Jim Manzi has a longish post up about the conservative reaction to gay marriage in which he makes some important points. When this issue was first being debated in the late 1970s, support for same-sex marriage was a fringe position. Before that, the concept of same-sex marriage was too absurd to contemplate. Even by the time the issue went national in 1996, polls showed more than two-thirds of the American were opposed. The Defense of Marriage Act sailed through both houses of Congress by something like 5-to-1 margins and was signed into law by Bill Clinton, the most pro-gay-rights president in history.
A majority of Americans still oppose same-sex marriage. Ballot initiatives opposing such a redefinition of marriage have passed almost everywhere they have been put on the ballot and probably would have passed in Arizona too if the language had been less broad. Even liberal states have passed such initiatives, usually by comfortable if not landslide margins. And yet support for same-sex marriage is not a fringe position anymore — instead, it is a position held by upwards of 45 percent of the American people. This includes large majorities of young voters. In many polls, fewer people support the federal marriage amendment than support gay marriage, which may explain why it hasn’t done as well in Congress as the Defense of Marriage Act. Within a minimum of three election cycles, the Democratic presidential nominee will support full gay marriage.
Many polls show a majority of Americans supporting civil unions, including a critical mass of people who oppose same-sex marriage. As I argue on the main site today, I don’t think civil unions are a workable compromise. It’s a middle ground that abandons the logic of traditional marriage while not satisfying supporters of same-sex marriage. Ultimately, as we’ve seen in California, it just leads inexorably to gay marriage. But the status quo of a decade ago doesn’t seem sustainable anymore either.
In my view, conservatives ought to support the decoupling of benefits associated with marriage from marriage itself except where those benefits are fundamental to the purpose of marriage (e.g., related to children and reproduction). That will give people in untraditional couples most of the benefits they desire without extending official recognition to their relationships in a way that undermines traditional marriage. Second, we should seek remove the Defense of Marriage Act from federal judicial review while accepting that some states might begin to move toward same-sex marriage or something like it. This will allow true cultural federalism on the issue: Massachusetts and California won’t be prevented from doing what they want to do but they won’t be allowed to change marriage in Alabama or Ohio. All branches of the federal government will stay out of the issue beyond an official recognition of traditional marriage.
Is such a policy ideal? No. But it’s probably the best we can hope for at this point. And even it isn’t a slam dunk politically.