The Essential Moderation Of Marriage Equality
The bipartisan Respect for Marriage Act is a sign of a reviving center.
If the midterms seemed to suggest that the forces of moderation have not been completely wiped from the American civic consciousness, then the Senate’s overcoming of the filibuster this week to advance the Respect For Marriage bill seems like proof of principle. It repealed the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996 — the first and last federal attempt to intervene in what has always been a matter for the states; it insisted that the states can decide their own marriage laws in the unlikely event that Obergefell is overturned; it mandated that, whatever the court may or may not say in the future, a civil marriage license legal in one state must be legally respected by other states; it reiterated that a legal marriage is only between two people; and, critically, and most important, it added specific protections for religious freedom.
Here’s part of the language in a comprehensive religious freedom amendment. It would:
Protect all religious liberty and conscience protections available under the Constitution or Federal law, including but not limited to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and forbids this bill from being used to diminish or repeal any such protection;
Confirm that non-profit religious organizations will not be required to provide any services, facilities, or goods for the solemnization or celebration of a marriage.
This is a careful, constitutional and political balancing act. Part of its inspiration comes from the Utah Compromise of 2015, in which Mormon church leaders and Utah’s gay groups struck a grand bargain: gay couples would have an unequivocal right to marry in the state; Mormons and others would retain concrete protections for religious liberty and speech. The deal passed overwhelmingly in the Utah legislature, and has been a major success. (That’s why for anyone following this debate for a while, the Mormon Church’s support for the RFMA is not a surprise — however wonderful it remains. In Utah, one of the most socially conservative states in the country, 72 percent now support marriage equality.)
So in the RFMA, we protect religious freedom, protect existing and future gay (and interracial) marriages from being dismantled, guarantee federal recognition, leave states’ rights where they were, but ensure that marriages enacted in one state are recognized by every other one. You could argue (and I have) that, strictly speaking, the law is unnecessary because Obergefell remains the law of the land. But in the wake of Clarence Thomas’s lone, cranky dissent in Dobbs, a reaffirmation of the right to marry from the Congress will be a relief to gay married couples, their families, and their children.
The response from the Republican right and punditocracy, however, has been surreal. It’s right back to the 1990s. Rachel Bovard tweeted:
This bill doesn’t simply “codify gay marriage.” It allows a secular mob to go after churches, religious schools & nonprofits, and creates a cultural justification for market institutions — like banks! — to ban people w/ traditional views on marriage from their businesses.
Just go read the amendment I quoted above. It simply disproves this. The bill goes out of its way to protect religious liberty — extended not just to churches but to religious groups’ “non-profit organizations.” It differs in this key respect from the Equality Act, which repeals the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and replaces biological sex with a postmodernist understanding of gender. The RFMA, in stark contrast, is a profoundly moderate measure.
Alongside the right-wing distortions, you also have abstract arguments that failed decades ago. Here’s Ben Shapiro, alongside Matt Walsh, defining marriage as entirely about reproduction: “You could be a visitor from Mars and you could see that all of human procreation relies on man, woman, child.” Sure. We have other technological methods in modernity than old-school fucking — but an egg and a sperm are always involved.
But do we make civil marriage contingent on proof of fertility? Nope. In fact, civil marriage is granted to countless couples without biological children: straight couples who do not want kids; octogenarians who cannot bear fruit; post-menopausal women; sterilized men; couples who are infertile by chance or design. And Shapiro, of course, allow exceptions for all these — but draws the line at gays. In the end the distinction is not about procreation; it’s simply about heterosexuality. Shapiro is fine if a straight person marries and divorces seven times as a matter of civil law with no kids; but a lesbian couple with three children is ruled out of bounds for the exact same civil right. Why? Because one is straight and the other gay.
So the procreation point is either semantics or it’s an attempt to insert orthodox religious doctrines into civil law. But marriage was a civil institution long before it was a religious one, even in America; it was only formally recognized by the Catholic church as a sacrament in 1563 — in part because Protestants asserted it was not; it was founded as much to secure property as children; in the US Constitution, it is a core civil right extended to believers and non-believers alike; and civil marriage already violates the rules of the largest Christian denomination in America by permitting divorce and multiple, successive marriages. Do Catholics believe that civil divorce represents an attack on our religious freedom? Of course not.
And procreation is emphatically not the only thing that defines marriage, civil or religious, as so many couples without children will attest, and as easily accessible contraception underlines. Marriage is also about love, friendship, commitment, property, responsibility, and sacrifice. Do these count for nothing if biological children are not involved?
