Why Do Conservatives Fear Gay Marriage?


Since President Obama’s recent endorsement of gay marriage, and the ensuing backlash from the Right, a question has been bugging me…

Just why do many people – particularly religious conservatives – fear gay marriage, especially when they seem willing to at least tolerate the legality of gay behavior? I realize that looking for reasons in a case like this is often bound to produce only frustration, but it might be interesting to catalog at least the sorts of explanations those who fear same-sex marriage usually set forth.

A common explanation cites the biblical condemnation of gay behavior as an “abomination”. A problem with this explanation is that, presumably, gay people in our society will engage in gay sex whether they are married or not; there is no reason to think that preventing them from marrying results in less gay sex, and at least some reason to think that it actually results in more gay sex, and hence in more “abomination”. Surely adopting policies that keep gay sex more promiscuous than it might otherwise be isn’t a very effective way of pleasing God!

There are, of course, many other arguments against gay marriage, including an obvious instance of the slippery slope fallacy and various economic concerns, all of which are easy to debunk, as this article by Tom Head rather effortlessly demonstrates: “10 Really Bad Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage…“.

As you can see from that article, theological arguments against same-sex marriage apparently all have countervailing theological arguments, and the empirical arguments – alleging deleterious effects on society, children, or straight marriage – have no evidential support that stands up to even the most cursory scrutiny. This fact, of course, provided the basis of Judge Vaughn R. Walker’s famous decision that California’s Proposition 8 violated the Equal Protection clause. If you’ve never read Judge Walker’s decision, you can read it here. Here’s the conclusion, after 135 pages of careful legal reasoning-

Proposition 8 fails to advance any rational basis in singling out gay men and lesbians for denial of a marriage license. Indeed, the evidence shows Proposition 8 does nothing more than enshrine in the California Constitution the notion that opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples. Because California has no interest in discriminating against gay men and lesbians, and because Proposition 8 prevents California from fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide marriages on an equal basis, the court concludes that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.

Now, putting aside the technical legal arguments, perhaps the most common argument against legally recognizing same-sex unions is that “normalizing” such unions would result in their becoming more common, and that this would devalue or diminish heterosexual marriage. Such arguments often use analogical reasoning, and the sorts of analogies that come to mind in this context might include devaluation of the dollar (via inflation) by printing more dollars, or diminishing the quality of a wine by diluting it with water. Such analogies are obviously weak: the value of a particular marriage has nothing to do with the overall number of marriages, and producing more wine, even a new category of wine, does not dilute other bottles of wine. This is true even if those new bottles of wine are diluted relative to the others (as conservatives argue gay marriages are less valuable than straight marriages). Of course, if the new category of wine were diluted, then the average quality of all of the wine in the world would be diminished. But surely the value of marriage, in the only sense that has practical consequences, depends on the value of each marriage, and on the additive effects of those marriages on society – not on any merely theoretical average number. So… just how could expanding the category of marriage to include a new “vintage” devalue the other, pre-existing vintage? Well, only if the new vintage were perceived to be better

Could this be the correct explanation of the fear? Could it be that conservatives (subconsciously?) believe that if same-sex marriage were to become more accepted and hence more common, heterosexuals would actually begin converting their sexual orientation? Could conservatives really (subconsciously?) believe that gay sex is so much better than straight sex, or that switching one’s sexual preference is, at least for most people, as easy as switching brands? It sounds silly, but you do often hear conservatives fantasizing about gay folks – especially teachers – “recruiting” children who would otherwise be straight, as if changing or determining someone’s sexual orientation – even a child’s – were as easy as giving them the right sales pitch!

I’m sure that there are plenty considerations I’ve missed, including some that might buck up the conservative case against gay marriage. It is true, for instance, that legally recognizing gay marriage would be a social experiment whose long term consequences are not entirely predictable. What is disappointing is that in the very next breath, conservatives are likely to deny the much more predictable and clearly dire consequences of that other “social experiment” in which we’ve been engaged for a hundred years: dumping millions of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Since changing marriage law would be a lot easier than repairing the atmosphere, I’d much rather experiment with same-sex marriage than with global warming.

Anyway, I’m just asking the question; I haven’t settled on any answer. So if you feel like venturing an opinion, I’d love to hear it. The comments are open.

6 thoughts on “Why Do Conservatives Fear Gay Marriage?

  1. 1. Bible says Homosexuality is wrong, Old Testament and New Testament

    2. if gay marriage is the norm, gay will begin suing Churches which refuse to marry them.

    Which is the modus operandi of liberals like you anyhow.

