June 05, 2006
President Bush is giving his second speech in 3 days devoted to what is euphemistically known as the Marriage Protection Amendment. The President knows better – Doug Wead maintains that his recordings of Bush circa 1999 indicate that much – but low ratings and a skittish conservative base will drive a man to embrace strange bedfellows. The good news is that the Senate vote on the amendment to ban gay marriage is just for show – 67 votes are required and this didn’t even get 50 votes the last time out – four months before the 2004 election. All participants agree that it has no chance of passage this time, either, which will save our state legislatures valuable time.
But the bad news is that we have a lot of politicians who are willing to pander. The President himself flip-flopped on this two years ago when it looked like he needed a big turnout in November of 2004. Until then, he maintained that the Defense of Marriage Act was sufficient. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
One after another, Republican lawmakers took to the microphones this week and warned “marriage is under attack!” (Sen. Wayne Allard, R-CO) and “we can have anarchy!” (Rep. Katherine Harris, R-FL).
This latest crisis, which the President argues is fueled by judicial activism (another favorite boogey man for conservatives), is clearly one of the main fronts in our current culture wars. First, many Republicans and conservatives claim that homosexuality is a choice – and an immoral one, at that. Many Democrats and liberals point out that the scientific evidence continues to point towards a genetic basis for sexual orientation (and gays point out, ‘who would choose this lifestyle?’ of ostracism). Second, many Republicans and conservatives argue that if gay relationships are sanctioned as marriage the floodgates are opened to polygamy and multiple other perversions – and than then anyone can ‘marry’ anyone else. Many Democrats and liberals argue that marriage will strengthen the commitment in a gay relationship and provide stability that is missing today. There are many good points to be made on both sides when it comes to the ramifications of all this.
In general, the right sees the primary issue as the defense of marriage, and the left sees it as the defense of individual rights (in this case, for gays). They are both right to some extent, which is why an accommodation is the only logical outcome. But that would require a flexibility that is beyond the 20%ers on the right and the 20%ers on the left.
I’d like to propose a reasonable accommodation (but many people will not like the outcome). First, I agree that marriage is a sacred bond. It is sacred not because the government sanctions it (50% of marriages now end in divorce), but because a church typically blesses it – most marriages in the U.S. include the vow that “what God has joined together, let no man put asunder.”
We would do well to separate the civil and religious components of marriage, as a number of other countries do. For example, in France, every couple first has a civil ceremony at the court house and then adjourns to hold whatever religious ceremony is desired. If the United States would cede the term ‘marriage’ to the church, the government could choose what rights go with civil unions and the churches could decide who is allowed to ‘marry.’ While a lot of laws would have to be re-written, it would solve the main problem: the definition of marriage. But it would open another set of issues that small government conservatives and libertarians prefer to finesse. For example, if the government did not wish to reward couples in civil unions with tax breaks or property rights, laws could be written to provide the tax breaks to people raising children. If we did not wish to provide survivor benefits to gay partners, the government could (attempt to) award them in narrowly proscribed situations (within the limits of equity under the law). This would open a debate about the privileges that accrue to married people and raise questions about why us single people are so discriminated against by today’s law. Most people who were in favor of fixing the “marriage penalty” in the income tax code are unaware there has also been (and still is) a “single penalty” in the income tax code. Depending upon your income and filing status, sometimes single people paid more and sometimes married people paid more. The code has been changed to ‘fix’ the marriage penalty, presumably because there is a social good in having people married.
But why stop there? There is also a social good in having people obey the law. Why not special tax breaks for law-abiding citizens? There is social good in having people get educated. Why not tax breaks for advanced degrees? Do you see the problem? The same people who preach small government and non-interference, and deride Democrats for ‘social engineering’ believe that married people should reap rewards simply for being married. If this were about children, the laws could be rewritten to favor the raising of children. But it’s not, it’s about the ‘married elites’ in this country. (Do I sound sufficiently like a 20%er here?)
The inescapable conclusion about marriage and gays is that today there are large majorities in America that oppose gay marriage – though almost certainly not large enough to write the first exclusionary amendment into the U.S. constitution. But those numbers are slipping. Older Americans are much more likely to be upset about gay marriage than people under the age of 40, so the issue will be less useful to conservatives in the future. More and more conservatives are coming to understand the issue when it touches them directly, as when your child announces he or she is gay. Even so, the issue gets brought up four months before an election – again – because many Republicans and conservatives would rather use this as a wedge issue than seek some accommodation. Fortunately, that wedge will only work for them a few more times. But by then, the other side won’t be open to a compromise, since the whole loaf of marriage will be there for the taking. By then it will be too late.