Relics of barbarism

The Weekly Standard’s cover story is by Maggie Gallagher on the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision: “Massachusetts vs. marriage.”
The article effectively addresses the argument that the “benefits” of marriage should be extended to homosexual couples as a matter of fairness or right: “The couples most likely to secure legal benefits from marriage are those in prototypically traditional marriages. That is because most of what can be described as the legal benefits of marriage, though now formally gender-neutral, were designed to protect women from the risks and costs that childbearing imposes. Most research suggests that gay and lesbian relationships are most stable when the partners earn similar incomes and play similar household roles. So when gays and lesbians scrutinize the basket of legal benefits of marriage for them, they are especially likely to come up empty. The general rule in federal marriage law: The more egalitarian the couple, the more likely they are to face marriage penalties rather than benefits. Which may be one reason why, when gay and lesbian couples are at long last offered the much-heralded legal ‘benefits’ of marriage, relatively few are interested.”
Gallagher comes close to the mark as she discusses the meaning of “marriage” apart from its legal benefits: “[B]y sustaining a public way of determining who is married and who is not, marriage law helps other more important players–families, communities, schools, churches–to sustain a marriage culture. Because we know who is married, we know who is committing adultery, and who is having a child out of wedlock. Because marriage is a public rather than a private act, we have a basic, common understanding of what it means to raise children in a family, to be good husbands and good wives. Without this common public vocabulary, marriage would become a private act upheld by no shared norm.
“What some dismiss as protecting ‘merely’ the word marriage is actually 90 percent of the loaf. If a married couple no longer consists of a husband and wife, we lose the shared meaning of the word; we lose the ability to speak the idea in public and be understood. Such ideas are what culture is made of. Marriage is a word, yes, but so are property, freedom, democracy, morality, and love. The Ten Commandments are made of words. The opponents of marriage understand what many of its friends do not: Capturing the word is the key to deconstructing the institution.”
Implicit in Gallagher’s argument — she hesitates to say it outright — is that the movement in favor of gay marriage is a pretext for something slightly different: A demand that homosexual behavior be recognized as equal to heterosexual conduct and therefore heterosexual union. It is a demand not for freedom of action, but a demand for public recognition and social blessing. Isn’t it right to withhold such a blessing? Why doesn’t Gallagher explicitly say so?
Gallagher’s article is one of the best I’ve seen in response to the Massachusetts Supreme Court decision, but I’m struck by the low level of discourse on the subject. In 1856 the platform of the Republican Party jointly condemned slavery and polygamy as “the twin relics of barbarism.” Can anyone today explain why? Or how “homosexual marriage” should be viewed in light of such an explanation?
SUPPLEMENTARY READING: Kathleen Parker works herself closer to the mark and taps a mother lode of common sense in “Gay marriage: A trip to the moon on Gossamer wings?” (Courtesy of RealClearPolitics.) See also Ken Masugi’s “A constitutionalist response to same-sex marriage” and the related comments on The Remedy.

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