Ross Douthat's job as a New York Times columnist, like that of his colleague David Brooks, is basically to be a conservative liberals will listen to. Douthat is famously conflicted about same-sex marriage; he's opposed to it, but he has trouble articulating exactly why in a way that doesn't come down to religious dogma. "I am not comfortable making arguments against gay marriage to my gay friends," he once told Mother Jones, "And if you're not comfortable making arguments against gay marriage to your gay friends, you shouldn't be comfortable making them to anybody, probably, so I don't tend to make them." But today he gives it his best shot, and it's one that's almost sad. He quite forthrightly details the weaknesses in the case most people make against marriage equality -- for instance, the false idea that marriage has "always" been between one man and one woman -- and concludes with this note of resignation:
If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights. And a culture in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of homosexuals.
But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.
But based on Judge Walker’s logic — which suggests that any such distinction is bigoted and un-American — I don’t think a society that declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even entertaining this idea.
These are the words of a defeated man. And they may reflect what's currently going on in the conservative elite. If you're a part of that elite, by now you've probably had plenty of exposure to gay people -- at college, in the course of your work, and in the place where you live. So you probably find the kind of naked bigotry still expressed by some in the religious right to be repellent. The rhetorical shift of recent years -- in which conservatives take pains to stress that they aren't denying gay people's humanity or rights, just trying to defend tradition -- is something you genuinely believe. But that leaves you with the sentiment reflected in Douthat's column, which is this: Yes, gay unions are meaningful and worthy of respect. But straight unions are really, really awesome. The problem is that marriage-equality opponents can't define what gets taken away from the straight couple when the gay couple gets married, so they have nowhere to fall back to except vague encomiums to marriage between a man and a woman. Which is all very heartwarming, but it still doesn't tell you why same-sex marriage should be illegal. And I'm pretty sure Douthat and other people making this argument know it.
For some time, I've been saying that the battle over gay marriage is basically over. It seems that we're going to see conservatives saying the same thing.
-- Paul Waldman