Is Social Liberalism Resurgent?

Same-sex marriage proponents are rejoicing today, as DOMA has been declared unconstitutional and the appeal of Prop 8 has been dismissed.  The war for same-sex marriage is not over, but a huge battle has been won.

Particularly giddy are the affluent liberals—entertainers, media members, Democratic party activists, and lesser-known members of the bourgeoisie—who were already riding high after yesterday’s pro-abortion rights filibuster by Texas state senator Wendy Davis.  They seem to be struck by the sentiment that liberalism (or at least social libertarianism) is on the march.

They better slow their roll.  Abortion and same-sex marriage are not inextricably linked.  In fact, the views of Millennial Catholics highlight how different these issues are.

Support for same-sex marriage has exploded in recent years, and the views of young Catholics have paralleled that trend.  Meanwhile, the pro-abortion rights movement has not gained ground.  Overall support has not increased nor has support among millennials or Millennial Catholics.  Why?

Support for unlimited access to legal abortion remains rooted in an individualistic mentality that is fundamentally incompatible with the Catholic faith.  Plenty of Catholics support legalized abortion, but among devout Catholics with a sophisticated understanding of the faith, support is low and often incoherent.  It often rests on an understanding of the role of government (the “I’m not going to impose my beliefs on others” mentality) that is entirely incompatible with Catholic social teaching.

Others have substituted values derived from the American cult of individualism for Catholic principles.  The preeminent value in this cult is autonomy.  Thus the argument is made: “I can do what I want with my body,” which noticeably ignores the indisputable fact that the life of another human being is involved.  The desire for autonomy is strong in America, particularly among economic and political elites on both the left and the right.  Both American liberalism and conservatism are infected by the cult of individualism.

But many Americans share values that override the desire to do whatever one wants.  These include a belief in justice (fairness, equality, human rights) and love.  Pro-life progressives have highlighted the importance of defending unborn lives as part of a larger commitment to human rights and social justice, a commitment rooted in the dignity, worth, and equality of every single person—born or unborn, healthy or sick, able-bodied or disabled, gay or straight.

For Catholics, community and communion create imperatives that conflict with the desires of those who value individualism and autonomy above all else.  The Church’s personalism leads to solidarity with both pregnant women and their children.  The proper response to poverty is not slaying the children of poor women, but ensuring that we create a society that allows for each of these women and their children to reach their full potential as persons.  And this requires robust government action.

One need not be Catholic to share these values.  And judging by the overwhelming support for various restrictions on abortion, including majority support for bans on late-term abortion, many non-Catholics do share these values.

It is peculiar to see liberals praising a filibuster as a true symbol of the resurgence of democracy when the majority of Texans and Texas legislators favor banning abortion after 20 weeks.  And it is sad that Wendy Davis has become a hero to affluent liberal elites for safeguarding late-term abortion at a time when programs are being slashed for the poor and vulnerable across the country and no similar hero has emerged on behalf of the poor.  At least we have been spared the chanting of “abortion now, abortion tomorrow, abortion forever.”

A commitment to social justice and other values that clash with a radical belief in individualism may or may not lead to support for same-sex marriage.  Many devout Catholics, including Millennial Catholics, have had a disheartening day.  They do not view same-sex marriage as necessary for fairness or equality.  They see it as a weakening of a core institution that promotes human flourishing.

Yet many other Millennial Catholics disagree.  And many do not support gay marriage because they believe the government should endorse any lifestyle under the sun, but because they believe that marriage is special and valuable and that it is fundamentally unjust to deny it to those born gay.

And love has played a role too.  Love for a poor, young, vulnerable woman does not inherently or commonly push one to support killing her child.  But growing up around brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, friends, teachers, and countless others who identify as homosexuals—seeing their fears, hopes, aspirations, and values—has undoubtedly influenced countless Millennial Catholics.  The concrete experience of loving these people, with the adjoining hope that they experience joy and human flourishing, has been decisive in increasing support for gay marriage, particularly among Millennial Catholics.

To lump these two issues together is therefore a mistake.  One may disagree with it, but there is a personalist, communitarian argument for same-sex marriage that has convinced many people.  On abortion, particularly on the matter of unrestricted access to abortion until birth, individualism and autonomy remain the dominant motives.  Liberal elites may believe that their bourgeois values and devotion to their cult of individualism are spreading, but the last two days provide no evidence of this.