  2. Patrick-

    As for (1), I respect your personal opinion that homosexuality is wrong, although I would point out that at least the Old Testament prescribes many behaviors I doubt that you – or most contemporary Christians – follow (for instance, keeping kosher, or stoning those believed to be guilty of adultery, especially the men). I don’t hold such inconsistency against you: picking-and-choosing is reasonable, since it seems that a book can be both divinely inspired and strongly influenced by the prejudices of the time and place in which it was written. As for the New Testament, a little googling around on the issue suggests that there is a lot of disagreement among fundamentalist Christians on the principle of “loving the sinner while hating the sin”. Those who side with loving the sinner – no to mention that wise saying, “Judge not, lest you be judged” – seem open to the idea that people should be allowed to choose their own paths through life, as long as they don’t harm others. (After all, if they are wrong, the fires of Hell await them anyway).

    As for (2), all I can say is that neither I nor any other liberal I know (or can find in the media) has ever advocated suing churches for refusing to marry anyone. Doing so would be as strange as suing a bridge club because they did not play poker. The issue is about a government function, not a religious one.

  3. First, this side observation: of course global warming is real and dangerous. “Experimenting” with it is not even an experiment. We’re gonna pay, and pay big time, for our failure to get cracking with wind, solar, and nuclear alternatives to coal and oil.

    Now, on to the {relatively} minor issue of gay marriage.

    This is a real minefield, and people on the left have a lot of trouble with “does not compute” when people on the right try to explain. Part of the reason has to do with the different weight Left and Right give to certain aspects of human moral thinking that are kind of hardwired.

    Jonathan Haidt’s book “The Righteous Mind” goes into considerable depth on the different weights different cultures and people give to considerations of “proportionality and just deserts”, “empathy and helping”, and “sanctity and purity”, to name a few categories Haidt talks about.

    Much of the discussion with regard to gay marriage seems to revolve around the word itself. So here’s a question: suppose the right were to offer this compromise: civil unions shall be available to gay and straight couples on the exact same terms as civil marriages are now available to straight couples. Federal law shall treat these civil unions as the full federal legal equivalent of marriage, as shall state law. The word “marriage”, for federal purposes, shall be limited to straight marriages, as it is now. You may file tax returns as “married filing jointly”, or as “civil unioned filing jointly”, and your taxes will be identical. Etc.

    This would circumvent conservative objections that “marriage” is a holy thing and must not be “contaminated”. Liberals who consider the word “holy” to be wholly without meaning should consider this an empty concession. Those who think it meaningful will perhaps see how hard it can be for conservatives to give way on this point. Fears of discrimination lawsuits against churches that won’t marry gays would be allayed. [By the way, right now, churches are being forbidden to help with adoptions because they won’t place children with gay couples.]

    Would this be sufficient for the Left? Or is the word itself nonnegotiable?

  4. Doug-

    Sounds like a reasonable compromise to me. I can’t speak for “the Left”, however. And I could understand why gay couples would be offended by it.

    By the way, can you provide more information about your claim that churches are being forbidden to help with adoptions because they won’t place children with gay couples? Forbidden by whom? Where?

  5. A very simple web search yielded this: http://www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=41680

    and this http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/same-sex_marriage_law_forces_d.c._catholic_charities_to_close_adoption_program/

    and this http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=13907604#.T7gUF8VXmNo

    A couple of sentences from the last of these: “The case mirrors an earlier one in Massachusetts, which in 2004 became the first state to allow gay marriage. Catholic Charities of Boston announced in 2006 it was getting out of the adoption business rather than comply with the state law. “

  6. Thanks for supplying the links, Doug. Here’s my take on them-

    As far as I can tell, no state is “forbidding Catholics from helping with adoption”, as you wrote above; rather states are regulating the details of legally binding adoptions, as they must. We could certainly argue about whether adoption should be a state-regulated activity, but given that it is, the courts have ruled that any discrimination allowed by the regulations must be guided and justified by a “rational-basis” test, and not a “religious-basis” test. On the assumption, which has been supported by empirical studies, that there is no rational basis on which to discriminate against gay and lesbian families when it comes to adopting children, state regulations must not allow it. If the Catholic Charities could show that there is rational basis for such discrimination, they would have a case to make in court.

    Crucially, since religious marriage ceremonies by themselves are not legally binding, the state has absolutely no business regulating them, and, given the Constitutional separation of Church and State, I think that you should have no fear that any state legislature would be foolish enough to try. The fact that a state can regulate legally binding adoptions in no way implies that a state can regulate religious ceremonies that are not legally binding.

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