Here at Ordered Liberty, I weighed in a few days back on the discussion Roger Simon and Bryan Preston were having about whether the Republican Party should de-emphasize social issues. Some other points are worth making.

The first is that not all “social issues” are created equal.

I don’t think either Roger or Bryan suggested otherwise. To recap how we got here, while Roger’s headline referred generally to “social conservatives” (“How Social Conservatives Are Saving Liberalism”), his post homed in on gay marriage. In rebuttal, Bryan did not delve deeply into the substance of gay marriage; instead, he broadened the debate to consider how a conservative retreat on gay marriage would fit into a pattern of surrender on social issues across the board. It is those issues that inspired the demographic known as “social conservatives” to, as Bryan says, “get into politics in the first place.” Thus, he contends, de-emphasizing them would cause social conservatives to disengage from politics. I agree. As argued in my post, the GOP cannot win elections with major defections from this critical component of its base.

Yet, it confuses matters to speak of “social issues” as one indiscriminate bunch, and to imply that each should be handled the same “no compromise” way. Just as every skirmish in the culture war is not equally significant, different social issues are of varying importance.

Abortion, for example, is the great civil rights issue of our time; marijuana legalization (also discussed in Roger’s critique of social conservatives) is not nearly as consequential, regardless of how one comes out on it.

Gun rights, free speech, and religious liberty are explicitly protected by the federal Constitution; their erosion thus raises grave concerns about the vitality of all constitutional guarantees and about the future of constitutional governance itself. To the contrary, because abortion and marriage are not addressed by the Constitution, the assumption by the federal courts or Congress of the power to regulate them imperils state sovereignty — absent the guarantee of which the states would not have ratified the Constitution. And the fact that an issue is a matter of states’ rights implies that different states may have different solutions.

Bryan is wise to focus on the effects of an across-the-board retreat on social issues. Still, each different issue needs to be taken on its own merits. The fact that I’d be unwilling to compromise on life does not mean I’m closed-minded on marriage. The fact that I would fight hard to protect the Second Amendment does not mean I think all gun restrictions are unworthy; it means I think the core of any express constitutional protection may only be narrowed by constitutional amendment, lest all constitutional protections be imperiled.

Roger’s focus was on gay (or “same-sex”) marriage, so let’s stick with that. He is certainly right that young people, as a class, are much more sympathetic to it than previous generations. That is the main reason polling of American attitudes on gay marriage has swung, in less than 20 years, from overwhelming opposition to clear support. In the Left’s “us versus them” approach to political issues (the main thrust of my previous post), “us” undoubtedly lines up on the pro side of same-sex marriage — notwithstanding that the anti side includes two notable Democratic constituencies: black Americans and Muslims (homosexuality being regarded as a capital offense under Islamic law). In just the last six years, Latinos, another Democrat-leaning constituency, have swung from opposing gay marriage to favoring it, driven by 18-to-29-year-olds.

Roger observes that young people now equate opposition to gay marriage with bigotry, which so offends them that he fears “the whole house of cards goes down” — i.e., if pressured by social conservatives to maintain their opposition, Republicans will lose young voters over this single issue, even though their economic self-interest and libertarian streak should cause young adults to reject the Democrats’ extreme statism.

As I countered in the last post, even if Roger is right about that (which he may be), Republicans considering a course reversal would still have to weigh any potential gains among young voters against the effect of alienating an essential part of their base.

I suspect the result would be a sizable net loss, especially in midterm elections. (Young voters participate in presidential elections at much higher rates than in midterms.) Nevertheless, it is worth asking whether social conservative opposition to gay marriage is a “no compromise” stance or one on which accommodations can tolerably be made.

Personally, I cannot get whipped up over gay marriage. I strenuously oppose the imposition of the Left’s agenda, including its radical gay rights subpart, on our society. But I distinguish the marriage question from the broader agenda, even though I know gay activists do not — a problem I will get to in due course. I know plenty of gay people, and I don’t think most of them define themselves by their sexuality any more than the rest of us do. I don’t believe most of them are driven by an overarching political agenda. They are just trying to go about their lives. That makes me sympathetic, though it does not persuade me to become a supporter of gay marriage. Yet, my objections are academic, not impassioned. I just don’t care that much about it.

Marriage is an institution rooted in the complementarity of the sexes, the natural procreative capacity of husband and wife, and the benefits of raising children in this natural family unit. To my mind, then, to speak of “gay marriage” and to juxtapose it with “traditional marriage” is to make a category error. Indeed, I think conservatives opposed to gay marriage are steadily losing in the court of public opinion because, on this as on many issues, they failed to take heed of the language in which the debate was framed. Speaking of “traditional marriage” implies that there are non-traditional arrangements that sensibly qualify as marriage despite being foreign to what marriage is. The political argument, moreover, assumes that marriage is something for government to define — as opposed to being a social institution that predates government, and in which government’s involvement ought to be limited to prescribing the legal privileges attendant to marriages society accepts.

Importantly, I don’t see this reasoning as an insult to or bigotry against gay people — I certainly don’t mean it that way. It is just a fact of life. I am not insulted, nor do I feel discriminated against, by the facts that my wife and I would be ineligible for a same-sex union, that I would not be permitted to play in the women’s pro-basketball league even if I were good enough, or that I am deemed unfit to be, say, Polish American of the Year.

By telling me I lack the basic qualifications, society is not undermining my dignity as a human being or the worthiness of my most intimate relationship.

