At First Things today, Rusty Reno argues that cotemporary liberalism tends to favor the upscale at the expense of the vulnerable. Two of his examples are obscenity and gay rights:
The old constitutional test for obscenity was to define it as material that tends “to deprave or corrupt those whose minds are open to such immoral influences.” The idea was to protect the morally vulnerable. That changed in Miller(1973). The Supreme Court substituted “average person” for “minds open to such immoral influences.” The test is less rigorous because, well, because we don’t want the weak to limit our freedom. We’re not going to let the moral vulnerability of the few to be a burden to the many.
Drug legalization is another obvious case of the socially liberal war on the weak. Gay marriage is a less obvious instance, but a significant one. The strong have the resources to sustain a post-traditional culture of marriage. Everybody else? Data of declining marriage among the poor and middle class suggest not. The deconstruction of what’s left of the tattered traditional culture of marriage is very likely to make things worse, unless of course the social liberals crusade for the revival of marriage as a social norms, which they show no signs of doing.
Reno concludes by listing “LGBT rights” as among today’s “luxury goods for the rich paid for by the poor.”
To me, this argument has power, and there are more examples (I think, for example, of state-sponsored gambling) that could be proposed for Reno’s list. But I think and hope he’s wrong about gay marriage. When I opposed gay marriage, I was pretty sympathetic to the idea that it was mostly a battle being waged by upscale people, mostly men, most of whom probably wanted the right to marry, and the cultural victory that would entail, more than the actual opportunity. Now I see matters differently, mostly because of the gay and lesbian couples I meet and hear about, who seem mostly to be ordinary people living ordinary lives – they seem to be, as Jonathan Rauch jokes, just as boring as straight people. Especially when marriage is there. As my colleaugue Barbara Dafoe Whitehead points out, American history is full of “outsider” groups who join (and impact) the mainstream, in large part through participating in marriage. This process — call it the lessening of gay differentness, in part via marriage – seems to be what is happening today in gay America.
In any event, notwithstanding the merits of Reno’s overall argument, I think he’s missing much of what is happening on marriage; and the slogan that “LGBT rights” are “luxury goods for the rich paid for by the poor” strikes me as quite lop-sided and unfair.
P.S. Rusty says that liberals today show “no signs” of supporting marriage as a broad social institution. I’m not so sure that that’s true, either. We are about to put out a public statement, “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage,” that says quite a lot about the crisis of marriage (and not just gay marriage), and plenty of liberals have been willing to sign on. More to come on that issue, too …