For many liberals, gay marriage is nowadays an easy case. It eliminates discrimination against a class of people. It signals tolerance for diverse families. It eliminates an archaic distinction. If the benefits seem to outweigh the harms, as they do, let’s go for it. And the sooner the better.
For a principled conservative, embracing gay marriage is not nearly so easy. A venerable principle of conservatism, rooted in the work of Edmund Burke, is that we should respect tradition and history. This strain of conservatism prefers stability to change, continuity to experiment, and the tried to the untried. Burke was the father of modern traditionalist conservatism. Others were more analytically rigorous (Hayek and Oakeshott) or more directly influential on American political conservatism (Kirk and Buckley). But Burke was the first among the modern writers to lay out the basic principles and to do so in an almost poetic way.
Understanding Burke’s philosophy is key to understanding a traditionalist conservative’s take on gay marriage. Two aspects of Burke’s thought – his faith in the possibility of slow progress and his willingness to depart from an original design, even one based on ancient values – are especially relevant.
1. Traditionalist conservatism and reform
Burke has often been identified as a defender of existing practices and traditions against innovation. There is much in Burke’s writings and speeches to support this view. He wrote in Reflections on the Revolution in France:
[I]nstead of casting away all our old prejudices, we cherish them to a very considerable degree, and, to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices; and the longer they have lasted and the more generally they have prevailed, the more we cherish them. We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations and of ages.
However, the common reading of Burke as simply a defender of tradition often misses the richness and subtlety of his philosophy. He did not oppose all evolution of a society’s practices, traditions, and values. Rather, he counseled deliberation and patience in reform.
For Burke, the operation of change should be “slow and in some cases almost imperceptible.” He urged forbearance and consensus-building. He defined a statesman as having “a disposition to preserve and an ability to improve.” He believed deeply in the possibility of “a slow but well-sustained progress.” In other words, Burke supported incremental change rather than the convulsive social upheavals he saw in events like the French Revolution.
Burke’s leading modern American disciple, Russell Kirk, took a similar approach to social change. “Society must alter,” Kirk wrote in The Conservative Mind, “for slow change is the means of its preservation, like the human body’s perpetual renewal.” In his analysis of Burke, Kirk noted:
Does the observance of prejudice and prescription, then, condemn mankind to a perpetual treading in the footsteps of their ancestors? Burke has no expectation that men can be kept from social change, or that a rigid formalism is desirable . . . . Even ancient prejudices and prescriptions must sometimes shrink before the advance of positive knowledge . . . .
Kirk added: “Conservatism never is more admirable than when it accepts change that it disapproves, with good grace, for the sake of a general conciliation.”
Burke also saw that the original design of an institution would inevitably undergo change: “[N]othing in progression can rest on its original plan,” he wrote. “We may as well think of rocking a grown man in the cradle of an infant.” Edmund Burke, “Letter to the Sheriffs of the City of Bristol on the Affairs of America (1777),” in Edmund Burke: Selected Writings and Speeches 245-46 (Peter J. Stanlis, ed., 1963). From Britain’s mistreatment of the colonies, Burke drew a valuable lesson about the fallibility of human reliance on supposed venerable beliefs and the need to re-examine those beliefs in the light of experience. On March 22, 1775, he articulated this lesson in a famous speech to Parliament:
Our late experience has taught us that many of those fundamental principles formerly believed infallible are either not of the importance we imagined them to be, or that we have not at all adverted to some other far more important and far more powerful principles which entirely overrule those we had considered omnipotent.
Edmund Burke, “Speech on Moving Resolutions for Conciliation with the Colonies, March 22, 1775,” Selected Writings, at 196.
This passage reveals two important components of Burke’s traditionalist conservatism. First, what we presently regard as “fundamental principles” are not immune to critique and revision based on the lessons derived from experience. Second, experience may reveal that our operating principles are subordinate to even more fundamental principles that should overrule them. This is hardly a static philosophy of governance. It is one that does not shy from drawing lessons from experience that cause us to revise even our deepest notions of right and wrong.
Thus, the popular image of the conservative as the person who stands “athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” needs to be amended. Rather, the dominant strain of principled conservatism has stood athwart history yelling, “Slow down!”
2. Traditionalist conservatism and gay marriage
For a traditionalist, the direction of a reform certainly matters. On Monday and Tuesday, I tried to show how a traditionalist might view gay marriage as a good direction for reform. It will likely stabilize and traditionalize gay couples and their families, with positive effects not only for individuals and their children but also for their communities, for the cause of limited government, for marriage, and for traditionalist values even in gay culture. It will also make available the most traditionally moral life possible for the gay person. On Wednesday and Thursday, I responded to traditionalist concerns about the definition of marriage, the dangers of loosening the ethic of monogamy within marriage, polygamy, and procreation.
But all that is still not enough. A traditionalist case for gay marriage must also grapple with four strong aspects of Burkean conservatism: (1) a preference for stability over change; (2) a sense that existing practices embody a wisdom of the ages that a reformer’s “private stock of reason” may not fully appreciate; (3) when reform is needed, a loathing for basing it on abstract ideas divorced from actual lived experience; and (4) a preference for incremental and small reform over dramatic and radical reform.
