Marriage Equality and Republican Support: What Does It Mean to Be Conservative?
In a highly bi-partisan nation such as the United States, it is easy to see how black-and-white, dualistic thinking might be inculcated into the minds of the people, and how it might form a fundamental—yet not necessarily intrinsic—component of the American ethos. Dualism objectively identifies an “other” to attack, it lacks the nuance which challenges tidily constructed categories, and it is easy to wrap one’s head around—and there are plenty who would argue that the minds of young Americans have been numbed by neglect on the part of the educational system, not to mention the inane distractions of popular culture. Consequently, the two opposing forces in question are ascribed their own exclusive characteristics. So it is with U.S. politics, in which Republicans are decidedly conservative, and Democrats, liberal—at least by American standards. It comes as a surprise to many, then, that Theodore B. Olson, the Republican lawyer who won Bush v. Gore in the 2000 U.S. presidential election, is fighting in federal court to overturn Proposition 8, the voter-approved initiative that banned gay marriage in California.
In a recent Newsweek article, Olson made the argument why marriage equality is a conservative concern—because it represents traditionally conservative values. As Olson himself notes, many members of his own party have expressed near-hostility towards the issue, possibly imagining the Supreme Court forcing ministers of every church, mosque, grove, and synagogue, from Christian to Muslim and beyond, to officiate at gay weddings (however, this seems like a far cry from reality considering constitutional protections for religious freedom). While this dissent within the Republican Party shows that the stereotypical conservative still exists, it also highlights the reality of the socially liberal Republican. In response to this backlash from his fellow conservatives against a civil rights issue which several European countries have long since handled, Olson argues, Many of my fellow conservatives have an almost knee-jerk hostility toward gay marriage. This does not make sense, because same-sex unions promote the values conservatives prize [ . . . ] Marriage requires thinking beyond one’s own needs. It transforms two individuals into a union based on shared aspirations, and in doing so establishes a formal investment in the well-being of society. The fact that individuals who happen to be gay want to share in this vital social institution is evidence that conservative ideals enjoy widespread acceptance. Conservatives should celebrate this, rather than lament it.
Such a surprisingly supportive attitude towards gay marriage certainly challenges dualistic preconceptions about the values of Republicans—for both conservatives and liberals. For Olson, to be conservative does not mean to cling blindly to outmoded, oppressive, irrational, and religiously dogmatic moral values, but to conserve those values which have consistently proved beneficial to society—and to support them in minority groups who would conserve them as well, even as these are embodied in a legally recognized wedding ceremony. Certainly, such an unexpected attitude is a relief for gay rights supporters, who have lately viewed Obama as more of a clever rhetorician than a true advocate, and Democrats as feeble and spineless.
In fact, Republican supporters of gay marriage seem to be popping up everywhere. In dissent from the opinion of her husband, 2008 Republican presidential candidate John McCain, Cindy McCain and their daughter, Meghan, showed their support for marriage equality by posing for NOH8, a photograph project by Adam Bouska and Jeff Parshley which campaigns against Proposition 8. Even in some traditionally authoritarian regimes which have sought to exterminate political or social outcasts, unexpected changes have taken place. In Cuba, where the Communist regime had been sending homosexuals to work camps as recently as the 1970s, niece of Fidel Castro and gay rights activist Mariela Castro “led hundreds of Cuban gays in a street dance [in Havana] Saturday to draw attention to gay rights on the island”. (If Olson, being thus far the lone male, affirms any stereotype, perhaps it is that women—even the Republicans and Communists among them—really are more liberal than men.)
Maybe Olson is right about conservative values, and maybe the wedding vows which lesbians and gay men exchange mark the same solemn declaration that, as Olson states, constitutes “one of the basic building blocks of our neighborhoods and [the American] nation”, and, increasingly, even a divine sacrament for the country’s vast number of pious church-goers. If Olson’s stance on the meaning of “holy matrimony” is valid, procreation is neither necessary nor sufficient to define the institution of marriage—for the human race is not in decline, and marriage is not a breeding program. For a “true” conservative, he suggests, marriage is far more than a soulless mechanism for propagation of the species; it is the fair distribution of rights among those who show the same love and companionship which make safe and happy communities. Of course, even if same-sex marriage did in some oblique, scarcely fathomable way affect heterosexual marriage, it would, from Olson’s perspective, be in exactly this way: not to undermine it, but to enrich it.