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Two-something years ago, after Barack Obama defeated an inconsistently conservative Republican, when the right’s future looked dim, almost everyone on the right seems to have started arguing about the future of conservatism: not so much over what it is, but over who is a real one, who is committed and who will compromise, who are the heretics, apostates, and moles, what are its political prospects, and how to win back power.

All questions, as you will have noticed, that can only be answered if the question of what is conservatism is answered first. Or perhaps, given the great divisions among self-identified conservatives, asking these questions was the only way people had to answer that question, backing into the answer from settling the practical questions, working more like anthropologists or zoologists than philosophers.

It seemed to me a pointless debate, because unsettleable, which probably explained why so many people joined in and why their exchanges were often so heated. It’s the arguments that no one can win that make everyone yell the loudest.

Conservatives argued about something that had no universal definition, no institutional form, no accepted spokesmen, no sanctions to impose, no rewards to give, nothing authoritative that made it an argument that might be won or lost. They had no way to know when they’d answered the question.

And there was no value in winning. If you did manage to construct a definition everyone else accepted, what would you have gained? What would the definition change? What could you do with it? If you told someone “You’re not a real conservative because you believe this or that,” for example, he’d simply say, “Well, then, I’m not a real conservative.”

It’s not a useful argument, like those over what the Republican Party ought to do”I’m assuming few conservatives worry about what the Democratic Party ought to do”or what the Catholic Church’s social teaching says. The first argues over what a particular political enterprise will do, the second over a teaching to which Catholics will (or should) submit themselves. Winning these arguments may change minds and therefore actions.

It matters what the Republican Party should do. It matters what Catholic social teaching requires. It doesn’t really matter, at least in the same way and at the same level, what conservatism is.

I thought of this when reading Jason Lee Steorts’ “Two Views of Marriage, and the Falsity of the Choice Between Them,” which appeared in both the print and online versions of National Review . Steorts, the magazine’s managing editor”someone, in other words, whose opinion counts at the magazine”argues against the “traditionalist” understanding of marriage as requiring a man and a woman, in favor of a “revisionist” view based on the state’s interest in increasing “maximal experiential union” and therefore approving homosexual unions.

It is the sort of thing you might hear from a teenager, when he says, in that whining voice of adolescent conviction, “But we love each other.” Sherif Girgis, one of the men to whom Steorts was responding, adequately dealt with his argument, which he called, politely, “a faulty theory of marital love [built] on a confused account of the human person.”

But what first struck me was Steorts’ claim”one of the bases for his prescription for his radical reinterpretation of marriage”that “a conservative wants the state at a large remove from his life.” A libertarian does, yes, but does a conservative? This is not an idea to be found in Russell Kirk’s lengthy introduction to his Portable Conservative Reader , which is more concerned with the protection of the civil order and “a man’s desire to walk in the paths his father followed.”

Applied to marriage, this claim seems to me the equivalent of the pro-choicers’ “Keep your rosaries off my ovaries” and “It’s a decision solely for the woman and her doctor,” insisting on the mother’s personal autonomy over the life of her child”keeping the state at a large remove from her life, and from her unborn child’s. Few conservatives accept this reasoning. It is a matter for the law to regulate. With marriage as with abortion, the conservative, concerned with the civil order, and therefore with the moral order, and with walking in the fathers’ path, would hold that this was a matter for the law to regulate.

At least I think so, from my own reading of the conservative tradition. But the dispute may just illustrate the fruitlessness of arguing over the definition of conservatism, and exactly what relation to the state it requires. I might argue that Steorts is tainted by libertarianism, he might respond that I’m tainted by liberalism.

Except that there is at least one good test of the competing views of what conservatism believes about marriage. Imagine the original editors of National Review , Buckley, Kirk, Chambers, and the rest, and others of their sort, gathered in a room in the fifties, and then imagine the scalding rebuke they would have given to someone who proposed homosexual “marriage” as a conservative position, especially if he argued for it on the basis of “maximal experiential union.” That is the path the conservative fathers followed.

David Mills is Executive Editor of First Things . His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here .


Sherif Girgis, Robert P. George, and Ryan T. Anderson’s What Is Marriage? .

Jason Lee Steorts’ Two Views of Marriage, and the Falsity of Choice Between Them .

Sherif Girgis’ response to Steorts, Real Marriage .

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