It is easy to construct from this a powerful Burkean case against gay marriage. (1) Gay marriage is of course a change, so we should be suspicious and resistant on that account alone. (2) Marriage is a long-standing, cherished, and important institution that has never before included the union of a man and a man or a woman and a woman; its historic practice of uniting men and women, and not same-sex partners, may have a reason that our logic cannot fully perceive. (3) Gay marriage is being brought to us in the service of non-marital and abstract causes, like “equality” and “inclusion” and “tolerance.” (4) And worse yet, it is a radical change being thrust upon us suddenly by impatient activists and courts.
All of this has great force, and it may be decisive for a Burkean conservative. It is in my view the best argument against gay marriage.
Let me suggest, very tentatively here, that gay marriage, approached as a reform of marriage in the right way, might be consistent with Burke’s approach. It is certainly not commanded by traditionalist conservatism, but is perhaps consistent with it. Let’s consider each of the Burkean concerns.
First, it’s obvious that all change should not be implacably resisted. Change is a means of society’s preservation. The fact that gay marriage is a change is not enough by itself to overcome any argument in favor of it. Burkean conservatism, applied to this controversy, puts the onus on the reformers. That’s why gay-marriage advocates have the burden of proof. But it is not an impossible burden.
Second, it’s also true that the man-woman definition may embody a logic of its own that we cannot fully appreciate. This urges special caution, since the man-woman feature of marriage has lasted long and prevailed generally. But this, too, cannot be a complete barrier to changing marriage, just as it could not have been a barrier to past dramatic reforms of human practices, values, and institutions. When the first reformers proposed that women should be given the right to vote, for example, it would have been easy to say in response that men-only voting embodied a wisdom we could not fully appreciate, even though we could not come up with very good reasons for women’s disfranchisement. Burke’s insight here about the fallibility of reason is not a justification for stopping all change, even to cherished institutions; it is a warning to base change on actual lived experience and not simply reason.
Third, gay families are a part of our lived experience as a nation; they are not abstractions. There are 250,000 children being raised by 600,000 gay couples, at a minimum. There are 1-2 million children overall being raised among the estimated 9 million gay Americans. Gay families, including those raising children, have grown from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. They have sprung up organically from the experience of millions of people who have the same yearnings for connection, for love, for fidelity, for security, for family, and even for faith, that straight Americans have. Our positive knowledge about gay individuals and families has advanced tremendously over the past few decades, from a time when they seemed nothing more than a diaspora of perverted criminals, to today, when Americans increasingly recognize them as our perfectly responsible and normal friends, co-workers, brothers, sisters, mothers, and fathers. They have shown themselves capable of the kind of commitment associated with marriage.
In the face of the advance of this positive knowledge, it is possible that, from a Burkean perspective, it is some of the opponents of gay marriage who operate on abstract theories that have little to do with real human lives. Some, but not all, opponents of gay marriage appear to cling to an anachronistic view of gay people that is increasingly divorced from all learning, law, life, and experience.
Up to now, gay marriage has indeed been pitched mostly by ambitious reformers with no reverence for traditional institutions, and even with a deep hostility to those institutions, operating on abstract political theories. But as I have tried to show this week it is possible, just possible, to see gay marriage as a reaffirmation of our best traditions of marital commitment, devotion to others for whom one is responsible, and even as accepting the communal obligation to help raise the next generation. Or instead of a simple reaffirmation of long-standing values, gay marriage might be a translation of them into modern times and experience. Radical reformers advocating gay marriage are likely to be bitterly disappointed by what their reform produces.
Fourth, is gay marriage really a radical change, as many opponents (and commentators this week) have insisted? Is it especially unwise in this time of 50% divorce rates and 33% illegitimacy rates to experiment with marriage?
Throughout the extensive history of fundamental changes in the institution of marriage cries of radicalism have greeted every proposed reform. In 1911, the Supreme Court rejected the right of women to sue their husbands for abuse, calling such an idea “revolutionary, radical and far-reaching.” Thompson v. Thompson, 218 U.S. 611, 31 S. Ct. 111, 112 (1912).
The type of reform matters for whether we should consider it radical and destabilizing, and therefore un-Burkean. No-fault divorce led to unexpected and unintended consequences that have weakened marriage in some respects; the divorce rate skyrocketed. But that was a change in an exit rule for marriage, allowing people to get out easily. And it potentially directly affected every single marriage in America, since everyone was eligible to exit.
Gay marriage is a proposal to change an entrance rule, to let more people in. There have been many changes in marriage entrance rules over our history: interracial marriage, age requirements, consanguinity requirements, to name a few. I am not aware of any evidence that a change in marriage entrance rules has ever harmed marriage as an institution. And gay marriage does not directly affect every marriage, since every other marriage remains heterosexual. To believe gay marriage affects every marriage is to rest on very abstract theorizing about present “social meaning” or wild speculation about distant future social meanings. A traditionalist conservative should distrust such reasoning.
Some will object, as Maggie has, that gay marriage is not merely a change in an “entrance rule” of marriage, but in the “substantive conception” of marriage. If that’s so, it’s also not unprecedented.
There has been no more profound change in the history of marriage than the evolution of women from being the property of their husbands to being the equals of them. Women’s equality in marriage was a fundamental change in the “substantive conception” of marriage that directly affected every marriage in the land. It was fiercely resisted as a harbinger of the end of marriage and the end of civilization. There were costs associated with that change and it certainly altered the social meaning of marriage. But it was worth it, on balance. Next to that, allowing a 3% increase in the number of people who can get married, which will at least not directly affect the 97% of marriages that are heterosexual, is not radical at all.
There remains a final serious issue for the Burkean conservative: the pace and process of reform. More on that in the next post.
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