the national interest

Same-Sex Marriage Won Because Its Opponents Never Had an Argument

Hundreds of people gather outside the US Supreme Court building in Washington, DC on June 26, 2013 in anticipation of the ruling on California's Proposition 8, the controversial ballot initiative that defines marriage as between a man and a woman. The US Supreme Court on Wednesday struck down a controversial federal law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, in a major victory for supporters of same-sex marriage.The Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) had denied married gay and lesbian couples in the United States the same rights and benefits that straight couples have long taken for granted.
Photo: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

The lightning-fast progression of marriage equality from fringe cause to popular, Constitutional right will be studied for years to come. The movement owes its success to any number of things, but surely preeminent among them is the clarity of its core rationale. Preventing gay people from marrying each other serves no coherent purpose. Allowing them to marry harms nobody.

The same-sex-marriage ban was never a premeditated social policy. It simply reflected an age-old abhorrence of homosexuality, and the instinctive or religiously inspired impulse to treat same-sex romance as a sin to be stamped out. Opponents of same-sex marriage have had to reverse engineer public-policy justifications, and the result was utterly feeble. Ross Douthat’s Sunday New York Times column, making a kind of final summarizing statement of a defeated position, reveals the right’s inability to muster a remotely compelling argument for its position.

Douthat acknowledges that the drive to bring marriage to gay life is a conservative movement, which triumphed against the more radical voices in the community disdaining marriage as heteronormative. But he argues that the rise of pro-marriage beliefs in the gay community, and the decline of marriage among the straight community, are related: “this combination isn’t a coincidence, that support for same-sex marriage and the decline of straight marital norms exist in a kind of feedback loop, that an idea can have conservative consequences for one community and revolutionary implications overall.”

Douthat links to a longer, earlier blog post in which he expands on the point, but at its core it’s two simple pieces. The first is an extremely spurious correlation-causation fallacy. Same-sex marriage has risen while straight marriage has fallen, ergo the former caused the latter. If there is a link between the two, it seems far more likely that a third cause has produced both trends: say, the decline of traditional standards has enabled both the rise of same-sex marriage and the decline of straight marriage. In which case, there is no reason to believe that continuing to ban same-sex marriage will in any way prop up straight marriage.

This speculative-at-best, ridiculous-at-worst assumption that same-sex marriage corrodes straight marriage creates the premise for the second piece of Douthat’s argument: It’s acceptable to ban same-sex marriage for the sake of straight marriage. Douthat leaves this part of the argument unexplained in his column. But it’s even harder to accept than the first part. Assume that his first premise is correct, that permitting same-sex marriage will somehow lead fewer straight people to get or stay married. Is that really an acceptable basis to deny gay people equal rights? They must be excluded from an institution whose joys have been extolled (by social conservatives more than anybody) and whose legal privileges are significant, in order to spread a nebulous socioeconomic benefit to straight America? What kind of social contract between citizens could justify such a one-sided burden?

Douthat is no dummy. The weakness of his argument is significant and revealing precisely because Douthat is the deepest and most careful advocate of social conservatism in the United States. There is reason to trust that his version of the anti-same-sex-marriage argument is the sharpest that can be found. And it’s not very sharp.

If you scan across the range of anti-same-sex-marriage arguments more typically on offer, the quality of thought drops off precipitously. In Time, Rand Paul writes another of his trademark college-libertarian-style op-eds that manages to avoid taking any formal stance on banning same-sex marriage while insisting that Big Government is really to blame for the existence of a debate that places him in an uncomfortable position. The Federalist’s Stella Morabito lists 15 reasons why same-sex marriage will lead to horrible consequences, most of which consist of right-wing fever dreams. (Reason No. 13: “According to a report by Rep. Steve Stockman, corroborated by a Pentagon official, the administration held back critical intelligence from Nigeria which would have aided in locating girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. The new National Security Strategy recently released by the White House makes clear that the LGBT agenda is a global agenda.” Ooo-kay.)

Fairness does not always prevail in politics. Sometimes good ideas lose, or win for bad reasons. But the triumph of same-sex marriage offers a hopeful case where the cause of justice prevailed precisely because it was obviously and undeniably just.

Marriage-Equality Opponents Had No Argument