May 26, 2008
No matter what changes the state of California wreaks in the coming months, heterosexual marriage will necessarily preserve two distinctions from any same-sex arrangement: it is the only kind of marriage to involve two people of different sexes, and the only kind that can produce children. Now that gender has become, like religion, “an innocuous pastime, preferred by a few to golf or canasta,” conservatives have rested the weight of their rhetoric on children. Of the two, it is the stronger ground, but it has had an unfortunate side effect: the Left gets to talk about True Love, while the Right is left talking about single motherhood and developmental psychology. The Right has an interest in breaking the Left’s monopoly on soaring Romantic rhetoric when it comes to marriage, but not at the price of consenting to the Left’s claim that marriage is fundamentally about the love between spouses. Can it be done?
Those who talk disparagingly about the conservative idea that “popping out babies” is marriage’s highest purpose are almost half right. It’s strange to talk about any kind of love being justified by its usefulness. Marital love is bound?animated?by responsibility and obligation, but that doesn’t mean it is subordinate to any higher utility. The question “What use is the institution of the family?” makes sense, but “What use is love?” doesn’t, and, for many proponents of gay marriage, it is the love that matters most. They are, of course, wrong to think so, and any revolution in values that sets their priorities straight would be welcome, but that’s the work of decades and the California initiative is up in November.
There is a danger that engaging with the soft hedonism of love-worship will only legitimize it. On the other hand, if the mistaken conflation of “loving” and “sacred” can be used to make an argument against gay marriage, then it might be a good idea to make it, if not intellectually then at least tactically.
If marriage comes to be more about being a husband or wife rather being a father or mother, as gay marriage advocates would have it, then spousal love will be glorified?but only at the expense of parental love. Anyone who thinks that marriage is about strong feelings of love should ask which society affirms extravagant love more: one in which an expectation of responsible parenting is part of the structure of marriage, or one in which living up to the difficult ideal of parenthood (and especially fatherhood) is one option among many, and by no means the most appealing one?
The institution of marriage is essentially a pragmatic one, instituted for the sake of public goods like monogamy and family stability. That doesn’t mean that the effects of gay marriage can only be measured in statistics. Anyone who says “all you need is love” is a fool, but anyone who thinks that it’s gay marriage advocates who are on love’s side is a greater one.
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