By Michael Gerson
President Obama’s new position on gay marriage – along with North Carolina’s constitutional ban on the practice – has focused new attention on a difficult debate. The traditional definition of marriage has many defenders. But the attitudes of the millennial generation, the media and the entertainment industry have shifted swiftly and dramatically. Even significant portions of Americans who morally disapprove of homosexuality now support gay marriage out of a broader commitment to pluralism and tolerance.
As this national debate moves forward, it is worth keeping a few things in mind.
First, though the debate is national, marriage is not primarily a federal issue. Whatever the president’s view, it is the actions of states that are decisive. Given recent trends, America will have different approaches to marriage in different regions.
This is a traditional strength of the American system. Federalism will allow us, over time, to see the effect of a changed definition of marriage on the institution itself. Federalism also contributes to social peace, by recognizing that the legal practices of Massachusetts would create resentment if imposed on Mississippi. It would distort and radicalize the debate if the Supreme Court were to engage in that kind of imposition.
Second, it will become increasingly important to protect the rights of individuals and institutions with moral objections to gay marriage. States that have moved toward gay marriage have taken different approaches on the issue of conscience rights – some stronger, some weaker. But an important principle is at stake. A genuine pluralism will protect the rights of men and women – not only to believe what they wish – but also to organize in institutions that reflect their beliefs. This is true when it comes to their views on contraception, abortion or gay marriage.
Whatever the status of marriage laws in a state, people holding traditional moral convictions should not be forced to change or violate their beliefs in dealing with government. This may be the most urgent and important focus of political activism in coming years.
Third, it is not unprecedented for there to be a tension between traditional moral beliefs and the shape of family law. Divorce laws in America, for example, are different from the traditional ideal. Those statutes are important to the community. Many people have strong views about the influence of no-fault divorce laws, particularly on women and children. Moral conservatives have every right to shape family law through the democratic process, according to their conception of the common good. But on divorce, the democratic process has produced outcomes that reflect the views of a diverse nation. Moral conservatives live with the tension – as they will live with other tensions.
When it comes to marriage and the family, the law matters. But for Christians, the thing that matters most is demonstrating the ideal of marriage and family. Here there is also urgent, difficult work to be done – outside of politics.
—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).