In June 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the landmark case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The court held by a 5–4 majority that state governments must license same-sex marriages and recognize those lawfully licensed and performed elsewhere. This outcome followed a string of courtroom victories for gay-rights advocates, with only occasional setbacks. It completes a long process of establishing same-sex marriage through litigation in America’s complex court system. It also brings the United States into line with most other Western nations, with my own country—Australia—remaining as one of the most obvious outliers. Those outlying countries need to move forward.
My support for same-sex marriage is already on the public record, including an analysis in my 2012 book, Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. I’ve been consistent about this issue for many years. To be honest, though, I’ve been a less zealous—perhaps more equivocal—advocate for same-sex marriage than some of my friends and colleagues, since I retain doubts about the institution of marriage itself. When I was young, thirty or forty years ago, I would have been surprised to hear that marriage would be held in esteem on the political Left in 2015 or that getting married would be a goal for many gay couples.
What is sometimes called “traditional Christian marriage” has a patriarchal taint, and it operated in large part to control the sexuality of women and offer men reassurances of paternity. Prior to the 1980s, marriage had little attraction or perceived relevance to the gay and lesbian community, and, indeed, many sexual radicals hoped for its destruction rather than its extension. I still have some sympathy for this viewpoint. In principle, moreover, I favor a minimum of government intervention in personal relationships, including registration of who is involved intimately with whom. My philosophical preference is that the state ultimately move out of the marriage business altogether.
Nonetheless, as I always emphasize when such points arise for discussion, this is not a practical policy option under current circumstances or any that are reasonably foreseeable. It’s especially not practical in the United States, where a great number of legal entitlements are tied to marriage. (Note that the situation is different in many other countries, where public policy has moved toward granting the same legal entitlements and responsibilities to established de facto couples, whether gay or straight, as to formally married couples.) In any event, policy decisions should defer to practical realities. The reality, in this case, is that marriage is entrenched as a widely endorsed and much-loved social institution. There is no significant public support to abolish it as a formal legal category. For practical purposes, we have no choice but to accept this and then sort out the political implications.
Against that background, I welcome the outcome of Obergefell v. Hodges, and I’m delighted for the gay men and women who will now be able to marry partners whom they love. I am not in any sense a social or political conservative, but I maintain that many conservatives could also embrace and celebrate this outcome. Indeed, rational, secular conservatives have every reason to do so. At the very least, they should pause for reflection before viewing the Supreme Court outcome as simply a defeat.
Admittedly, those from the religious Right—people who are likely to oppose same-sex marriage on dogmatic theological grounds—may find nothing consoling in the extension of marriage to same-sex couples. But the situation is different for more moderate and secular conservatives: individuals who value long-established, stable institutions and view revolutionary change with suspicion but who can embrace social change that happens more gradually and organically. If they reflect on the course of recent history, these conservatives might even develop their own case for the introduction of same-sex marriage into twenty-first-century Western legal systems. Even from a conservative viewpoint, the time may be ripe for it.
Once we remove theological concepts from consideration, a larger picture emerges of social history and the current social reality. Most obviously, it is difficult to find arguments against same-sex marriage that would cut any ice with the courts. Less obviously, though I think crucially, it has become difficult to find reasons for thoughtful secular conservatives to feel anxiety about same-sex marriage. On the contrary, they can take solace from the fact that marriage is something many gay men and women actually want.
The legal and political victories obtained by gay couples in the United States and elsewhere have been part of a grand social compromise in which the institution of marriage has been retained but reformed. Over the past two centuries or so, the ideal of an equal union involving love, intimacy, and companionship gradually became the dominant understanding of marriage. Increasingly, especially during the second half of the twentieth century, marriage lost much of its power as a means of sexual control. Whether or not it is a necessary social institution—I still have doubts about that—it has morphed into a kinder, more equal, more attractive, and more voluntary one, while retaining much of its traditional prestige. Thoughtful conservatives could feel pleased that it turned out like this, with little in the way of revolutionary upheaval and much in the way of gradually changing perceptions. The changes that have taken place allow for considerably more sexual freedom than existed before the 1960s sexual revolution and the experimental decade of the 1970s, yet being married remains a status that many couples aspire to. Given its modern role, it cannot easily be justified as a status fit only for heterosexual couples. Even if marriage did not bring important legal entitlements, it would now be an unnecessary slap in the face for the state to recognize straight, but not gay, marriages.
Times change. Arguing against same-sex marriage has become somewhat futile, and it seems mean-spirited. Conservatives should accept that not-at-all-harsh reality.
In so doing, they can take heart that changes in the nature of marriage have been adaptive. As history unfolds before our eyes, marriage is finding an honored place in modern societies with pervasively transformed ideas about sexuality, gender roles, personal freedom, and the functions of government. Official recognition of same-sex marriage is no longer a revolutionary idea, and it will strengthen—not undermine or destroy—the continuing relevance of marriage itself.