Looking back into history from the vantage point of 2013, it actually seems strange that it’s conservatives that need to be convinced to support gay marriage recognition.
Simply describing the relationship between conservatives and libertarians and the government indicates deep resistance to allowing federal, state or local officials dictate what we can do in our home. The right to have control over what our children are taught and to select schools (or teach them ourselves), the right to protect our homes and property, the right to control what we do with our own property, the right to not have to contribute our hard-earned money to line the pockets of government and corporate cronies – all of these ideals are predicated on valuing individuals and families over central control.
So why is marriage recognition different? Why do so many conservatives support government family planning when homosexuality gets tossed in the mix?
Religion is often either a defense or a scapegoat, but it’s not a particularly illuminating answer. Few Christians (or members of other faiths who oppose legal recognition of gay marriage) want every command of their holy teachings enshrined in law. I’ve yet to meet a Christian who wanted to make Sunday church attendance legally mandatory.
Unfortunately, gay issues have been enshrined as part of the progressive movement dating back to the sexual revolution. It didn’t have to be this way: Many of the early protesters were hardly libertines, fighting to not be beaten up by police and thrown in jail – by the government, not the church – because of their bedroom practices.
But history is what it is. Homosexuality became associated with sexual liberation by both the left and the right with very different connotations. It should not come as a surprise that there is also deep opposition to gay marriage from a contingent of old guard leftists who still subscribe to the idea that the institution is a patriarchic system of keeping people down and controlling people. When you believe government utopias and communal values supersede individual liberties and family freedom, marriage can’t help to be seen as a threat.
Conservatives believe marriage and close families are a stabilizing influence in culture, the building block of communities. They are not wrong. But that makes opposition to recognizing same-sex marriages even stranger. New generations of gays and lesbians, with no loyalty or interest in the doctrine of the sexual revolution, seek this same stabilization. There isn’t some sort of a trick or a scam or scheme. Because of the progressive control of the argument, weighted words like “equality” and “fairness” set some conservatives on edge because those words have been corrupted over decades as a way to diminish others, the socialist idea of achieving these aims by taking property and freedoms away from others.
A conservative can accept gay marriage recognition and still resist such efforts from the left. Ultimately, the government should have as little say in your family’s relationship as it does in your education and what you do with your property. That the government ties up so many incentives and rights in marriage agreements should be troubling to conservatives. Marriage should be a private contract between consenting adults to tell the state the nature of their relationship with each other for legal purposes, not a permit from the state giving its stamp of approval on their relationship.
We define our families, not the government. Ultimately, the ceding of this power to government helped create this environment of subsidies, benefits (and even penalties) that have contributed to the twisted incentives conservatives rail against.
The problem has always been too much government control, not too little. Intellectual consistency in the belief in small government mandates accepting the rights of families to organize themselves. Conservatives should resist the urge to try to use government authority to control family structures, because that power will always be subject to abuse by ideological opponents.
Scott Shackford is associate editor of Reason 24/7 at Reason.com.
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