Gay marriage: A fight the Right can't win

For decades, social conservatives have been fighting and losing culture wars. Contraception and abortion– once taboo topics– have been enshrined into law. The rates of premarital sex, out-of-wedlock births, and divorce have soared since the 1950s (though lately most of these indexes have leveled off or declined slightly). In school, prayer is out; sex education is in. On TV, characters used to say "gee whiz" and sleep in twin beds; now they curse as if they had Tourette's syndrome and flash skin as if they were Gypsy Rose Lee.

This doesn't mean that America is in cultural decline; no one who saw the response to 9/11 can think we are soft or decadent. It does mean there is little mystery about how the latest culture war– over gay marriage– will turn out. Opponents of same-sex marriages may have most of the public on their side for now, but they've already all but lost this battle.

How do I know? Simply by looking at the arguments being advanced by both sides. Advocates of same-sex marriage speak in the powerful language of civil rights and liken their cause to that of African Americans fighting anti-miscegenation laws in years past. And what do opponents say in response? Once upon a time, the case would have been open and shut: Sodomy is a sin, period. Many people may still believe that, but that's no longer a tenable argument in our secularized politics.

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws last year. The Episcopal Church has appointed an openly gay bishop. Many newspapers carry the equivalent of wedding announcements for gays. Same-sex kisses, once shockingly daring, are now almost as common on TV as commercials for Levitra or Prozac. Given this seismic cultural shift, anyone who makes avowedly moral arguments against homosexuality now gets treated the same way homosexuals were treated only a few years ago– as a sex-mad pervert.

Traditionalists have tried to put forward various nonmoral arguments against gay marriage, but none is particularly convincing. They argue, first, that we shouldn't tamper with thousands of years of tradition that holds that marriage is between a man and a woman. But 141 years ago we tampered with an equally old tradition: slavery. Their second argument is the slippery slope– first gay marriage gets legalized, then polygamy, pederasty, incest, and who knows what. But this kind of reductio ad absurdum can be applied to just about anything. If liquor is legal for adults, why not for children? Society always draws the line somewhere.

The final and strongest argument of gay marriage opponents: Don't let courts or a handful of mayors change the law on their own. Let's debate this democratically. Fine. But that will only delay the legalization of gay marriage; it won't stop it in most places. The Massachusetts judges whose diktat led to gay marriages in that state aren't operating in outer space. They are only slightly ahead of the societal consensus, just as the Supreme Court was only slightly ahead of the societal consensus when it legalized abortion in 1973. Nowadays, no matter what the court says, there isn't a state in the union that would illegalize abortion (though some might pass more restrictions than the justices would allow). In a few years, that may be true of gay marriage as well.

Faced with virtually inevitable defeat, Republicans would be wise not to expend too much political capital pushing for a gay marriage amendment to the Constitution. They will only make themselves look "intolerant" to soccer moms whose views on this subject, as on so many others, will soon be as liberal as elite opinion already is.

The good news, from the conservative point of view, is that it's hard to imagine that legalizing gay marriage will make much difference in the lives of most people. Certainly it will have a considerably less corrosive effect on society than the prevalence of divorce and out-of-wedlock childbearing.

If conservatives are worried about destigmatizing homosexuality, that's already happening. If they're worried this will lead to hordes of new "recruits" for the "other team" (as Seinfeld put it), that's not going to happen. Homosexuality always has been and always will be the preference of a tiny minority; most of us are biologically hard-wired for heterosexuality.

Since the ultimate concern of conservatives is to preserve the institution of marriage, they would probably be better off caving on gay marriage rather than acceding to the most popular alternative: civil union. Gay marriages won't affect straights. But if civil union laws were to catch on, as Jonathan Rauch argues in his provocative new book, Gay Marriage, many heterosexuals would probably eschew marriage altogether. That would be worse for society than seeing Rosie O'Donnell get hitched.

A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Max Boot wrote Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (Basic Books, 2002). This essay originally appeared in the L.A. Times.