All that said, though, if the people of a state choose to place gay couples in committed, monogamous relationships on an equal legal footing (meaning: analogous legal privileges) as married couples, that is fine by me. For the reasons explained above, such a legally sanctioned arrangement would not seem like a marriage to me, but I don’t feel strongly enough about it to object.

I also believe in our form of democracy. As a matter of law, marriage is a matter fit for state regulation; if the majority of a state voted to recognize monogamous, committed same-sex relationships as a marriage, I don’t see how any of my fundamental rights would be threatened, so I would accept the law just like I accept all legitimately enacted laws with which I disagree. I also believe in federalism: in 50 different states there would be a variety of outcomes: some states would endorse gay marriage, some would preserve marriage as we’ve always known it, virtually all would approve some form of domestic partnership, and everyone would be able to gravitate to places hospitable to their preferences and morality. (If abortion had been handled that way, rather than by the statist, undemocratic imposition of a one-size-fits-all federal dictate, our debates over “social issues” would be much less heated, the confirmation process for federal judges would be far less politicized, and “social conservatives” would probably never have risen up as a national political force.)

Moreover, the fact that marriage and the traditional family constitute the optimal societal building block does not mean other kinds of family arrangements cannot work. We damn well better hope they can. As the Center for Equal Opportunity’s Roger Clegg points out, the latest appalling data indicate that over 40 percent of all births in the United States are now out-of-wedlock. Among blacks and native Americans (American Indians and Alaskans), the figures are a mindboggling 72 and 67 percent, respectively. For Hispanics, it is 54 percent; for whites, nearly 30 percent; and for Asians/Pacific Islanders, 17 percent.

Regardless of my intellectual misgivings about gay marriage, it is not rational to obsess over a small number of people who want state validation for loving relationships that promote stability when we are in the midst of unprecedented social instability — and all the disorder that comes with it.

What about the slippery slope to polygamy, etc. (a question made more relevant by Bryan’s valid point about never-ending surrenders)? I am not overly concerned about it as long as gay marriage is enacted politically rather than imposed by courts purporting to discover constitutional rationales.

Politics is about social tranquility. In a political process, it is permissible to compromise, to draw lines that the people want drawn for cultural and other practical reasons. Political solutions do not require today’s accommodation to lead to the next logical accommodation. In this way, politics is saliently different from jurisprudence. Courts construing legal provisions must, in the absence of guidance by the lawmakers, search for limiting principles. Unlike lawmakers, they are not limited by “the art of the possible”; they are bound to go where law and logic take them. That is a big part of why free people should limit the areas of life subject to control by politically unaccountable judges. At any rate, if gay marriage were lawfully enacted by referendum or legislation, it should be with the caveat that courts have no jurisdiction to expand it.

Furthermore, just as marriage is rooted in human nature, I also believe homosexuality is a natural human condition, albeit one that applies to an extremely small percentage of people. Of that small population, some markedly smaller percentage desires committed, monogamous relationships analogous to marriage. Their number is too negligible to threaten the institution of marriage, the family, and religious liberty. Or at least it should be if all we are talking about is according them marital status and its legal privileges (for tax, inheritance and similar purposes).

Here, we get to the crux of the matter. My reservations aside, I would be completely indifferent to gay marriage if it were just about a few gay people trying to pursue happiness. Alas, it is not. It is the leading edge of a political agenda — a grossly intolerant agenda masquerading as the avatar of tolerance.

The Left and its gay activists do not want to “coexist.”

They won’t take tolerance or acceptance for an answer. They demand approval and endorsement. They seek to deracinate Western culture from its Judeo-Christian fundament by slandering it as hate-based discrimination. I don’t understand why we abide such arrogance. I don’t expect my views to win everyone’s approval, just their tolerance. No one has a right to more than that, and I fail to see why gay people should not be content with it.

Given the metastasis of out-of-wedlock births, responsible adoption agencies are more essential than ever. Yet Catholic Charities, which has been extraordinary in filling this need, is being forced to shutter its affiliates in various states because, consistent with Catholic doctrine, it will not arrange adoptions for same-sex couples. Similarly, providers of other services (wedding photographers, catering halls, realtors, and the like) who object to gay marriage on religious grounds are being coerced to serve same-sex couples or face the prospect of being sued and shut down.

This ought to be unacceptable. There are adoption agencies and plenty of service providers who would be not just willing but anxious to have business from gay people. Respecting the right of religious believers not to abet arrangements they sincerely believe to be sinful would no more harm gay people than reluctantly accepting a state’s decision to recognize gay marriage would harm these religious believers. Gay activists demand respect, but they will not reciprocate.

To be sure, religious believers tend to object to gay marriage (but to harbor fewer reservations about “domestic partnership” arrangements that grant same sex couples legal privileges on a par with marriage). Yet, though there are exceptions and extremes, I believe they would accept — not approve but accept – gay marriage if: (a) it were legitimately adopted by popular vote or the state legislative process, and (b) its enactment explicitly recognized the right of religious objectors to refrain from violating their beliefs.

In my opinion, young voters — not all of them or perhaps even most of them, but a fair amount of them — could be persuaded that this is a reasonable compromise. More to the point, they could be persuaded that the counter-cultural demands of gay activists are an unreasonable restriction on freedom of conscience. I’m not sure whether Roger or Bryan would agree. Nor do I know how representative my position is of what conservatives generally, or social conservatives in particular, think.

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