An Anti-Gay Marriage Argument from Ross Douthat

At the New York Times this week, Ross Douthat tells us what Western marriage is, and why gays can’t play:

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

In other words, Douthat is saying that marriage is a sublimation of powerful sexual impulses so that children can have lifelong access to their biological mommies and daddies. Put another way, and more explicitly, for the sake of children, men restrain their natural impulses to sleep with lots of random women and women restrain their natural impulses to opportunistically sleep with rich, powerful, and prolific alpha males. Those are the gender-competing “reproductive self-interests” that are “mutually surrendered” in marriage.

Okay, so Ross Douthat has been reading his evolutionary psychology. And he’s arrived at a decidedly stoic and procreational view of marriage. No gays need apply, Irish or otherwise. And this is where, by Ross Douthat’s lights, Judge Walker has gotten it wrong, for he has conflated what gays are doing with what heterosexuals are doing when they say, “I do.” The problem is that we’re calling two things that are fundamentally different the same thing: marriage. Here’s Douthat again:

But based on Judge Walker’s logic — which suggests that any such distinction is bigoted and un-American — I don’t think a society that declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even entertaining this idea.

But wait.

Marriage is already broadly defined. It is a loosely used term for a whole lot of unions that don’t fit Douthat’s narrow definition of marriage. We have, for example, elderly heterosexual couples that “marry.” And we have people like Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich who practice serial monogamy and call these ridiculous arrangements “marriage.” And so Douthat is resigned to the logical consequences of easy divorce and marriage laws. Either we go back to the “ideal” (that is, Douthat’s ideal) or we have little option but to let gays in on the institution (such as it is):

If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights. And a culture in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of homosexuals.

This isn’t Douthat throwing in the towel, exactly. He wants a return to the “ideal.” But short of that, he states the obvious: excluding gays from marriage, as now “practiced” in the United States of America, is discrimination: it’s a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

It’s a weird way to get there, but Ross Douthat, as a conservative Catholic, seems to have found a way to arrive at a kind of acceptance (or at least tolerance) of gay marriage in a secular society based on Enlightenment principles of individual equality under the law. He doesn’t like gay marriage. But he doesn’t like a lot of things that people call “marriage” and do (or don’t do) with it.

And this is, afterall, a free country, and ought to be.


About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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