The Via Meadia Meets Its Limits

I want to write few words about some people I very much consider "friends." I do not know any of them personally. They are all brilliant, superb writers and thinkers from whom I've benefitted greatly over the years. We are allies making common cause on many of the public issues facing our culture and society. But on the issue at the forefront right now (today, in fact) they seem to be in absentia.

First, Kevin Williamson considers the notion that support for same-sex "marriage" and conservatism are fundamentally incompatible a bit of effrontery. He wants to know who gave anyone the ex cathedra power of defining the limits of conservatism and wonders how, for example, one might write off Jonah Goldberg as "not conservative." I'll get to Goldberg in a minute.

I can sympathize slightly with Williamson's irritation at the tendency of many conservatives who quickly write off others with whom they disagree over policy issues. This is an increasing problem, particularly in the Tea Party wing of the conservative movement. "RINO" is an acronym that far too easily passes the lips of many, in my view. I agree with Kevin that this needs to stop.

But is making a connection between conservatism and marriage that sort of hasty, presumptuous, and insulting move? In a blog post taking somebody else to task for failing to make the argument, he himself provides no rationale for why conservatism and traditional marriage aren't linked. I'm not sure why Kevin places the burden of proof where he does, * but it is far from obvious that one can be conservative and wholeheartedly endorse the progressive cause de jour.

* Actually, I do. It makes his job way easier.

What happened to Buckley's standing athwart History yelling, "Stop!"? And that's history with a capital "H." Hegelian history. Progressive history. The history people have in mind when they talk about being on its "right side." It would take Clydesdale-sized blinkers or maybe even two wholly-adhered pirate eye patches to not see that same-sex marriage advocacy (as practiced by its elites, in contrast to the average man-on-the-street) is pure ideological progressivism: evolving beyond traditional, archaic, Judeo-Christian values and launching into new, "uncharted waters," as Justice Kennedy helpfully reminded us yesterday. I have a new test for figuring out whether some proposal is basically "progressive." Count how many times liberal academics, journalists, pundits, politicians, and David Letterman recommend it because it is "on the right side of History." With respect to same-sex "marriage," this is not even questionable.

Conservatism must be, by definition, about conserving something. I trust that among the things Kevin wants to conserve are the ideas, principles, and institutions that gave us Western civilization, with its liberties and prosperity. And I do not think it controversial to suggest that among the institutions absolutely integral (foundational, even) to the things he wants to conserve is the healthy nuclear family unit. I think the burden is on him to argue that the family is incidental to the sort of cultural and societal flourishing he wants to see. And given the well-documented connection between the nuclear family unit and economic prosperity, the social science data suggesting that nuclear families produce healthier citizens by far, not to mention the obvious expansion of government power when the mediating institutions of civil society are eroded, it is a burden I do not believe he can meet.

Conservatism is about recognition of reality. In Sowell's terms, there are constraints. There is a design, a "way the world works." And for human society to flourish it needs to constrain itself to what reality is, what works. Surely Kevin will agree that the indissoluble connection, say, between labor and economic reward (or, in Arthur Brooks's pithy formula, "earned success") is a built-in design feature of human nature, and that free markets are the best ways to bow to that reality and thereby flourish. Now, as a theologian I'm not shy about saying this design is built in by our Creator. I think calling it natural law is a halfway house insufficiently grounded in transcendence. Regardless, we both agree that reality is what it is. There are design features for human flourishing. And one of the most obvious ones is that boy parts and girl parts go together in pairs. This is not exactly rocket science or quantum physics. The faintest familiarity with the world proves it to be true.

Now, I simply want to point out to Kevin the quintessential progressivism involved in saying that nature is so malleable that we (as a whole society) can deny this obvious fact and successfully launch out in search of "new ways" of family formation. If he agrees with this (I don't know if he does or not) then I don't think it bewildering or beyond the pale to question the solidity of his conservatism at all. He might well support and defend some second-order conservative things (and I'm very happy he does; e.g., free markets), but on the big, fundamental ontological question he'd be right there with John Lennon and the progressives, "imagining" all sorts of ontological impossibilities. And, by the way, last I checked same-sex unions producing families is still an ontological impossibility.

And I also want to know what, exactly, is conservative about making public policy based on exceptions to the rule? When did that become a feature of modern conservatism? We are about to rewrite centuries of family law, nurtured in the soil of the Western legal tradition, for 3% of the population (way smaller if you consider how few gays and lesbians are actually interested in marriage or surrogacy). And this rewriting is not being done in advance. It's like that paragon of conservatism, Nancy Pelosi, said: we've got to pass the bill so that we can find out what's in it. Since when did conservatives support massive public policy shifts without a clue what the consequences would be? Answer: they don't. By definition, they don't. When Kevin Williamson cannot see this basic incongruity, it suggests to me we are dealing with a case of being "cool-shamed" * rather than careful, reasoned consideration.

