The reason why the question of same-sex marriage roils our culture is because we’ve lost sight of the ligature between liberty and the natural end of human sexuality. Because so many feel that liberty is not bound by anything outside of the sovereign self, except by rules protecting the obstruction of others’ liberty, they bridle at the thought of their liberty being constricted in apparently arbitrary ways. Consequently those adults who would like to exercise their liberty in a union freely consented-to with another adult of the same sex cry foul when state or federal authorities say they cannot. They evoke the Fourteenth Amendment. They declare the equal protection of their rights. They demand to know why they are being discriminated against.
And if the battle over marriage is to be fought on these grounds, then proponents of same-sex marriage are sure to win it. For without a deeper understanding of liberty’s connection to the ends of nature there is no rational defense against any number of exercises of it. During oral arguments this week in the case involving California’s Proposition 8, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked the lawyers making the case for same-sex marriage: if same-sex marriage were legally permissible, what would prevent other people interested in other forms of marriage (polygamous unions, say) from seeking legal recourse? Given our current notions of liberty and rights, the answer is simply, nothing.
It may take awhile, of course, for the culture to catch up to even stranger expressions of the heresy of liberty. For a time, the legal battle over same-sex marriage may successfully leave the decisions in the hands of voters, a majority of whom will hopefully continue to support the traditional view. But we must never forget that culture is in a significant sense prior to politics. Unless we recapture at the level of family life and childhood education the sense of how the “unalienable rights” of U.S. citizens are “endowed by their Creator” and inscribed in the nature that God has given us, we will not be able to stop the further erosion of the institution of marriage. The small society in my barber shop will become more and more the norm, while my family and I will seem like barbarians.