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I like Ross Douthat. A lot. I started reading him when he was at The Atlantic , and was instantly hooked. He is without a doubt one of the most reasonable conservatives I have read.

While I was initially disappointed by his recent New York Times column on gay marriage, I’ve moved on to simply being confused.

I don’t think I’m the only one.

Adam Serwer at The American Prospect suggested that, “Ross Douthat‘s column this morning reads like a column from someone whose religious and cultural views lead them to oppose marriage equality but can’t think of a very good reason for the state to prevent recognition of same-sex marriages.”

But then, that’s not quite right. Douthat’s goal doesn’t seem to be to articulate the reasons why traditional marriage is to be preferred at all.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Douthat critiques two “commonplace arguments” for gay marriage, and does so rightly. But he has to know that those aren’t the best arguments social conservatives have in their arsenal. In the case of what counts as “natural,” we’ve spent all kinds of time trying to disabuse people of the notion that it can easily be identified with Darwinian theories of biology—a task made more difficult by Douthat’s decision to reinforce the wrong interpretation. Even while Douthat grants too much to alternative theories of sexuality, he is beating up a straw man.

What social conservatives are defending, according to Douthat, is an “ideal”:

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.

Fair enough. But there is no suggestion here that this notion of marriage is specifically religious, or that the “order of creation” is only accessible in and through special revelation. Additionally, it neglects the third party in the cultural mix–the Greeks. Their philosophical vocabulary (teleology) helped Christianity find its sea legs and articulate its “order of creation” in ways that support the case for traditional marriage.

The odd note in Douthat’s piece is this line: “If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights.”

It’s not clear why a “more impressive” relationship than serial monogamy makes it necessary to give up on the “ideal.” Under those terms, committed caregiving relationships should count as “marriage” as well, despite the looseness of the affective bonds. They are, after all, more “impressive” relationships than serial monogamy.

What’s more, Douthat’s willingness to give up the ideal because of heterosexual’s failure to live up undermines the point of having any ideals at all. It’s a sort of “Anne Rice style politics”—if people fail to meet your standards, jump ship.

But we don’t keep ideals around for fun, or because everyone agrees with them. We argue for them because they’re true —regardless of whether they’ve been instantiated in most places and times. The more transcendental your ideals, we might say, the more practical our politics. If the ideals is true, then we ought to get to the business of figuring out how to take incremental steps toward it.

Look, Douthat is right to point the finger at heterosexuals. We have done an enormous amount of harm to the Western ideal of marriage. But heterosexuals didn’t one day wake up and decide they wanted to become serial monogamists—specific legal and political developments made that a real possibility. It’s impossible to tell the story of the heterosexual betrayal of traditional marriage without including the legal underpinnings of that destruction.

And yet Douthat wants us to see the continuation of that legal destruction of marriage as morally necessary, apparently so that gays and lesbians can join heterosexuals in our “no-fault divorce, frequent out-of-wedlock births, and serial monogamy.” Welcome aboard the Titanic, folks!

Douthat’s endorsement of traditional marriage is about as tepid as you’ll find, down to being nearly incoherent. He wants to talk about the ideal, but then let it go when it becomes socially inconvenient. He’s worried—rightly—about being called a bigot, but attempting to straddle both sides won’t satisfy anyone.

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