Sunday, August 15, 2010

The "Right" Way to Look at Proposition 8

Supporters of gay marriage were handed a broad and sweeping victory in California earlier this month when Judge Vaughn Walker overturned Proposition 8 – a voter-initiated state constitutional amendment that banned gay marriage. While many on the right immediately reacted in protest, the ruling gives much reason for conservatives to reevaluate their stance and ultimately their politics in a fashion that is more consistent with their professed principles.

Much of conservative thought is grounded in the conception of individual liberty. Individuals have the natural right to be free from oppressive arbitrary coercion. While such liberty may result in some individuals choosing to live lifestyles that others may find objectionable, ultimately a principled conservative realizes that using the tools of government to force compliance with one particular way of life or discriminate against those who do not conform is unjust.

While most conservatives rightly uphold this principle, it far too often falls to the wayside when certain lifestyle choices come to the fore – in this instance gay marriage. Regardless of how one perceives a homosexual lifestyle, the concept of individual liberty cannot condone interference in such personal choices. Every individual should have the right to choose their life-partner and be treated equally under the law.

At the same time as ignoring this fundamental principle of conservative thought, many conservatives rely on the “family values” argument to bolster their position. However, anti-gay policies miss the true importance of family values. Not only does this distort what is truly worthwhile about family values, but it helps foster a counterculture that is unnecessarily opposed to such meaningful values.

The object is to recognize what “family values” are. The simplistic construct that family values represent a husband, wife, 2.4 kids, a picket fence, and a dog is meaningless. True family values are about a small social group – the family – that is built around the ideals of commitment, mutual support, responsibility, duty, and a number of other important attributes. In this sense, it is obvious that a family is much more than a husband and wife. In reality it has no relationship with the identities of the family members but has everything to do with the values the family members share and their treatment of each other.

A good family – which serves as the basis of American society – needs to possess these qualities regardless of its member’s genders or sexual orientation. Conservatives, far too often, seem to miss this simple, yet significant point. The GOP’s focus should be on building strong family values, not on bashing gays. By developing initiatives that teach the worth of commitment, communication, and responsibility, conservatives will be able to strengthen the family unit and help Americans learn how more successfully engage their loved ones.

There are many gays who would and do accept such values as their own (some in much better fashions than their heterosexual counterparts); however, the insistence of the right on linking “family values” with anti-gay policies not only tarnishes the associated values but breeds a guilt-by-association phenomenon. As a result, the baby is tossed out with the bathwater, as many dismiss everything that is good with family values in favor of a hedonistic counterculture that is destructive to the American way. While such a libidinous lifestyle is often associated with homosexuality, this needn’t be the case. Such a life is built in the rejection of family values, not the sexuality of the individual (after all there are many heterosexuals who live a counterculture lifestyle and many homosexuals that don’t). Smart conservatives should focus on separating the issues of individual sexuality from family values.

While conservative intolerance towards gays certainly does not compel every homosexual into an alternative lifestyle, it does repel a large majority from a political party that would otherwise be a natural fit. These imprudent policies unnecessarily shrink the base and handicap Republican efforts at bring about meaningful policy changes. The GOP needs to drop its foolish and losing anti-homosexual policy stance and embrace the fundamental principle of liberty that is so appealing to America. This will not only draw those that are ideologically similar back into the fold but reaffirm the commitment to true individual liberty and family values.


  1. I applaud your stance on this issue. My largest bones of contention with the GOP and modern conservative thought are the social issues, which are largely utilized as a distraction and/or wedge issue at election time.

    However, the larger problem for the Right as a whole is the nature and structure of the GOP and the conservative movement, which is made of three modestly related branches. There are the economic conservatives, made up of upper class persons, corporate higher ups, Wall Street, etc., which want less regulation, lower capital gains taxes, etc. There is the libertarian branch, which like property and gun rights and to be left alone, and "smaller government." And then there is the religious right, which might mouth some of the above, but is really concerned with rolling back gay rights and abortion rights, and forcing their version of Christianity into the public sphere.

