The Trouble with the Government in our Bedrooms
One of the most explosive topics in the post-election public discourse has been Proposition 8 on the California state ballot, which passed. The initiative amends the State Constitution of California to read:
Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.
As in 2004, when a number of states passed initiatives to define marriage as between a man and a woman, Prop 8 has re-ignited the debate on gay marriage almost immediately after the Presidential election. Gay rights groups have organized protests around the country condemning Prop 8 and demanding marriage equality. Andrew Sullivan has been on top of the developments.
Meanwhile, social conservatives are using the issue as a rallying call to push forward their agenda. In an interview on the O’Reilly Factor last night, Newt Gingrich proclaimed “There is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us,” taking a few isolated incidents of protestor behavior crossing the line. In the epitome of spin, Gingrich and O’Reilly spin the issue as “gays” and “secularists” wishing to somehow take away freedom, when in fact the goal of gay rights activists is exactly the opposite.
Both sides completely miss the mark with their arguments. Social conservatives have been eager to pass government initiatives to “preserve traditional marriage.” Gay rights activists have been motivated, honorably, by the desire for equality before the law. But their framing of the issue is flawed, and the nature of each side’s efforts on the issue works against their respective interests.
Social conservatives who seek to define marriage through law want an expansion of government power that sets a dangerous precedent. If the government has the power to define private institutions, why can’t it acquire the power to increasingly regulate speech or even free exercise of religion? By putting so much emphasis on passing Constitutional amendments to define marriage, they’re pursuing a very short-sighted action that could ultimately compromise their interests and will lose them many friends they may need in the future when the state is coercing their rights.
At the same time, gay rights activists must change their approach to the matter. The fundamental issue itself isn’t the institution of marriage; it’s the enforcement of contracts. By aiming for marriage “equality” in the letter of the law, gay rights activists are effectively making the same attempt that social conservatives are making, which is to legally define marriage.
From a civil perspective, marriage is only relevant as a contractual association between two individuals promoting each side’s economic interests through pooled resources, distribution of inheritance, and (often) lowering of income tax burdens. The gay rights lobby should be pushing for equality before the law in enforcement of contractually-arranged same-sex domestic partnerships while acknowledging and respecting the fact that marriage is a private, and historically religious, institution. They will add many new supporters to their ranks, and they will accomplish the real substance of their goals.
The debate on gay marriage is a tremendous opportunity for a discussion on the proper role of governemnt and the value it creates for all members of society. A government established to enforce contracts and protect individual rights to life, liberty, and propery allows everyone to make their own choices as long as their choices do not coerce others’ freedom. Such a governemnt, in the current context, allows people to form contracts with whomever they wish while respecting the rights of private institutions to define their associations as they please. It is this mainstream acceptance of this realization that will move our country beyond this divisive clash and focus our attention to the pressing issues that affect all of us substantially.