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July 1, 2011 -- With New York the latest state to allow gay marriage and others likely to follow, this issue will continue to consume public attention. Most conservatives strongly oppose such unions.  

I want to ask my conservative friends to take a quick logical trip: Help me—and you—understand your perspective.

Your Limits on Government

Let’s start with your views concerning government. Most of you believe that government should not jail consenting adults for engaging, in the privacy of their homes, in homosexual acts of which you, personally, disapprove. Most of you would not have the government bar such individuals from living together.

Most of you would not have government jail such individuals for announcing to family and friends, perhaps at a celebratory ceremony, that they are in an exclusive relationship; that they will share the joys of this world as life partners; that in their hearts, minds, and souls—no matter what the actual legal status of their relationship might be—they consider themselves to be married.

And most of you would not have government ban private contracts between individuals of the same gender for sharing property or granting one another power of attorney in cases of medical emergencies.

The “M” Word

So here’s my question: How would you conservatives even know if, on that contract between such individuals, laying somewhere in the bottom of their sock drawer, the letters M-A-R-R-I-A-G-E appear? How would the world existentially change as you go about your daily business, if suddenly those letters were written on that piece of paper? What earthly difference would it make?

Not that your feelings should be a standard for public policy, but would you feel better if, instead of the above letters, that contract were to bear the letters H-O-C-H-Z-E-I-T? For most of you these letters trigger puzzlement rather than the strong emotions associated with the “M” word. In German “hoch” means “high, tall, or lofty,” and “zeit” means “time.” Would you feel better if that contract bore the English words “high times”? “Hochzeit” is the German word for “marriage,” surely a high time in anyone’s life!

So can you begin to see how silly your obsession with the word “marriage” seems to be? But let’s be fair and pursue your beliefs further. I know your worries are about more than words.

Societal Decay

For many of you, gay marriage is symbolic of societal decay, of a weakening of institutions—especially the family—and standards that you see as necessary for a free and civil society. Those are indeed legitimate concerns and deserve serious and honest discussion. And that’s exactly the approach that you don’t bring to the gay marriage discussion.

Over 40 percent of heterosexual marriages in this country end in divorce; one would think you’d be pleased that so many gays want to abandon promiscuity for exclusive commitments in the relationship we call “marriage.” In many cases, divorce involves questions about raising children, visitation rights, and financial responsibilities. Out-of-wedlock births present yet another set of problems. But whether or not same-sex couples can marry does not bear on these matters.

State Sanctions

Some of you oppose the government “sanctioning” marriage relationships of which you disapprove. But it is sheer pretense to demand that government act as the enforcer of your judgments about how others should run their lives when those others in no way interfere with your freedom to run yours.

In any case, government only metaphorically “sanctions” your actions when you speak what you will, read what you wish, worship—or don’t worship—as is your wont, live where you desire, work where you please, marry whom you love, and deal with other individuals based on mutual consent. All individuals have those rights. In society with others it is the purpose of government to protect those rights. The government doesn’t take a moral position on your actions; it only makes certain that you don’t act to limit by force the actions of others.

And you’re wrong if you think that somehow a government “sanction” confers a moral value on behavior. I’m married to a wonderful woman and we have two beautiful baby daughters. If you—as I—think that “marriage” is more than just a word, then you should understand that what moral value and sanctity there is in it lies in what the partners in marriage bring to it.

Some of you flat-out judge gay marriage to be immoral. Let me suggest that you should judge individuals not by their sexual preferences, but rather by their moral character: Are they rational, thoughtful, honest, and productive? Do they act with integrity and independence? Do they take pride in their achievements? Do they deal with others with justice, good will, and benevolence?

A Quick Generation

There have always been gay libertarians because libertarians consistently favor freedom. There are also gay conservatives who have come out of the closet: former Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman; commentator Andrew Sullivan; former Republican representatives Steve Gunderson (Wis.) and Jim Kolbe (Ariz.). Most European conservatives have no problem with gays; British Tory leader Nick Herbert is gay, and so was Dutch conservative Pim Fortuyn, an anti-Islamist who was assassinated by a leftist environmental extremist.

In coming decades more young, tolerant heterosexuals will join the conservative ranks, and opposition to gay marriage will fade away. It is time for you, my American conservative friends, to get over this obsession with sexual preference that drives away potential allies. Get that fluke out of your brains. Welcome all who want to fight for less government, more individual freedom—both economic and social—and have serious discussions about the values at the foundation of a free society based on reason, not on prejudice or unthinking traditionalism.

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Edward Hudgins

About The Author:

Edward Hudgins is the director of advocacy for The Atlas Society and the editor and author of several books on politics and government policy.

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