    It is this conservative Christian branch which is at once made of the most fervent voters, but also the most unwilling to compromise their "values" as they feel they are heaven sent. As you have correctly pointed out, such political actions like Prop 8 are in direct contravention of small "c" conservatism. Unfortunately, they are not in contravention of the religious right, who refuse to believe that people are born gay and not choose to be gay, and very much so see gays as sinners and as lower forms of life.

    Until this very, in my opinion, backward way of thinking is dealt with head on, and until the GOP drops this as a plank of their platform, people like myself, who might otherwise be considered center-left libertarians, will be turned off to the GOP and send our votes elsewhere.

    However, since the religious right voter makes up such a huge portion of the GOP base, (See: Kansas), I see little chance of us as a nation being able to move forward on the issue of gay rights in a serious fashion, without having to deal with self appointed defenders of "Family Values."

    I know that much of my above analysis is very broad, but this is just a comment post, so forgive any over-generalizations.

  2. Small and fragile societies must often think of the productivity of their individual members and groups. It is expensive to support "non-productive" groupings (i.e., pairings that do not produce children, for example, or participate in hedonistic life styles). We are probably experiencing this kind of intolerance from the religious portion of conservatism. These anti-homosexual mores seem to me to be a remnant of older rules systems designed to ensure the continuity of small societies.

    It is well past time to be accepting liberty and justice for all.

  3. Great post, Josh. I agree wholeheartedly, and I certainly hope that this will one day no longer be a wedge issue.
    - Ray Bai

  4. RayRay there is some truth in what you say, although as you point out some simplicity. One aspect that I'd like to point to is your characterization of the religious right. I think your description is generally correct; however, the conclusion that its an "us or them" scenario doesn't seem to me to be necessary. The truth is what you call small "c" conservatism (maybe more accurately classical liberalism or in a modern sense libertarianism) can encompass divergent viewpoints - in fact in many senses it is the point of the philosophy. Right or wrong, social conservatives can be opposed to homosexuality, but recognize that it is not something that the state should be involved in. They, just like anyone else, are entitled to their beliefs however "backwards" others might view it (just as they might view others' beliefs as "backwards"), but like so many other issues need to recognize that they cannot enforce this belief on others in such a large society (which as an aside I think Jim's point is right on). To make a parallel, one can look at the issues of alcohol or working on the Sabbath to see historical parallels. While many social conservatives are opposed to these in their personal lives they generally do not call for any government action in these domains. What is notable is that there once were movements in favor of government control on these issues that has died out and shown that personal lifestyle choice needn't be a barrier to a true lower case "c" conservatism.

  5. Josh,

    I don't disagree with what you are saying, however, the institution of marriage is unique (as opposed to other political issues such as abortion) in several ways. Marriage is not simply about personal choice. The concept of marriage is derived from religion (specifically Judeo-Chritian religions in the U.S.) and does have both religious and legal elements to it. It is also a way of socially and psychologically organizing our communities. People understand themselves and one another within the framework of marriage and family according to a long history of it being a certain way. It takes time and patience to reorganize such a fundamental way of existing.

    Undoubtedly, homosexual people should have access to the same legal benefits that heterosexual people have. Homosexuals should also be allowed to live their lives sexually and practically in the ways in which they see fit. I agree that gay marriage should be a separate issue from the 'family values' issues.

    My concern comes with the concept of whether or not the government should stipulate what constitutes an appropriate marriage. I do not think government should be uninvolved. Such a situation would raise issues of why others who want to marry in certain situations should or shouldn't- i.e. polygamous marriages, marriages to youth, forced marriages, etc. I believe some governmental limitations must be had. The question is, where and what.

  6. Debbie,

    What you point to is really the two separate sides of marriage - the religious and the legal. In reality they are two very different institutions that unfortunately bear the same name. I think you correctly point out that the state has no business in determining how religious institutions determine religous marriage.

    From an a priori perspective, I think the ideal is to separate the two concepts completely. The legal aspects - lets call them civil unions - should solely be performed by the state and should be independent from religious marriages. This would leave the social and religious aspects up to the communities to decide and free from government influence, while providing the legal rights, under the law, to experience the same benefits from the state to all couples who desire to make the contractual committment of civil union (aka marriage).

    In my opinion, it is irrelevant what one calls the legal marriage - although to some its not. Determing the name, I imagine, will be very politically difficult.

    Thanks for writing.



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