Friday, April 24, 2009

Back to God

by Chris Moses

The hard core of the hard right’s social movement has gotten caught with its pants down. In the past weeks gay marriage strode forward with the sort of common-sense normalcy it deserves. Now Iowa and Vermont now join Massachusetts and Connecticut with partnerships truly equal and accessible for all, regardless of sexual orientation. New York’s efforts may yet stumble in their Senate, but nonetheless Governor David Paterson has given it prominent and concerted attention.

Amidst this the GOP brought us nothing more than their tea-party tempests in a tea-pot of faux grass-roots action. Worse, former McCain strategist Steve Schmidt spoke out prominently in favor Republican Party support for gay marriage. Contrasting the issue with what he takes to be a morally defensible stance for anti-abortion positions, he told Log Cabin conservatives that "it cannot be argued that marriage between people of the same sex is un-American or threatens the rights of others."

Quite remarkably, Schmidt continued: "On the contrary, it seems to me that denying two consenting adults of the same sex the right to form a lawful union that is protected and respected by the state denies them two of the most basic natural rights affirmed in the preamble of our Declaration of Independence – liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That, I believe, gives the argument of same sex marriage proponents its moral force."

However anathema traditionalists may be to up-and-coming ideas, the forces of change cannot be stayed. The godly must enroll in History 101: "we should understand that traditions do change over time in every society." So it goes.

Change yes, but of a certain sort. This is the Great American Trajectory, the telos towards fundamental rights and limited government that have been the lifeblood of the right since the Reagan revolution. So too it’s a quiet attempt to get religiously driven conservatives to align their own sense of divinely ordained history with one more palatable to mainstream Americans who have seen more in Obama revivalism than fire-and-brimstone condemnation of sodomite heathens.

Liberals need to be cautious. Anyone committed to a progressive social agenda need be skeptical, critical, and deeply aware of what are as much realignments and fortifications of rights-limiting positions as they are signs of crisis or enlightenment.

Why now?

It’s the economy, stupid. The free-market liberty with which we were all to breath more deeply and clearly no longer works as a bread-and-butter position for conservatives. Anyone not on the regulation bandwagon is having a sad, sad day. So marriage can stand in as a more palatable free-market arrangement.

More than that: marriage is a poor person’s best-deal bundle of legal and economic privilege. It affords security and shared benefits that let everyday people fortify their position in the world. A trip to city hall and a couple bucks gets you a hell of a lot, from paternity rights and hospital visitation to shared health insurance benefits, from favorable inheritance laws to genuinely private communication and the right not to testify against one’s spouse. Some of these benefits can be achieved through legal arrangements outside marriage, but it’s a costly, arduous and in many ways still a contingent effort.

In a time of hardship, it becomes even more inexcusable to deny people’s basic means of defense—social integration and kinship versus alienation and atomization.

Yet isn’t this another way of strengthening that sacramental institution against the secular evils of state support? Better to sully it at the margins than to collapse its central role in undergirding family values and a culture of life.

Love-dovey aside, and however heretical it may sound, I would rather have a world of social protections available to everyone—regardless of partnership—than a regime of papered-up marriage for all. I deeply respect the fundamental importance this issue has for gay and straight alike—symbolic, emotional, cultural and more. But these values must come with victory in a battle waged for a solid foundation on which the broadest range of benefits may rest.

Pause partnership for a moment. Imagine instead universal health insurance, equal opportunity employment and equal pay regardless of gender. Imagine reproductive rights for women and men chastened to see not a fairer sex as object and possession, body and conquest, and rather as people no more or less than themselves. Imagine an educational system and set of social services that challenges poverty and promotes personal fulfillment, creativity and self-sustaining independence. Child care, living wages, mobility, support and protection in old age—imagine it without any rings on your finger.

However people want to do it, let them have the choice. Restart partnership as possibility rather than retreat—strong relationships, families, communities and more.

For the right marriage remains a matter of salvation, however expansive they may allow it to become. Indeed they might well have woken up and realized that its expansion promises to do more for its future than a rear-guard effort to limit its scope. But this is no deal with the devil. As conservatives regroup in these troubled times, we’re far from a moment of backs-turned. This is a straight-away attempt to find the quickest and most enduring path they can to their Christian paradise—watch out, this is back to God.

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