02/28/2013 10:01 am ET Updated Apr 30, 2013

Is Gay Marriage Really a Conservative Cause?

Ok I get it: Conservatives just love gay marriage. Ted Olson, the conservative super-lawyer who helped press George W. Bush into office, has co-led the legal challenge to California's gay marriage ban, now headed to the Supreme Court. Over 80 prominent conservatives have signed a legal brief that the media is billing as the "conservative case" for gay marriage. The effort was orchestrated by Ken Mehlman, former head of the Republican Party and top advisor to George W. Bush, who came out in 2010. The gay marriage cause was jump-started (but not actually started) by self-styled gay conservative, Andrew Sullivan, back in 1989 with an article making the conservative case for gay marriage. And 2012 GOP presidential candidate, John Huntsman, recently penned a piece in the American Conservative called "Marriage Equality is a Conservative Cause." Doesn't get any clearer than that.

And I welcome it. Olson's efforts have been sincere and enormously effective. Sullivan was ahead of his time and took unfriendly fire from gay advocates who just hated the idea of making "patriarchal" marriage a priority. Mehlman has been so helpful in advancing support for same-sex marriage that he may have made up for the damage he caused as enabler of Karl Rove's 2004 anti-gay reelection strategy. Bottom line: it's true that conservatives ought to embrace same-sex marriage, and their recent support has been hugely helpful.

But it's one thing to say same-sex marriage is consistent with conservative values, and quite another to claim it as a conservative cause. The legal brief announced this week claims that, "Marriage promotes the conservative values of stability, mutual support, and mutual obligation." It says that, because marriage is critical to protecting "strong and stable family structures," government can't promote families "by denying civil marriage to same-sex couples." Meg Whitman, former candidate for California governor, explained her about-face on gay marriage by citing Tory Prime Minister David Cameron's comment that, "Society is stronger when we make vows to each other and support each other. So I don't support gay marriage despite being a conservative. I support gay marriage because I am a conservative."

Since when are stability, community, family and mutual obligation conservative values? Sure, revolutionaries don't much go for stability (nor does the U.S. government when it doesn't like certain regimes). But in the American political discourse, conservatives generally vie with liberals (euphemistically called "progressives"), not Trotskyites, for hegemony, and it's crucial that liberals not give away the rhetorical farm just because more and more conservatives are coming around on gay marriage.

Here in America, it was left-wing intellectuals, liberals like FDR and labor organizers who gave real political meaning to the concept of mutual support and obligation. These forces created passionate defenses of social responsibility, enacted social insurance and government cushions for misfortune and disaster, and formed unions and mutual aid societies to enable members of society to truly support one another.

It was Democrats like Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Lyndon Johnson who turned their sites on community stability and family break-down with the Great Society, the war on poverty and the Community Action Program. What the historian, Robert O. Self, calls "breadwinner liberalism" (which would later become "breadwinner conservatism") was designed to stabilize society by stabilizing families, particularly the prowess of the male breadwinner. I'm not saying every bit of this is something liberals should be proud of, but let's get our history -- and our terms -- right.

And let's not forget when Barack Obama was mocked by the conservative standard-bearer for being a "community organizer" in a period when Republicans were doing all they could to keep the government from providing the resources that liberals believe families and communities need to thrive.

Our current dialogue is being carried on in platitudes. In Huntsman's op-ed, he wrote that "there is nothing conservative about denying other Americans the ability to forge [a marital] relationship with the person they love." Well yes there is. In its most basic sense, "conservative" means being cautious about, and often resistant to, change. Gay marriage is progressive far more than it's conservative. More to the point, if there's nothing conservative about denying Americans the freedom to marry, is there anything conservative about denying them the freedom to control their reproductive lives, or denying them a living wage, or denying them adequate tools and resources necessary to build up their family and community?

Promoting strong families is not a conservative value -- any more than it's a liberal one. Don't you remember? "Family values" was the utterly dishonest phrase the religious right deployed to pretend that its sectarian homophobia was really about strengthening society and protecting children, just as the Catholic Church trots out the well-being of children to bolster its hoary anti-gay views while enabling child-abusing priests in every corner of the world.

The media is playing along with this Orwellian redefinition game, describing, for instance, this week's legal brief as detailing "how conservative principles are advanced by allowing same-sex couples to marry" and then citing family and community stability as those principles. Likewise, journalists still routinely describe anti-gay groups, some now designated as "hate" groups, as "pro-family," implying that pro-equality groups really do want to destroy the family.

We can have legitimate disagreements over whether government activism or government restraint is the best path to stable and mutually supportive families and communities. But as we welcome conservatives to the noble cause of gay equality, let's not allow them to steal our language and our history. And let's not revert back to using the language that purposely cast liberals -- and indeed anyone who disagreed with a specific anti-egalitarian worldview espoused by many conservatives -- as threats to families and communities and enemies of mutual responsibility.