Saturday, May 24, 2008

Marriage and the Secular Conscience II

This is taken from a profile of Austin Dacey's ideas about secular conscience in the New York Times:

Currently, “conservatives resort to secular-sounding sociological research about child development and slippery slopes,” [Dacey] wrote, while “liberals try to debunk this pseudoscience, and accuse their interlocutors of bigotry.”

But neither side, he said, is addressing the moral heart of the matter: a core conviction that “marriage is a sacred covenant” that homosexual unions would violate. “Who is talking about that?” he asked.

“This culture war will be lost if we cannot engage in public conversation about the religious significance of marriage and the moral value of same-sex relationships,” he concluded. “Anyway, it is worth a try.”
Hmm. This is not the best example Dacey might have chosen; the moral claim that marriage is a "sacred covenant" (or some non-religious such) that should include gay people is actually a commonplace. Andrew Sullivan makes this argument on an almost daily basis on his blog.

In 2004, Oregon voters amended the state constitution to ban gay marriage, setting the stage for a moment in the none-too-distant future when people will see the barbarity in the Oregon constitution and wonder at the idiocy of our times (but I digress). Whatever else might be said of the arguments made unsuccessfully against the measure, they were positively brimming with talk of values and morals, as a cursory reading of the state's voter's pamphlet reveals.

The liberals in the drama were eager to have a values-based argument over gay marriage; the conservatives were also willing to sling moral terms around, but they also profited from slipping through the election season with as few arguments as possible, the better to let ignorance and prejudice stalk freely.

This contributes to Dacey's wider point -- dragging anti-gay ideas into the light of public scrutiny was and remains positive and constructive -- but it fails as an illustration of the claim that liberals flee from moral debates. Richer, better illustrations come from cases where god fans riot over disagreeable cartoons or shed tears over fallen blastocysts, in response to which liberals, all too often, hide under their desks and cede moral ground that should be contested.

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