The Right’s Immoral Take on Gay Marriage

First published at on August 14, 2009

Anyone who knows Jonathan Rauch will tell you he’s not a sappy, emotional sort of guy. Rauch, a senior writer for National Journal magazine and a contributing editor of The Atlantic, is known for his measured, logical (and occasionally quite witty) prose; those of us fortunate enough to know him personally can attest that the prose matches the person.

Which is why it’s all the more impressive that his recent National Journal article on gay marriage [], “A Moral Crossroads for Conservatives,” is one of the most moving things I’ve read on the subject in a long time. If you haven’t read it yet, skip the rest of this column and read that instead. Seriously.

Opening with an account of a medical emergency and closing with a marriage-proposal scene, the article weaves together a very personal case for marriage equality with deft analysis of conservatives’ moral failure vis-à-vis gays and lesbians. Faced with the reality of gay and lesbian lives–of our love and commitment, our sacrifices, our joys and hardships–the right wing offers…silence. In Rauch’s words,

“If gay couples can’t be allowed to marry, what should they be able to do? Asked this question, cultural conservatives say, in the words of Tom Lehrer’s song about the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, “That’s not my department.”

Via a moving account of his cousin Bill’s sudden hospitalization and Bill’s partner Mike’s bedside ordeal, Rauch underscores how the “Not my department” response is not merely lazy; it’s morally unconscionable. I’ll quote here at length:

“[W]hat happened in that hospital in Philadelphia for those six weeks was not just Mike and Bill’s business, a fact that is self-evident to any reasonable human being who hears the story. ‘Mike was making a medical decision at least once a day that would have serious consequences,’ Bill told me. Who but a life partner would or could have done that? Who but a life partner will drop everything to provide constant care? Bill’s mother told me that if not for Mike, her son would have died. Faced with this reality, what kind of person, morally, simply turns away and offers silence?”

Rauch concludes: “Not the sort of person who populates the United States of America. If Republicans wonder why they find themselves culturally marginalized, particularly by younger Americans, they might consider the fact that when the party looks at couples like Mike and Bill it sees, in effect, nothing.”

Optimistic? Perhaps. But virtually undeniable by anyone with both a brain and a heart. (Factor in the shameful lack of moral courage, and perhaps a trip to the Wizard is in order.)

Another valuable aspect of Rauch’s piece is that it shows why powers-of-attorney (which are extremely important for couples who live and travel in states without marriage equality) are no substitute for marriage.

Contrast Rauch’s account with Robert George’s recent Wall Street Journal piece [] on the same subject. George writes,

“If marriage is redefined, its connection to organic bodily union–and thus to procreation–will be undermined. It will increasingly be understood as an emotional union for the sake of adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play.”

To George, Mike and Bill’s union appears essentially no different from that of a couple of frat buddies who occasionally get off together. “Adult satisfaction that is served by mutually agreeable sexual play?” Only through willful blindness can one sustain such distortion.

It is stories like Mike and Bill’s that we must keep in mind–and keep telling–as we head into this fall’s election. In November Maine voters, like California voters last year, will decide whether to repeal marriage equality in that state.

Now is a good time to go to and make a financial contribution. Maine is one of six states that embrace marriage equality (not counting California, which recognizes the roughly 18,000 same-sex marriages performed before Prop. 8 passed, and Washington D.C., which recognizes same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions). If you want that number to grow, not shrink, then get behind the Maine fight early.

But don’t just give money; give witness. Reach out to the skeptics and let them know why marriage matters. One thing we learned from the California Prop. 8 campaign is that abstract platitudes about discrimination won’t cut it. We need to make the importance of marriage rights concrete. Stories like Mike and Bill’s do that, powerfully.