Is the Push for Same-Sex Marriage Based on the Sexual Revolution and the Spread of Libertarianism?

Can the sexual revolution take credit for the recent expansion of same-sex marriage, as some on the right have suggested? Is it purely the product of moral libertarianism that seeks to liberalize all laws regarding sexual conduct? Are Catholics capitulating to (or even embracing) the legalization of sexual license? Will this lead to increased support for abortion and further redefinitions of marriage and the family that follow from this libertarian logic and moral relativism?

It seems quite clear to me that support for same-sex marriage extends beyond support for the sexual revolution and those unwilling to resist its aims. And while millennials are quick to praise tolerance and often reluctant to appear judgmental (sometimes too reluctant), on the issue of same-sex marriage itself, where comparisons are often made to the Civil Rights movement and interracial marriage, we can see a strong moralistic impulse present in the millennial generation and its approach to politics. On issues such as climate change and assistance to the poor, millennials show a greater moral firmness than other generations and a more communitarian mentality rather than the individualistic, libertarian mentality that plays such a large role in American politics.

The reality is that support for same-sex marriage extends beyond liberals and other social libertarians whose individualism runs counter to the Church’s personalist communitarianism. Strong support for same-sex marriage among millennials is not simply the product of sexual libertarianism taking over the culture. In fact, some of the most prominent arguments in favor of same-sex marriage (including some that have likely been the most persuasive in transforming public opinion) are communitarian or even conservative in nature.

Same-sex marriage is no longer defended primarily as a “lifestyle choice.” The root of most arguments for same-sex marriage is that people are born gay. The demands are typically not for tolerance, but rather for justice and equality. The average supporter of same-sex marriage considers it to be fundamentally good and beneficial to society.

This is a far cry from the type of rhetoric used by proponents of the sexual revolution. Instead, we often see arguments based on communitarian or conservative notions and values, such as: a belief in the importance of marriage (against those who think it is a worthless, bourgeois, patriarchal system that is inimical to human freedom); a commitment to strengthening the family in contemporary life; and a commitment to monogamy. The most powerful arguments, perhaps with millennials more than anyone, center around the love of the two who wish to marry and the importance of the institution of marriage—reasoning and rhetoric that is a far cry from the legalism, individualism, and enlightened self-interest that dominates social libertarian thought.

Same- sex marriage is redefining marriage. Many supporters deny this, perhaps because they essentially want neo-traditional marriage extended to gay couples. It is a redefinition, but when contrasted with the attitudes of those who believe in the sexual revolution, it is modest, perhaps even conservative.

If we think about American politics as simply the battle of left vs. right, liberals vs. conservatives, or progressives vs. traditionalists, it is easy to see why the social libertarianism of liberalism would be viewed as the primary cause of increased support for gay marriage. But not even a quarter of the country identifies as liberal—over half of Democrats do not even identify as liberal. Support is coming from elsewhere, and that is what has led to the meteoric rise in support for same-sex marriage.

The American voting population is too diverse to be adequately explained using a single axis. The graph below is a more accurate representation of the mainstream American political spectrum (if not of our representatives in Congress, who are disproportionately liberal and conservative compared to voters):

PicMonkey Collage

Of course within each of these groupings, there can be a great deal of variation. Among communitarians, you might find some who are more traditionally-minded along with those who are more willing to embrace change, those who are more technocratic and those we might define as populists.

It is not surprising, then, that these communitarians who all share a belief in a relatively activist government policy on social issues (rather than a social libertarian, hands-off, “get government out of the bedroom” approach) fall on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate. Progressive communitarians have played an important role in expanding support for same-sex marriage, though many communitarians who are closer to liberalism than conservatism continue to oppose same-sex marriage for religious and ethical reasons. Many, however, have come to believe that efforts to promote marriage, the family, and values that serve the common good demand the recognition of same-sex marriage. Thus we see 37% of Pew’s “Faith and Family Left” supporting same sex marriage.

Fewer conservative or traditional communitarians have been willing to embrace same-sex marriage, but some have come to believe that our society should promote lifelong, monogamous relationships among gay people, even if they seek to separate civil and religious marriage or find other means to separate and protect traditional marriage from changes in the public sphere.

Likewise, it is not uncommon to see conservatives embracing such arguments. While many conservatives see a slippery slope that will lead to the acceptance of polygamy, incest, and any other conceivable relationship based on free choice and/or consent, others seem to see it as a practical, sensible, Burkean (Edmund not Ray) evolution, given the prevalence of gay relationships in our society. This may explain why nearly 40% of Republicans or those who lean Republican support same-sex marriage, including over 60% among those under 30.

The point is that support for same-sex marriage is not driven by surging support for the sexual revolution or social libertarianism. If increased support for same-sex marriage was linked to increased support for abortion, for instance, one would see it in surveys of public opinion. Instead, we see overall support for abortion remaining fairly constant and that the millennial generation is slightly more likely to identify as pro-life than members of Generation X.

Millennials continue to make value judgments. So too do many of the moderate and conservative Democrats and Republicans who have come to support same-sex marriage in recent years. Many simply believe that same-sex marriage is morally right.

None of this is to say that millennials or Americans in general have a sound commitment to morality, human flourishing, and the common good. Individualism is too strong in our culture. Libertarianism is too strong in our politics. American morality can be terribly lax. The result is a throwaway culture that finds supporters on both the left and the right.

But the arguments for same-sex marriage rely on far more than non-judgmentalism and social libertarianism. Opponents of same-sex marriage would be wise to recognize this, so that they can respond to the most thoughtful and persuasive arguments for same-sex marriage. Otherwise they will be left cursing a culture that is not quite as broken as they suspect.