In a landmark decision, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that the state’s 1998 legislative ban on same-sex marriages “denies gay and lesbian people the equal protection of the law promised by the Iowa Constitution” (see Varnum v. Brien, 2009). Political interest in the significance of the case is more intense than usual. Iowa is at the leading edge of the “heartland,” one might say, and the court’s holding was cheered by gay rights activists as reaffirming their sense of historical right. The decision clearly emboldened backers of the nationwide campaign for same-sex marriage equality. Their sense might be: “If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere!”
Conservatives, on the other hand, while offering comparatively less judgment relative to the left’s partisans, are clearly troubled by the ruling. As Ed Whelan observed, the decision represents a “lawless judicial attack on traditional marriage and on representative government.”
For background, Dale Carpenter at Volokh Conspiracy offers a quick analysis of the legal principles involved in case. In my reading, I noticed a highly procedural tone to the decision, with the justices offering little substantive discussion of traditional objections to same-sex marriage outside of the litigant’s motions.
My interest here is to flesh out the implications of the ruling for the remnants of social conservatism in an age when secular progressivism appears on the march. Between the radical gay rights progressives and the left-libertarians (“liberaltarians”) pushing for a “postmodern conservatism,” traditional social values are indeed under attack.
Recent events on the gay marriage front began to really pick up steam last May 2008, when the California Supreme Court struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage. Then in November, California voters approved Proposition 8. The measure revised the state constitution to make marriage available only to one man and one woman. Radical street protests began the next day. The political environment across the state became a pressure-cooker of left-wing intolerance and recrimination. Activists forced out Scott Eckern, the director of the California Musical Theater in Sacramento, after it became known that he’d contributed $1,000 to the Yes on 8 campaign. In Los Angeles, Marjorie Christoffersen, a manager at El Coyote restaurant, a popular eatery with gay constituencies, was threatened with a boycott. Christofferson, who is Mormon, was devastated by the activists’ venom directed at her, and she left town fearing persecution. Conservative author Diana West likened the ordeal to that of a “Soviet show trial.”
As one who practically live-blogged the months-long “No on H8” backlash, I personally received e-mails from Yes on 8 backers distraught by threats against their livelihood. Their identities were published as part of the anti-gay blacklist. One website, called Prop 8 Maps, went so far as to provide mash-ups of donors’ contributions and addresses on Google Maps. Although donor-mapping was rejected by many as NKVD tactics, prominent blogger Andrew Sullivan (who is gay) quipped, “If Prop 8 supporters truly feel that barring equality for gay couples is vital for saving civilization, shouldn’t they be proud of their financial support?”
When the gay marriage ayatollahs targeted Africans American foes as well, the purported “equality for all” agenda of the radical activists was seriously delegitimized. Jasmyne Cannick, a black lesbian social justice activist, in an essay in the Los Angeles Times, repudiated the tactics of the white gay community leadership as out of step with the needs of the inner city’s truly disadvantaged. The fact that the neo-Stalinist International ANSWER coalition was the main sponsor of the protests was further evidence that the intolerance and payback by the same-sex marriage backers had more to do with social revolution than with civil guarantees for same-sex weddings.
This context is crucial to understanding the implications of Iowa’s same-sex marriage ruling. A new state poll from the University of Iowa found just 26 percent of respondents backing full same-sex marriage rights. The findings are consistent with national data on support for gay marriage. For example, Newsweek found last December that just 31 percent of Americans nationwide supported same-sex marriage rights. These data are interesting, especially since the biggest meme on the left is that “it’s only a matter of time.” The younger cohorts are liberal and tolerant, so we hear, so full marriage rights are “virtually inevitable.”
Not so fast, actually. The data show what the leftists know deep down: Gay marriage violates the deepest social sensibilities of the nation. The same data show that Americans are not bigoted. They support every civil rights opportunity imaginable. But gay marriage is not a civil right. Thus, to get their way, gay rights activists must resort to an array of demonization strategies to intimidate and marginalize those who don’t want to be seen as insensitive to the legitimate needs of homosexuals for acceptance and inclusion. But once radical activists oppose social traditionalists as “homophobes” all bets are off. Sure, it’s likely that most people have neither the time nor inclination to be endlessly defending themselves against attacks as “bigots” and “Christianists.” The gay radicals are hip with it, so they browbeat upstanding citizens into submission. Even “conservatives” like David Brooks and David Frum pooh-pooh social conservatives as troglodytes, so there’s essentially a fifth column within the right-wing establishment that would relinquish the social realm to nihilists who have no respect for tradition or values whatsoever.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Iowa Supreme Court was relegated to declaring anyone who doesn’t agree with the radical gay agenda as socially deviant. You have a state-level judicial elite blowing off the majoritarian consensus in the name of equal protection of the laws. For example, the court adopted a malleable postmodern conception of right when it declared that “equal protection can only be defined by the standards of each generation.” Oh yeah? Can the function of marriage be so easily discredited as a unique and historically-privileged familial bond between man and woman? And because marriage is, in essence, the sacred union of opposite sexes for biological procreation and the regeneration of society, can we so easily discard the institution that has expressed itself over generations as the bond that glues a nation together? There has to be more, as a matter of eternal justice, than an “I want it now mentality” to the gay rights agenda and the Iowa court’s jurisprudence.
The Iowan and the American majority can feel it. This question of man and woman joined together for the preservation of life and society is timeless. Gay couples don’t bear babies. We can no more grant a “right” to same-sex marriage than we can grant a “right” to funeral services for the living. People have customs and rites. And the social order discards historic norms and practices at its peril. If the courts, so influenced by the liberal elite, can singlehandedly define society’s “public good” willy-nilly, why maintain legislatures at all? We’ll simply turn to the court for dicta when the time calls for any new morality or social convention that demands nothing of sacrifice and tradition from the masses.
This, then, is what’s happening with the social conservative right. These are the stakes. Will people of conservative and traditional historical memory “man up” to moral right? Or will folks of faith and moral reason recoil in the face of the nihilist onslaught?