One more thing: some now argue that marriage equality was the gateway drug, as it were, to attempts to undo the sex binary, and has inevitably led to today’s illiberal, intolerant LGBTQIA+ movement. But what this fails to grasp is that the arguments for marriage equality were opposed by these extremists in the first place (and still are by many). Marriage was not the first step in a slippery slope of left-extremism; it was a key and seismic move by centrist gays and lesbians in the precisely opposite direction!
Marriage equality was disdained by the “queer” left for decades. They saw what it was: a liberal attack on leftism, and a conservative attack on reactionism. That move to the moderate center appalled them. Even now, one of the chief leaders of the current LGBTQIA+ movement, Chase Strangio, is mad that the RFMA is meeting success:
I feel an inexplicable amount of rage witnessing the Senate likely overcome the filibuster to vote to codify marriage rights for same-sex couples … I find it disappointing how much time and resource went into fighting for inclusion in the deeply flawed and fundamentally violent institution of civil marriage. I believe in many ways, the mainstream LGBTQ legal movement caused significant harm in further entrenching the institution of marriage as an organizing structure of US civil society.
They never wanted to join a “heteronormative,” “patriarchal,” “fundamentally violent” institution. They despised the center and the mainstream and the religious. They wanted to destroy marriage, not include gays in it.
And so you can see why it smarts now to be accused of enabling something you have always fought, always opposed — and still do. And you can see how Shapiro et al sadly seem to see no political and intellectual diversity among gay people. We’re all the same to them. We may in many cases be religious, conservative, traditional, and dedicated to our families. Many vote Republican. But to them, none of that matters. They share the view of the queer left that all gays, merely by virtue of being gay, are on the far left.
The great news in the long journey of marriage equality is that it has been, in fact, a rare triumph of liberal discourse and debate, a victory for pragmatic conservatism over extremism, and an example of moderation as we adjust to inevitable social change. And by moderation, I don’t mean the mushy middle, defined by the center between two poles. I mean the capacity to tack left and right to resist extremes of both kinds, to retain principles that endure against the passions of the moment, to seek compromise rather than conflict, to prefer skepticism and slow change to “moral clarity” and revolution. Conservatism isn’t about opposing all change; it’s about finding the best ways to adapt to constant change while keeping the best of the past.
One of the best books on the importance of moderation is Aurelian Craiutu’s Faces of Moderation: The Art of Balance in an Age of Extremes. He profiles thinkers who were able to keep their balance in ideologically polarizing times: Raymond Aron, Isaiah Berlin, Michael Oakeshott, Adam Michnik. I’d propose George Orwell and Albert Camus as belonging in the same category. Money quote from Craiutu:
I don’t want to identify moderation with centrism. The way in which I think about moderation is that it can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. There are moderates on the left, in the center, and on the right. …
I think it’s one of the riskiest things to try to act as a moderate when passions run high, when reason is overcome by passion and most people just want to shout and express their dismay, their concerns and so forth, without concern for political moderation. It’s a virtue only for courageous minds. It’s a paradox. The image of moderation is that of a weak virtue. And I think that it is a difficult virtue that requires a great dose of courage, nonconformism, and risk.
If we’ve learned anything from the excesses of the last decade, it is surely this: in a free society, the need for creative, pragmatic policy that resists ideological extremism is essential. In modern America, we have a vibrant and once-demonized gay and lesbian world. Finding a way to include them in their families and societies is win-win for everyone. It has no negative repercussions for straight marriages, or for the free exercise of religion. The new RFMA sees this, finds a balance between the rights of gays and the respect that should be accorded their sincere religious opponents. Some gay radicals have violated this deal; and many Christianists do too. Our job is to find the pragmatic center.
That some Republicans still oppose marriage equality even as 70 percent of the country embraces it shows their core weakness. Shapiro said this to any Republican Senator who favors the RFMA bill: “You do not belong in government.” This over-reaction is a sign that many Republicans still haven’t relinquished their theocratic impulses, their abstract arguments about the “ideal,” and their utter indifference to the lives and welfare of gay men and lesbians. Mercifully, most Republican voters now disagree; and a critical number of Republicans in the Congress do too.
Let’s pass the bill — and hope it’s the first of many that get us back on a path to moderation, compromise, and respect for each other. It’s a complicated, diverse and rambunctious country. But if we leave our ideologies behind, and keep our liberal principles in mind, we can still govern it. And thrive.
