Referenda on changing the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex relationships have become a recurrent feature of our electoral landscape in recent years. Voters have rejected the proposed changes every time, but the margins are narrowing; even conservative voters, particularly those of a libertarian bent, are beginning to conclude that „gay marriage” is not that big a deal, or even that redefining marriage advances freedom. They could not be more wrong: redefining marriage is indeed a big deal, which is not only a threat to liberty, but a significant step in the direction of totalitarian tyranny.
Despite thirty-plus campaigns, there has been little informed public discussion about what marriage is and the state’s interest in maintaining traditional marriage (sadly, the proponents of redefining marriage prefer to rely on name-calling and intimidation, which leaves little room for dispassionate debate). As a consequence, many voters have never heard the actual arguments in defense of traditional marriage, but only the strawmen that its opponents are fond of pummeling, most of which (on the surface) appeal to the idea of freedom. For example, I once heard a nationally-syndicated radio talk-show host, a self-identified libertarian who generally takes a conservative position, say: „not one person has been able to call in and tell me how two men or two women marrying each other will harm their own marriage” (in other words, mind your own business). Or how often have you heard something like „traditional marriage supporters are anti-freedom; they want to keep gay people from marrying the partner of their choice.” I see a third of these strawmen every Sunday outside my church, where a protester holds a sign that says: „When did I get to vote on your marriage?”
Despite their surface plausibility, none of these arguments withstand more than cursory scrutiny. Consider the case of the radio personality: of course nobody had ever successfully argued on his show that two men or two women marrying each other would harm their own marriage, because nobody anywhere defends traditional marriage on that ground; the arguments against redefining marriage are much more fundamental. The real question is whether then union of a man and women is different from that of two men or two women (hint: the answer has something to do with babies), and whether the state has an interest in fostering and protecting exclusive heterosexual relationships that it does not have in same-sex relationships. The radio host didn’t mention whether he had ever had that discussion on his show (curious, because that is what I hear defenders of traditional marriage talking about).
In a similar way, the argument that people opposed to the redefinition of marriage want to „outlaw” homosexual relationships or break up gay couples is dishonest and misleading (which is always a red flag that more is going on than meets the eye). Indeed, it is false on a number of levels. To begin with, virtually nobody today is arguing for the return of anti-sodomy laws, or advocating the forcible separation of cohabiting same-sex couples. Nor have I heard of anyone promoting laws that would somehow prevent homosexuals from calling their relationships „marriages” if they so choose. Traditional marriage supporters are simply working to preserve the legal definition of our most important social institution (older than the state and older, even, than institutional religion; more on this below) against those who themselves want to use the force of law to compel the rest of us to agree to a new definition, a definition that nobody anywhere has ever held (up until the last few years), and one which will change our understanding of that most important institution in fundamental ways. By any objective measure, the gay-marriage advocates are trying to deprive the rest of us of our liberty to hold and to express our beliefs. Ironically, the attack on traditional marriage is, at the same time, a threat against liberty itself.
This threat is not merely theoretical. The very real consequences of the encroaching tyranny of the gay marriage crowd are already becoming apparent. A couple years ago, for instance, a redefinition of marriage passed by the Maine legislature was narrowly overturned in a „Peoples Veto” referendum. A critical factor in the repeal was the attempt by gay-marriage advocates to deprive a public-school social worker named Don Mandell of his license (and hence his livelihood) because he had appeared in a pro-traditional marriage ad (this in response a coworker who had appeared in a pro-gay marriage ad and had faced no censure). There are numerous reports from around the country of teachers whose standing is threatened, or of students who are disciplined, for doing no more than expressing a pro-traditional marriage opinion. Outside of the school system we see professional photographers, Knights of Columbus halls, and even dating services facing lawsuits simply because they decline to include same-sex weddings among their services. In the case of Chik-Fil-A we have seen public officials threaten to ban a business simply because its owner has expressed his personal support of traditional marriage, which is still the law of the land in most of our country. It is not at all far-fetched to project that today’s harassment will become full-scale prosecution if the full gay marriage legal agenda is enacted (as is already the case in Canada and parts of Europe).
If that weren’t bad enough, it gets worse. The redefinition of marriage by the state would not only mean a violation of the freedom of those who disagree: it would be a giant step closer to a government that is genuinely totalitarian. Now, I know some of you are thinking that „totalitarian” in an overblown, sensationalistic term, but consider the following: laws concerning marriage have always been descriptive, describing and recognizing a pre-existent reality. Even laws regulating certain aspects of marriage (the ban on polygamy, for instance, or laws against incest) have served to protect marriage from those who would warp its traditional contours. A law that redefines marriage to mean something completely different, something it has never been, is a prescriptive law, one that prescribes or creates a new reality. This is a power that few governments, and certainly not our constitutional republic, have ever claimed in regard to marriage. It is to treat something that the state has always recognized as pre-existent, above and beyond itself, as if it were a creation of the state, to be manipulated, redefined, and at some point (why not, after all?) even abolished at the whim of the ruling power. This is why the protester’s question „When did I get to vote on your marriage?” is so off-base. Marriage has never been subject to any vote; it was here before this or any other government, and is the creation of no human government.
That’s why the consequences for liberty and for the well-being of society in subordinating marriage so completely to the state, in so radical a way, are even more serious than the abuses I mention above. Marriage properly understood is an essential prerequisite for stable, healthy families. Societies throughout history and across the world have learned this from experience, and modern sociological research, despite the barrage of propaganda to the contrary, bears it out. While marriage opponents will no doubt point to individual A or person B as an exception, we know that, on average, children raised in traditional monogamous marriages with both father and mother do better in school, are less likely to be criminals or drug-addicted, have fewer mental and emotional problems, are less likely to commit suicide, and on and on.
More than that, and perhaps of more interest to libertarians and other lovers of freedom, families are, along with organized religion, the most important „mediating institutions” between the individual and the state. Mediating institutions are groups of people large and small that help serve as a check on the government, and provide individuals with a way of influencing the state much more effectively than they can do on their own. These independent sources of authority are essential to the preservation of liberty: without them the behemoth of the state would easily crush the lone citizen. That’s why totalitarians of every stripe make the subjugation or even destruction of these institutions (especially the family and organized religion) a top priority. Giving the state the power to manipulate, redefine and hence to unmake such essential protectors of freedom must necessarily lead to an ever more powerful state, and an ever smaller place for individual liberty.
The desire of libertarians to work to preserve personal freedom is quite understandable, but the legal redefinition of marriage would do just the opposite: it necessarily means the loss of freedom to express and to act according to beliefs at odds with the gay agenda; more ominously, it will grant to the state an enormous and unprecedented power for remaking society according to its own designs.