It's hard to read about the Civil War or the civil rights movement without playing a game of "what would I have done?" That's a particularly pointed exercise for a white Southerner whose cherished ancestors placed themselves so consistently and even courageously on the wrong side of history. Ultimately, of course, the only meaningful test of "what would I have done?" is what I choose to do right now and fortunately (or unfortunately) those opportunities arise in every generation.
This spring when Obama described his "evolution" on the question of gay marriage, I felt like I could relate. Perhaps there was cynicism in the structure and timing of his message, but having traveled a similar road I'm not so certain.
As a conservative in the traditional meaning of the word, I'm very uncomfortable with efforts to redefine any social institution, especially in the courts. At the same time, a conservative loves liberty in all its forms. When a group of people rises up and demonstrate its commitment to its rights in a responsible, well-articulated manner, how do you say no to them in good conscience?
Looking back for guidance one is inevitably reminded of the civil rights movement. The pattern of non-violent resistance adopted by Martin Luther King had a complex beauty, operating at one time on so many levels. Sure, it defied stereotypes by demonstrating the discipline, order and humanity that segregationists sought to deny Southern blacks. However, its most potent impact may have been the way it forced otherwise indifferent observers to recognize the ugliness of the segregation lobby.
The civil rights movement placed the burden of black suffering squarely on the plates of people all over the country who otherwise felt that they had no part in Jim Crow oppression. It forced citizens with little direct interest in the matter to consult their moral compass and decide where their loyalties should lie. The movement for gay rights is having the same effect.
I can still make an esoteric argument that gay marriage amounts to liberal meddling or social engineering or whatnot, but I have lost my ability to put my soul behind it. Maybe you can sit across the table from a beloved friend and tell them that your straight family is more legitimate, more right, more legally and politically appropriate than theirs. Perhaps you can look into the eyes of people you care for and respect and explain that providing their children with the full legal protection of an official family would threaten something important that no one seems to be able to coherently define.
I am not going to do that. Eat your sandwich alone.
Before you put down those waffle-fries and reach for your Bible, let's make something clear. According to the Bible, marriage is a sacred covenant between one man, one woman, his other wives, his slaves, his wives' slaves, his concubines, any virgins he was caught raping, and the women he happens to capture in battle. Oh, and his sister-in-law, if his brother dies without giving her a male child.
The Bible also explicitly and repeatedly condemns interracial marriage. The New Testament never redefines any of these rules. The Bible is a volatile weapon that should be handled with care and humility.
And tradition? Until about the time I was born, traditional marriage in my ancestral state of Texas meant same-race marriage. Anything else violated God's natural law. Virginia Circuit Judge Leon Bazile explained traditional marriage in elegantly bigoted language in his ruling which finally reached the Supreme Court in 1967:
"Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and placed them on separate continents, and but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend the races to mix."
It probably sounded good to him at the time.
As long as this remains a free country (which cannot be taken for granted), the culture warriors of every generation will lose, just as they have for centuries. From the dawn of the Republic, almost decade by decade, we have expanded the scope and meaning of liberty. Each new wave faced a futile line of opponents, struggling to stop others from exercising personal liberties that frightened them, or that threatened their entrenched interests. This week that line of dead-enders stretches out the door of the Chick-fil-A.
Enjoy that sandwich. Your grandchildren will be so proud.