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This blog grows out of my conviction that every aspect of our lives is sacred and is to be nurtured and celebrated as a good gift of God. Most of the posts will be the sorts of things you would expect from a historian and worldview teacher, but some are likely to be a bit surprising. Since God created all things good, including all aspects of human life, everything is interesting and important from the perspective of a biblical worldview. Everything under the Sun and under Heaven is thus fair game here. I hope you find it interesting and enjoyable.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Conservatives, Libertarians, and Progressives on Same Sex Relationships


In several previous blog posts, I talked about some of the different assumptions that I see as underlying conservative and progressive political ideas. I wanted to address what I think will be the final aspect of this issue in this post, adding libertarians into the mix as well. To get at these differences, we’ll at the three groups’ reactions to so-called same sex marriage.
First, a word about libertarians. Libertarians believe that the government should keep out of people’s lives, that they should be left on their own to make their own decisions, and that governmental power should be strictly limited to things like defense, protection of people and property, etc. They are frequently isolationists, arguing against U.S. involvement with other nations militarily or otherwise except for free trade. There is a great deal of overlap with conservative thought, except that conservatives tend to be more open to “foreign entanglements.” And they frequently differ on social policy as well.
Looking at the issue of whether or not homosexual relationships should be accorded the status of marriage, progressives argue that this is an issue of justice and equal rights. They see homosexuals as an oppressed minority, and as such their rights must be protected and extended to equal those of the non-oppressed heterosexual majority. What this means is that their relationships have to be accorded the same status in every way as heterosexuals, which means they have to be allowed to marry.
To date, though some state legislatures have passed laws recognizing same sex relationships as marriages, same sex laws, every time the public has had a chance to fote on the issue, it has failed. The net result is that its progressive advocates have taken to the courts to enforce their vision of society. They have won in some states, even overturning a constitutional amendment in California. Democratic processes and the will of the people matter much less than the presumed human rights of homosexuals to marry whom they will, though it should be noted that whether this is a human right is hardly clear even among groups normally allied with progressives. The European Court of Human Rights rejected the idea that same sex marriage is a human right, for example, and they can hardly be seen as a conservative body.
Libertarians end up in much the same place as progressives with respect to same sex relationships, though for different reasons. For libertarians, the government has no business being involved in marriage at all, and in the name of personal freedom anyone should be allowed to marry whomever they want to regardless of gender. They don’t see this as redressing a historical grievance against an oppressed minority as much as an issue of people’s freedom to live their own lives any way they want to.
Conservatives tend to oppose recognition of same sex relationships as marriage. At this point, the tendency of conservatives to emphasize individual rights over group rights exists in tension with the idea that government exists in part to promote the general welfare. Put simply, conservatives do not believe that recognizing same sex relationships as marriages is good for society.
Conservatives do not see marriage as a purely private relationship. In all cultures, marriage performs a critical public function: it ties mothers and fathers to their children and provides a stable foundation for children to be brought into the world and raised. This is why it is given a privileged position with respect to other kinds of relationships in all cultures throughout human history. Without this public function, the libertarian argument would hold. In light of this role, however, redefining marriage to include same sex relationships makes no sense at all. For more on the definition of marriage, you can read my article at the Colson Center.
In practical terms, it is worth noting that children living with their biological parents do better in a host of areas than children in other types of living arrangements, vindicating the traditional understanding of marriage as the best arrangement for raising children. Conservatives argue that putting the personal desires of adults ahead of the interests of children is bad for society and bodes ill for the future.
Many conservatives, of course, also see homosexual activity as a moral issue, but in my experience most do not favor legislating against it. There are exceptions, but most see it as a matter of private behavior and thus as a place where individual rights should be upheld. Recognizing homosexual relationships as marriages moves them beyond private behavior into the public sphere, however, and at that point the public role of marriage becomes the key issue.
There are other arguments on all sides of this issue, and there’s no way I can cover all of them. The point here is that this issue can illustrate some of the underlying ideas of the different political philosophies. To sum up: progressives tend to frame this in terms of civil rights, which ties in to their emphasis on group identity and their emphasis on the centrality of the state (which in this case defines and bestows rights and benefits); libertarians see this as a matter of personal freedom, which means that the government has no business being involved with it; conservatives believe marriage is something that is foundational to human society, predates governments, and thus cannot be redefined by legislative or judicial fiat (tying into their ideas about limitations on government power), which in this case acts as a counterbalance to individual rights.