Nearly a decade ago, the redoubtable Douglas Farrow published a book whose subtitle announced the “end of marriage.” Farrow hasn’t been the only one to sound the alarm. Roger Scruton has observed that marriage “marks an existential transition” from “the concerns of one generation towards a concern for the next.” It consecrates husband and wife not only to each other but “to the family that will spring from them.” No such intergenerational inertia is built into same-sex marriage, leading Scruton to conclude that defense of gay marriage is “surely perverse.”

More recently, Eric Enlow, dean of South Korea’s Handong International Law School, has bluntly argued that Obergefellchanged all marriage contracts so that the conditions of validity, duties in marriage and conditions for divorce that once all hinged on sexual self-giving are abolished.” In changing these contracts, conditions, and duties, “Obergefell abolished marriage.”

Same-sex marriage is the most obvious sign of the collapse of the Christian social imaginary that founded Western civilization. Firmly institutionalized in law, academia, media, and popular culture, the sexual revolution is advanced and enforced by official and unofficial bodies, from the EU and the UN to a global network of NGOs and advocacy groups.

This breath-taking expansion of the state’s jurisdiction has led some observers to draw ominous parallels with totalitarian movements of the last century. According to University of Mainz criminologist Michael Bock, “The claim to put a society ‘on track’ in this way through a comprehensive, uniform formal principle of politics is known to us from the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century.” Such a determination “to subordinate the entire social reality to a uniform principle or to penetrate it with this principle is the reason these regimes are called ‘totalitarian.’” It’s another project to straighten the crooked timber of humanity through the exercise of power.

If you think a development of this magnitude would be worth talking about in a presidential primary within a professedly conservative political party, you’d be wrong. In his closing statement at the February 13 Republican primary debate, Marco Rubio slipped in a passing reference to same-sex marriage. He promised that under his leadership, “we’re going to be a country that says that marriage is between one man and one woman.”

In general, however, marriage has been conspicuous by its absence in the GOP primary. According to fivethirtyeight.com, there have been fewer than fifty references to same-sex marriage in this year’s Republican debates, as compared 135 references during the 2012 primaries: “on average, ‘gay marriage’ and its variants have only come up 4.45 times per debate so far in this year. It came up 6.75 times per debate in 2012 and 5.13 times per debate in 2008.”

It isn’t that Republicans have changed their views exactly. Many insist they remain personally committed to marriage as a union of one man and one woman, but they’ve privatized that commitment. They’ve accepted Obergefell as “the law of the land” and concluded that any attempt to overturn it would be quixotic. Time to move on to more important matters, they advise.

There’s a survival instinct at work. A 2012 GOP post-mortem set the tone: “We need to campaign among Hispanic, black, Asian, and gay Americans and demonstrate that we care about them, too.” A battle between “Good Republicans” who want to be on the right side of history and “Bad Republicans” who stand intransigently against the tide would split the party. The Republican leadership has to mollify social conservatives without losing the moderate wing of the party that has never been happy with bumptious Bible thumpers.

It’s not surprising that marriage has been muted. What surprises is how easily the GOP has fallen into line. If a Republican candidate did the private/public two-step on abortion, his campaign would be abortive. When a candidate does it with marriage, there’s nary a peep. It seems the GOP has determined that marriage isn’t worth much of a fuss. Where are the howls of protest? Where have all the Bad Republicans gone?

Declaring a personal commitment to traditional marriage is nothing more than a sop to social conservatives unless it’s backed up by action. Either marriage is a basic institution of society, or it isn’t. Either family is essential to healthy public life, or it’s not. If the GOP isn’t willing to risk anything to conserve this institution, what is it conserving?

The GOP’s survival tactics may look savvy, but they will backfire. Here as everywhere, you save your life only by losing it.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is the author most recently of Gratitude: An Intellectual History. His previous articles can be found here.

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