Gay Marriage: Killing the Democracy of the Dead

I recently got an email from a thoughtful young man, a high-school senior who this fall will be attending a very liberal college in the Northeast. He read an article I had written on the subject of President Obama’s recent advocacy of “gay marriage.” Though he disagreed, I thanked him for a respectful reply. Too often, people who email me in disagreement aren’t civil at all.

He objected to my point that gay marriage would represent a radical rupture not just of the definition of “marriage” but also of “family.” He asked: “Why would the definition of ‘family’ be ruptured if gay marriage was legalized nationally? How would that happen?” He continued: “Just to be clear, I support gay marriage and think that if two people are in love, then they should have the right to be together with full benefits under the title of being MARRIED. It does more psychological damage to gay couples in ‘civil unions’ than it should for straight married couples to share the ‘married’ status with gay couples. But really, overall, it shouldn’t matter at all what it is called, for both sides.”

He further added: “Also I really don’t want to hear any religious arguments. Marriage is a secular act that can also be religious, but is not primarily religious because it says so in the bible or what not.”

To his credit, the young man was open to hearing my viewpoint. As he said, he didn’t simply want to email me and yell, “Oh my god! You’re against gay marriage? Then you’re stupid!” Indeed, that’s the argument that he’s sure to hear ad nauseum at the liberal college to which his parents will be sending their lifesavings—and to get a viewpoint easily available much more inexpensively from their TV or NPR. And he will not hear religious arguments at that liberal college. (“Tolerance” and “diversity” have their boundaries.)

How does one respond to the young man’s email? How would you?

Well, there was much I could’ve said, but here was my main response, which I hope makes sense to some people on the young man’s (and Barack Obama’s) side of this issue:

Whether a society or culture or people are religious or not, the most fundamental basis of society and culture and peoples—literally since the dawn of humanity and knowledge—has been marriage between a man and a woman. That bond is the cornerstone, the bedrock. To suddenly sever that bond now is not only a radical rupture, but also remarkably arrogant; it assumes that our current generation of progressives is wiser than the multiple millennia of civilizations heretofore. Google the word “matrimony” and dissect its roots. “Marriage” has literally always meant the marriage of a man and a woman.

We shouldn’t mess around with these things. Once we begin redefining and reshaping and remolding these things in each of our own images, we’re in trouble. Also, I ask these progressives: Do you truly want the government to take unto itself the right to redefine such ancient terms as it sees fit? (Their answer: Yes, but only when the government agrees with them.)

That question ought to give pause to libertarians who support gay marriage. Do they want to allow government this unprecedented, enormous moral power and authority, from which will flow all sorts of new, massive government redistributive power and authority? As Jennifer Roback Morse notes, do libertarians really want the federal government regulating (let alone defining) marriage? If they do, then they’re unwittingly favoring not small government but big government—actually, huge government.

Even most liberal Democrats (until Obama) had voted to preserve marriage as between a man and a woman. Witness the Clintons and Democrats in Congress during the passing of the Defense of Marriage Act. President Obama is (once again) uniquely radical on this issue.

Those who reject gay marriage need to know that not only are they in the majority today, but over the course of centuries. Our position is the consensus view for thousands of years. It is based not on the latest societal/culture whim or action at the ballot box but on the inherited wisdom of billions of our ancestors and thinkers and philosophers who have preceded us. It is based on what G. K. Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.”

In his book, Orthodoxy, Chesterton wrote:

“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of their birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”

In other words, there is a rich, deep, accumulated wisdom in our long line of ancestors. For us to suddenly assume that we know better than all of those before us, compliments of a few recent years of enlightened understanding, is self-righteous and short-sighted. Don’t our ancestors—our dead—have any say in this at all? There were a lot more of them than there are of us. Are we to judge that they were mere brutes lacking our magnificent reasoning abilities?

There’s something to be said about multiple millennia of consensus belief. It seems unwise to not give our ancestors any serious consideration, and to not at least consider whether we might be wrong on this particular issue. Should the dead not have a vote, a say, in this?



  • Historian

    I’m not taking sides on the issue, I just want to correct an innacuracy;

    Marriage has not always been a man and a woman – gay marriage was legal in the Roman Empire until I believe December 342AD. A Christian emperor made it illegal – whether you think that is a good thing is subjective. However the fact that gay marriage was legal before hand is objective. There was also a tradition of it among certain cultures – native American (in which it was acceptable as long as one partner took on the tribal role of the other gender), some early European cultures and others around the world.

    Like I said, I am not defending or attacking the idea so I hope you will not drown this comment with dislikes.

  • tz1

    Libertarians would not profane the sacred institution of marriage by rendering what God himself joins to Caesar – to often rend asunder. The state has neither the authority nor the competence. That it is a tyrannical, out of control behemoth stealing from workers to give to the indolent or to the busted bank oligarchy – not in charity but for votes is a reason to return to a very small, limited government, not to try to convince this corrupt, monstrous, horror to treat marriage properly. Ifthe government had no power over our time or treasure,would we even be discussing this? But the state is an idol, a substitute god with authority you give it.

  • Sandy

    Paul, your post suggests that simply because some idea has existed for a long period of time that it must be accurate. Unfortunately, it ignores the new information that has accumulated over time. People are naturally resistant to change and therefore, new information. However, ignoring new information doesn’t make that information go away.

  • STR8 supporter

    Just have to know if my marriage that took place at the justice of peace office is any less valid or legal than those who were married in a church or other religious institution? God never entered the picture in my marriage at the JOP office.

    Marriage is a civil right in my opinion and God has nothing to do with it unless the couple so desires. If it is a sacred holy process it seems that a couple would be able to obtain a marriage license at the church or religious institution of their choosing or that there would be a law mandating ALL marriages be performed in a church or other religious facility.

    Since a couple can get married without God being included in the marriage ceremony then I do not see mariage as a sacred, religious institution.

    Just my opinion.

  • Patrick

    Could you imagine if our government ever redefined the terms “son” and “daughter”?

    Could you imagine if the government, in its written laws, expanded the meanings of those terms to include the twins my wife and I rescued from an orphanage and raised as our own?



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