In the upcoming hearings to vet and confirm Supreme Court Justice David Souter's replacement, Senate conservatives are expected to center their focus on same-sex marriage, marking a departure from the past when abortion ruled the culture war divide. Their new strategy seems ill advised, unless of course there is something to gain from making oneself the Hector of the political battlefield. Indeed, the right is demonstrating a continued inclination to be stubbornly loyal to stale, unfashionable arguments (torture; global warming; fiscal austerity during a recession) that puts it in a position to be dragged through the dirt.
The fact is that, compared to abortion, there is less and less going for the anti-same-sex marriage side of the fight. With abortion, the divide is a toss-up between the stipulated life of a first trimester fetus and a woman's right to privacy over her own body, ruled to be implicit in the Constitution. Abortion is a far more intractable issue because it is centered on a third party who is argued to lack any representation or defense. However, with same-sex marriage, the consideration of this third party is absent, leaving little to no justifiable claim for two peoples' relationship to be subjected to government intervention or refutation.
And as such, an April Washington Post-ABC News poll found 49 percent of those asked to be in favor of legalized same-sex marriage, versus 46 percent who are opposed. The shift towards tolerance is especially due to younger constituents who, regardless of personal beliefs, can't see how who marries whom is any of their business. Moreover, they find it civilly and democratically -- and indeed, morally -- questionable to deny to one group of the citizenry rights and benefits enjoyed by everyone else.
If conservatives wish to elevate their fight against same-sex marriage to primus inter pares without a smarting backlash, they will have to somehow justify this exclusive denial of rights as something other than hidebound bigotry. Indeed, a mis-tackle of this issue could very well transform the soi disant 'moral majority' into an immoral minority, considering that an increased percentage of people will consider such a position to be driven more by social sadism than personal righteousness.
One often hears a claim that same-sex marriage would sully traditional heterosexual couplings, or that same-sex parents would raise heinous miscreant children. The problem is that most real-life examples of these scenarios suggest the complete opposite (and there was never any evidence to support the claims in the first place). With these arguments falling flat, all that is really left is the sad position articulated recently -- and hysterically -- by Miss California's Carrie Prejean: that it's her belief, and nobody can touch that.
Prejean's controversial answer to a same-sex marriage policy question stated that marriage should be between a man and a woman, which lost her the Miss America contest* -- a venue where real-life blow-up dolls with the erudition of a toddler are sometimes asked to proffer informed opinions on the most intractable issues of the day.
The Prejean debacle underscores a crucial distinction between one's own beliefs and others' rights that is rarely appreciated by opponents of same-sex marriage. Prejean and her defenders are correct that everyone has a right to their own opinions and beliefs, but they are wrong to think that personal beliefs should be allowed to have any bearing under law on the private, individual rights of strangers. In fact, the notion that the government should decide if two people may marry, or which married couples may enjoy federal benefits, flies in the face of traditional, no-government-involvement conservatism -- how conservative same-sex marriage opponents reconcile this contradiction seems a rather pertinent question.
For his part as one who must inevitably weigh in, President Obama treads the line gracefully. As The Economist put it last week, "Barack Obama says he supports civil unions but, as a Christian, opposes gay marriage. The incoherence of this stance makes it conveniently difficult to attack."
However, this position should not be viewed as incoherence, but rather as one where personal beliefs are appropriately compartmentalized from public policymaking. In fact, as soon as this is achieved, the issue ceases to really be an issue at all. In New Hampshire's same-sex marriage debate, Democratic Governor John Lynch is working to establish protection for churches and religious leaders who fear being forced to officiate and bless marriages for same-sex couples. This is not only fair, it also seems to all but eradicate the point of most contention.
As with many divisive issues, the same-sex marriage debate is falling more and more into the realm of farce, due to unremitting straw man attacks. Paranoid conservatives cry shrilly that same-sex marriage is an affront to their religion, except that most gay couples just want equal recognition under law and could care less about religious dogma. According to the Washington Post, the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act denies same-sex couples over 1,100 federal benefits that are enjoyed by other couples. Most same-sex couples presumably couldn't care less about the traditional religious definition of "marriage" because they know they would immediately and arbitrarily be precluded -- the government, being a secular entity, shouldn't care either.
A dozen states already recognize some form of same-sex union under law, revealing that the dispute need not be irresolvable. The risk the GOP takes by centering on this issue now is that it could indelibly be identified as nothing more than the Frivolous Asshole Party -- using paranoid arguments to attack a group of people for demanding personal rights they've been exclusively denied for centuries, as if anyone can blame them.
One wonders when Republicans are going to figure out how to appeal to people rather than traditions. Touting antediluvian principles may very well make someone a good, loyal Burkean or Reaganite (read: Luddite), but without some updates to the political outlook, it's quite easy for that conservatism to become atavism. There are a slew of crucial issues confronting the nation; if GOP congressmen have decided to expend what is left of their political capital fighting a battle more and more people consider inane, unnecessary and, indeed, easily resolved, then it may be a presage for a rather forlorn Republican future.
*Correction: Carrie Prejean was a contestant in the Miss USA Pageant, not the Miss America Pageant.