A few days ago I wrote a sharply worded attack on Ken Mehlman’s argument that supporting gay marriage is the properly “conservative” position. David Blankenhorn offered some thoughtful reflections about what’s at stake for me (and others).

He raises a key question. Can those of us who resist gay rights or gay-marriage turn around and claim not to be “anti-gay”? I think he’s right to conclude that we can’t, at least not in the way a term like “anti-gay” is used.

Here’s how I see it. At the very least, the gay rights movement seeks to remove moral judgments about same-sex acts from any functional role in public policy. Whatever we think about the rights and wrongs of sexual morality, when it comes to the blurry sweep of options conjured by the LGBT tag, we’re not allowed to act on them in matters of employment, education, political office, etc. I take this to be what Blankenhorn refers to as “accepted” by society. In its more ambitious modes and following the Selma Analogy to the civil rights movement for blacks, the gay rights movement envisions positive and affirmative measures to try to get rid of or at least minimize the sexual morality that deems LGBT desires disordered and their attendant sexual acts immoral (for example, school programs, diversity training, etc.) This is probably what Blankenhorn means when he speaks of homosexual conduct “affirmed” by society.

It’s theoretically possible for a traditional Christian (or Jew or Muslim or for that matter anybody from any society other than our own) to “accept” homosexual conduct in the limited sense of being forced by the law to endure what they think immoral. In a certain sense that’s part of the deal in any pluralistic society. But of course it’s also part of the deal that these sorts of things will get debated, as they are today. Insofar as I write this blog posting, I’m being “anti-gay” in the very precise sense of representing a position that wants to limit the acceptance of homosexual acts.

Take this as an analogy. I think we need to tolerate adultery. It’s sadly endemic to the human condition, as General Petraeus reminded us. It would be foolish to criminalize adultery. But adulterers should feel shame, and I don’t think I should be required to “accept” Petraeus, at least not in the sense of withholding moral judgment. If he were to run for public office, I might consider his sexual sins a good reason not to vote for him (although I might not, depending on other factors). It could affect an employment decision. Thus, it’s fair to say that I’m “anti-adulterer.” I’m certainly less so than our Puritan forefathers, but more so than someone whose liberated conscience tells him that marriage is a cultural construct of no moral significance.

The “anti-gay” position is even more obvious when it comes to “acceptance.” If acceptance is required for avoiding the “anti-gay” charge, then I can’t see how any traditional Christian (or Jew or Muslim or any other religion or culture other than our own) can avoid it, because it would require saying or at least accepting that something is not wrong that the tradition consistently says is wrong.

In sum: in today’s parlance, being “anti-gay” simply means dissenting from the liberal view that older views of sexual morality are wrong, and that there are no moral limits on our sexual lives other than refraining from coercion and abuse. That’s become the functional meaning of the charge of “bias,” at least in my experience. The major premise of the gay rights movement is that justice requires us to treat people equally unless there are good reasons not to do so. The minor premise is that same-sex behavior (and often many other kinds as well) can never provide a good reason (short of the minimal limits of non-coercion, etc.). Deny the minor premise, and you will be described as a bigot. It’s that simple.

All the talk about “bias” and “animus” and “prejudice” is misguided. It trades on the Selma Analogy, which can’t be sustained. It’s very strange to make moral judgments about someone on the basis of the color of their skin. It’s entirely normal to do so on the basis of what they do, which is why from time immemorial human beings have judged some sexual acts immoral (most, actually). If I say that sodomy or masturbation is immoral, I’m not expressing an “animus,” I’m doing the same thing as when I say that lying is wrong or that gossiping is harmful, which is to say I’m making a moral judgment.

Blankenhorn is right that I’m concerned about more than the “marriage” element in the “gay marriage” debate. He thinks that I’m more fundamentally concerned about the “gay” element, but that’s not entirely true. I’m more fundamentally concerned about “sex.” The sexual revolution has fundamentally altered the way in which we think about adulthood, children, family, and marriage—and because of that also about what makes for a happy life and a healthy society. In so doing it’s disoriented most people, especially poor and vulnerable people, leading to great social dysfunction. It’s important to remember that this revolution was almost entirely undertaken by heterosexuals.

But in 2012 we’re arguing about sex through an argument about gay rights. That’s a political fact that can’t be ignored. I saw how this worked during my adult years as an Episcopalian, when the church was engaged in a protracted struggle over gay rights—the right of gays to be ordained, gays to be married, etc. For almost everyone involved in that church-political struggle, the question was this: Are we to accept and affirm the sexual revolution, or are we to somehow resist it. The proponents of the gay cause in the Episcopal Church were not in fact fighting for gay rights in the sense of insisting that gays and straights should be treated the same in an otherwise unchanged (or even modified) system of relatively clear norms about sexual maturation, courtship, marriage, fidelity, and family. They were fighting for “diversity” (again, LGBT), which means fighting against clear sexual norms (other than prohibiting coercion and abuse).

So it is today. Gay marriage in Maine, Maryland, and Washington will be sociologically insignificant, just as it has been in New York. Its significance is largely symbolic, but not for that reason unimportant. It says loudly what we’ve been saying quietly for decades: marriage, children, and family are life-style options.

On second thought, maybe not so quietly. Today, nobody in New York would consider calling a never-married 55-year-old woman an “old maid,” a label that once conjured images of emptiness and missed opportunities. We presume she’s sexually active, and she probably has a career—a full and busy life. That’s the women’s rights movement talking, not the gay rights movement.

Marriage is a profoundly complex and fundamental social institution, one that implicates our views of sexual morality, gender roles, and much more. It’s not surprising that we’re disoriented.

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