Researchers find that blue states have lower rates of divorce and teen pregnancy than red states do. “If you’re looking for solid marriages,” as the (conservative) New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written, “head to Massachusetts, not Alabama.” Why? Gay marriage probably isn’t reducing straight divorce rates, at least not much. But it is part and parcel of a re-commitment to family values, not a flight from them.
Same-sex marriage is socially conservative in that sense — and in a deeper sense, too. The movement is about equality and rights, yes, but it is also about responsibility and obligation. Marriage joins couples not just in a contract with each other but also in a pact with their community, their kids, their God and millenniums of custom. Gay and lesbian Americans yearn for those bonds.
The father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, famously said society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” In seeking marriage, gays are asking to join Burke’s mighty stream of tradition. They are asking to be constrained, not liberated: to be tied to a commitment larger than themselves, larger even than each other.
That is why same-sex marriage is cascading. The public looks at marriage equality and sees the greatest social conservative movement of our time. And, at least outside South Carolina, it looks at Mark Sanford and sees something else.