Soft Bigotry, Low Expectations: Ross Douthat and Barack Obama on Gay Marriage

Reasonable Young Conservative™ Ross Douthat comes out of the closet today , using his New York Times column to very, very cautiously identify himself as a foe of gay marriage—not because he has anything against gay people, not at all. Douthat has struggled with his urge to oppose gay rights. He knows that it is shameful . So he approaches the issue with exquisite care, with an almost complete avoidance of the first-person singular pronoun. He is simply answering the general question “what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending”?

Answer: “a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.”

What people who support the right of gay people to marry don’t understand is that man-woman marriage is a special, wonderful thing:

lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

What about marriage between old people, who can’t procreate? you may ask. What about —but Ross Douthat is aware of these objections. That is why he is defending (excuse me: explaining the proper defense of) an “ideal.”

And, yes, certainly, yes, it is an ideal that heterosexuals have done a bad job of living up to! Ross Douthat more than concedes that point. He is not a buffoon like Newt Gingrich . Straight marriage already suffers from “no-fault divorce, frequent out-of-wedlock births, and serial monogamy.” This is a source of sorrow to those who admire the heterosexual ideal (whoever those may be).

Nor is Douthat claiming that monogamous marriage between one man and one woman is inherently natural or timeless or unchanging. He is not one of those shallow thinkers who is unaware of polygamy, extended clan living, concubinage, and all the other ways that people have organized family life around the world and through the ages. The kind of marriage under consideration is a Western practice, belonging to a specific era. Even within that context, it has evolved—been “supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.” 

This is why Douthat is Reasonable™, and also why he is ridiculous. As luck would have it, Western monogamous marriage attained its ideal form at precisely the moment in history when Ross Douthat was forming his own prejudices. The idea that interracial marriage could be outlawed—as it was less than 50 years ago—is beneath mentioning. The notion of wives as inferior and subservient to their husbands? A silly anachronism. Gay marriage, though? Not acceptable.

But if the sexes are equal and if romance is part of marriage, on what principle does Douthat wish to exclude the gays? If a woman loves a woman, then you are denying her the ability to marry because she is not a man. Because the fact that she is not marrying a man makes you sorrowful for Western civilization, in the abstract.

In this, Douthat lacks the intellectual integrity of the hard-core, fire-breathing repressed homosexuals in the vanguard of the anti-gay-marriage movement. They, at least, have a solid, traditional concept of what marriage should be: a social contract between unequals, based on gender difference. When gay people ask “How would my marriage threaten your marriage?”, they miss the point. In this tradition, the woman’s job is to represent the man in social settings, take care of the house, and raise children to carry on his name. A man can want a woman to do all those things, while still seeking his own sexual pleasure in public restrooms. If marriage is between loving equals, and men can marry men, then who will wash the underwear?

Douthat’s willingness to respect the principles of equality up to the brink of the altar—but no further—is, like President Obama’s stance on the issue, vacuous and cowardly. The columnist wants to hold on his bigotry but not be blamed for it; the president wants to protect his right flank against the people who already hate him, the way Bill Clinton did. Or maybe Obama is just uncomfortable with gay people. (Dishonest, or bigoted? Always an uplifting question to ask about one’s leaders.)

Both of them are palpably hoping that gay marriage will go away without their involvement. It is in the courts now, with Proposition 8, and the Law will decide. If the Law settles on the side of the gays, then Douthat will be sad—”if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization”—and Obama will be relieved. But it is out of their hands.

This is untrue and irresponsible. When Proposition 8 reaches the Supreme Court, there will most likely be four justices prepared to ban gay marriage, no matter how persuasive the arguments for equality may be. Four other justices will probably support gay marriage.

That is to say, the question of gay marriage seems destined to be decided, this time around, by Justice Anthony Kennedy. Anyone who has identified a strong unifying theory of justice behind Kennedy’s career, one way or another, should please go ahead and explain it, preferably to Kennedy and his clerks. Mostly, he seems to have arrived at his place, fifth from the right on the Supreme Court spectrum (or a more distant fifth from the left), by power of conformity.

The real question about Proposition 8 is, will Theodore Olson’s appeals to universal equality and due process, coming from a certified Republican loyalist, be enough to pry Kennedy away from the right-wing bloc? In Ledbetter , he was happy to stay with John Roberts’ smug boys’ club, agreeing that a woman couldn’t sue for pay discrimination if her bosses hid the fact from her long enough. (Had there been three women on the other side at the time, instead of one, he might have been too embarrassed.)

So, with all due respect to the majestic isolation of the Court from public opinion, the eventual Prop 8 decision will be a ruling on how shameful it is, at our moment in history, to discriminate against gay people. Douthat’s genteel argument—essentially, that gay marriage ought to be stopped because of all the terrible damage that heterosexual people have already done to the precious institution of marriage—is an attempt to find a respectful-sounding way to tell people it’s OK to deny gay people equal rights. Obama’s acceptance of the anti-gay-marriage line says the same thing. There is no way to be a little bit wrong on this one.