must be created by the use of government power. They see that government must intrude. Cultural traditions can’t be allowed to define marriage, because they have done so unjustly. Instead, voters and their representatives must, and failing that, the courts. The political process defines marriage rather than responding to something that can’t be absorbed into the political process.
Tyranny isn’t just a situation in which the government is telling you what to do at every moment. It’s also a society in which government says that, if necessary, it can. In this respect gay marriage reflects a dramatic enlargement of government. If legislatures and courts can redefine marriage, what can’t it intervene to reshape and re-purpose?
R.R. Reno is editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.