(Note to readers: This is an excerpt of The Weekly Dish. If you’re already a subscriber, click here to read the full version. This week’s issue also includes: a long chat with Robert Draper about January 6 and radical Republicans; continued reader dissents over my midterm prognostication; nine notable quotes from the news cycle; three Yglesias Awards; 19 links to pieces on Substack we enjoyed this week; a Hathos Alert of Sam Bankman-Fried; a Mental Health Break of the Beatles as an oil painting; an alpine window from British Columbia and another from NYC; and, of course, the results of the View From Your Window contest — with a new challenge. Subscribe for the full Dish experience!)
From a subscriber:
Thank you for acknowledging what you got wrong in your pre-election column. I had sent my college-aged son a trial subscription to The Dish and was horrified that the pre-election column was one of his first reads. I hope he sticks with you long enough to see you come to your senses.
You wrote, “But from the broadest perspective, I was simply wrong to emphasize the impact of the far left as much as I have. You’ve told me this many times. I should have listened more, and I will.”
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New On The Dishcast: Robert Draper
Robert is a writer-at-large for the New York Times Magazine and a contributing writer for National Geographic. He is the author of several books, including Dead Certain: The Presidency of George W. Bush, and his new one, Weapons of Mass Delusion: When the Republican Party Lost Its Mind. He’s a friend and a prodigiously productive reporter who truly seems intent in finding out the truth — rather than spinning some ideological tale. And he was there on January 6.
Listen to the episode here. There you can find two clips of our convo — on the MAGA supporters falling away from Trump, and on the rise of Majorie Taylor Greene. That link also takes you to a bunch of midterm reflections from readers, along with commentary on last week’s episode with conflicted moderate Damon Linker. Here’s a clip from that convo:
Browse the entire Dishcast archive for an episode you might enjoy.
Dissents Of The Week: Wokeness In The Wings
A reader writes:
I disagree with your argument that Leftist extremism didn’t hurt the Democrats as much as Rightist extremism hurt the Republicans. While that may be the general commentariat sentiment, at least one element of fine-grained analysis — CNN exit polling — seems to show otherwise. The polling reveals that voters who think both parties are too extreme (14% of us) voted 61-35 in favor of Republicans. Even those few (7%) who think neither are too extreme also went 61-35 for the GOP.
The immediate source of GOP extremism, Trump, is 76 years old. On the contrary, the immediate source of Dem extremism has infected an entire generation of college students during their most impressionable years. GOP extremism may fade faster than Dem extremism.
I tried to note this as well — but my reader’s point is well taken. More dissents and my replies here. Keep ‘em coming: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Well this didn’t age well:
In The ‘Stacks
This is a feature in the paid version of the Dish spotlighting more than a dozen of our favorite pieces from other Substackers every week. This week’s selection covers subjects such as the FTX crypto meltdown, the “remarkable turn of events” under PM Sunak, and “China’s digital fentanyl.” Below is one example, followed by many new substacks:
Scott Alexander and Resident Contrarian get into a lengthy debate over “unfalsifiable internal states” (synesthesia, DID, meditation better than sex, etc). Freddie is fired up in the comments sections, joined by Doctor Hammer. Blogger fight!
As Meta shuts down Bulletin (its short-lived newsletter thing), peruse the many refugees joining Substack. Welcome, Kirsten Powers! And Margaret Atwood is coming soon.
You can also browse all the substacks we follow and read on a regular basis here — a combination of our favorite writers and new ones we’re checking out. It’s a blogroll of sorts. If you have any recommendations for “In the ‘Stacks,” especially ones from emerging writers, please let us know: email@example.com.
The View From Your Window Contest
Where do you think it’s located? Email your guess to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put the location — city and/or state first, then country — in the subject line. Proximity counts if no one gets the exact spot. Bonus points for fun facts and stories. The winner gets the choice of a VFYW book or two annual Dish subscriptions. If you are not a subscriber, please indicate that status in your entry and we will give you a free month subscription if we select your entry for the contest results (example here if you’re new to the contest). Happy sleuthing!
The results for last week’s window are coming in a separate email to paid subscribers later today. Here’s a beautiful view from a sleuth:
I am a longtime reader and subscriber. This was from a recent trip to Florence, taken from the window of Portrait Firenze hotel:
We’re off next week for Thanksgiving. See you the following Friday.