The end of the gay marriage debate?
THIS IS THE week that same-sex marriage comes to Massachusetts, and thus to the United States. The fundamental building block of civilization is about to undergo a radical change -- a change opposed by a majority of American adults. How did this happen? The joining of gay and lesbian couples in marriage may turn out to be the most consequential development of our lifetimes. How did we get here? The answer to that question has several parts.
At the most obvious level, the legalization of same-sex marriage is the doing of four justices of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court. Chief Justice Margaret Marshall and three of her colleagues ruled in the Goodridge case last November that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples infringes on the freedom and equality protected by the Massachusetts Constitution. The job of the judiciary is to interpret the law, but this was no mere interpretation. It was a wholesale rewriting of the law.
In effect, Goodridge was a constitutional amendment dictated from the bench. So brazen an encroachment should have set off alarm bells. Massachusetts judges are unelected and unaccountable and always, therefore, a potential antidemocratic threat. When they overstep their bounds, they should be strenuously opposed.
But far from resisting the court's order, much of the political establishment and virtually all of the media embraced it. And that, too, is part of the reason why the timeless meaning of marriage -- the union of a man and a woman -- is now to be discarded in Massachusetts.
The Goodridge judges knew they would have the support of the cultural elites, for whom individual autonomy and the pursuit of happiness often seem to be the highest social values. In the allegedly "progressive" mindset, which dominates what you read in the paper and see on TV, social traditions exist to be challenged, family structure is highly flexible, and the mainstreaming of homosexuality is something only haters or fanatics could oppose.
No surprise, then, that the media depiction of the same-sex marriage controversy has been strikingly one-sided. The views of those who favor it are often and prominently featured; their appeals to justice and compassion are repeatedly quoted, echoed, and expanded on. There has been a shower of celebratory coverage centered on the wedding plans of gays and lesbians, and upbeat descriptions of all sorts of related matters, from the marketing of wedding dresses for lesbians to the first Bride's magazine article on same-sex ceremonies.
But there is rarely an admiring story about those who take a stand against throwing out the ancient definition of marriage. Rarely does the coverage suggest that they might have an argument worth listening to or an insight worth considering. Rarely do the feared negative consequences of same-sex marriage get more than a fraction of the attention paid to its anticipated benefits. Hard to miss is the attitude that those who favor same-sex marriage are enlightened, while those who don't are bigots.
But still another part of the answer to "How did we get here?" is that those who defend the traditional definition of marriage have been woefully ineffective in making their case.
Preaching to the converted has its uses, but gay and lesbian advocates didn't move the cause of homosexual marriage from the fringe to the liberal mainstream by speaking only to those who already agreed with them. They made their case in terms that the unconvinced could understand too, and framed their radical proposal as an issue of civil rights and family love. Those are appealing arguments -- especially if they are infrequently rebutted. With so few leaders on the other side making an equally articulate case, it's not surprising that same-sex marriage advanced so far so fast.
Those of us who think this week's revolution is a terrible mistake need to do a much better job of explaining that the core question is not "Why shouldn't any couple in love be able to marry?" but something more essential: "What is marriage for?" We need to convey that the fundamental purpose of marriage is to unite men and women so that any children they may create or adopt will have a mom and a dad.
Marriage expresses a public judgment that every child deserves a mom and a dad. Same-sex marriage, by contrast, says that the sexual and emotional desires of adults count for more than the needs of children. Which message do we want the next generation to receive?
The marriage debate doesn't end this week. Indeed, it may only now be starting in earnest. As Massachusetts goes, so goes the nation? That may depend on whether those who understand what marriage is for, and why its central meaning has endured for millennia, can finally find the words to explain themselves to their countrymen.
Jeff Jacoby's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.