* As further evidence of being "cool-shamed," I note that Kevin includes the customary, "Gay marriage is still somewhere around No. 8,373 things I care about...." This is the sort of sentence that serves as "preemptive inoculation" from criticism. Hey, don't pick on me! I'm not an intolerant bigot!

Kevin appeals to this article by Jonah Goldberg. He's really trying to hurt my feelings now. Because I love Jonah Goldberg. If I could marry Jonah Gold--er, maybe that's not the best quip at the moment. In the article Jonah is making a perfectly solid point: not all social issues move in the same directions. The country has become more pro-life, more pro-gun, and more pro-gay. Disparate issues, in other words, are not necessarily like Larry, Moe, and Curly: they each have their own relatively independent "careers."

But the utility of Kevin's appeal to Jonah rests on the misguided assumption that people like me are making the "same-sex marriage isn't conservative" argument because we somehow conflate it with other social issues like abortion. But go back to what I just said: same-sex "marriage" it isn't conservative because it alters and/or undermines something foundational to the very society we're trying to conserve.

Nothing about guns. Nothing about abortion. I'm not lashing traditional marriage to a "social issues" gunwale. If you want to argue that the nuclear family unit and its unique resources for citizen-formation is irrelevant to societal flourishing and has been irrelevant up to now, neither here-nor-there, will make no difference in the world, mix and match genders, moms, and dads like interchangeable parts, then it seems to be an argument that must be made. Stop with the faux outrage at people who notice the fundamentally progressive character of the claim.

And, finally, I was saddened to see Walter Russell Mead throw in the towel on same-sex marriage. Not that Mead would self-identify as a conservative; he likes to think of himself as a "radical centrist." (How one can be a "radical" centrist escapes me.) In honor of his blog title, Via Meadia, he attempts a sort of "middle way," acknowledging the "inevitability" of same-sex marriage and attempting to manage or sort through what to do next. Mead is an historian par excellence, and as I interact with just a few things in his essay, the first deals with that fact: Walter Russell Mead is an historian.

There is something missing in Mead's essay, and is missing in most essays by conservative writers throwing in the towel on the marriage issue. What is that missing thing? There is no sense of a normative perspective. There is no appeal to anything that might provide an ought or should. It only deals with the "what is." There is no, "What should our society do?" Only, "What will our society do and what will we do in response to it?" That is a characteristic way for an historian to approach the question, but it is woefully inadequate as a contribution to the public debate. There is no leadership involved at all in merely managing the results of popular vote. By writing an essay big on the "oh well; time will tell" theme, Mead has, in effect, shown ethics the door.

And showing ethics the door is a paramount progressive "virtue," to speak paradoxically.

If there is no "ought," there is no Reality with a capital "R." There are no design features to which we should conform. If conservatives (and I'm obviously speaking beyond Mead here) want to do away with arguing over what we ought to do because that's kind of unpopular right now, involving as it does moral judgments, and instead spend our time tinkering with and managing whatever historical reality humanity happens to come up with next, then they've capitulated already to progressivism's bedrock conviction: the "unconstrained" vision.

Mead does have some worries about how we're going to manage the new order of things, particularly what we're going to do about religious liberty and dissent. He offers no solutions, only hopes. He hopes that gays will lay off a little and let religious people peacefully object. He hopes that preaching from Romans 1 will still be allowed. Forgive me for finding his concluding paragraph painfully naïve:

There are going to be a lot of issues of this kind, and we predict a bright future for discrimination and First Amendment attorneys. But it seems to us overall that the best way to handle these issues is to go slow and to leave room for reflection and compromise. America, thankfully, is a pluralistic society in which many people have different points of view. It’s more important that we find a way to get along than that we reach a consensus on every divisive social issue. In recognizing and protecting the rights of sexual minorities, we should not forget to honor and respect the rights of religious dissenters as well.
Maybe Walter Russell Mead, in his commitment to "radical centrism" and the "middle way," really is under the illusion that everybody is operating in good faith and wanting to "get along." Maybe he's been so long researching the past 300 years of Anglo-American dominance that he hasn't had a chance to dip into Foucault or Queer Studies literature yet.

At a minimum, he should have a conversation with President Obama's head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chai Feldblum. When asked what we do when a conflict arises between sexual orientation and religious liberty, Ms. Feldblum (who, I repeat, runs the EEOC) matter-of-factly said:

I'm having a hard time coming up with a case in which religious liberty should win.
Mr. Mead might have his "hopes," but Ms. Feldblum is betting she's got the gift of prophecy.

Brian Mattson