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Calvin Freiburger

What Conservatism Tells Us About Gay Marriage, Part 2

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Posted on August 18 2010 9:00 am
Hailing from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, Calvin Freiburger is a political science major at Hillsdale College. He also writes for the Hillsdale Forum and his personal website, Calvin Freiburger Online.

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Last week, we began discussing what conservative first principles have to say about same-sex marriage. Having disproven that the Constitution or natural law somehow require recognition of gay unions (and with it the legitimacy of judicial activism on the issue), we can now turn to the more contentious question of where preserving and redefining marriage fall on the political spectrum.

American conservatism is essentially fidelity to the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. We on the Right universally revere the Founders for their belief in individual liberty and limited government, but we sometimes forget that they overwhelmingly believed just as strongly in the necessity of certain moral values to a free society.

They certainly didn’t believe that protecting natural rights and maintaining basic infrastructure were government’s only proper functions.

George Washington tells us that morality, one of the “firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens,” is an “indispensable support” to political prosperity. John Adams writes that policy should “regulate” human passions, because it is “of the highest importance” that they be “arranged on the side of virtue.” Charles Rowley of George Mason University writes that for James Madison, “a republican order must have a moral content, a cluster of values, without which it would lose its meaning.”

Even the Founders we consider relatively secular agree—Thomas Jefferson fears what might become of nations which fail to admit “a chapter of morality in their political code,” while Benjamin Franklin hopes the nation’s “virtues public and private grow with us, and be durable,” because “only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.”

It’s also generally understood that strong respect for tradition is a key component of conservatism. Edmund Burke warns us that those “who never look backward to their ancestors” will “not look forward to posterity.” Granted, we shouldn’t unconditionally support the old just because it’s there; traditions proven to be irrational and destructive should be abandoned. Likewise, virtue is not a just excuse to violate Americans’ natural and constitutional rights. But that’s not what conservatism does; conservatism conserves certain values and institutions which have, over time, proven themselves integral to the civil society. William F. Buckley put it this way:

Conservatism aims to maintain in working order the loyalties of the community to perceived truths and also to those truths which in their judgment have earned universal recognition.

Here, the time-tested institution to be conserved is marriage, and the virtues it embodies are intimately tied to a republic’s survival. Mankind as a whole has recognized the union’s importance to society from Aristotle onward, and the Founders’ philosophical influences certainly understood—Montesquieu writes that marriage arises from the “natural obligation of the father to provide for his children,” important for the “propagation of the species.” John Locke concurs: the “female is capable of conceiving, and de facto is commonly with child again, and brings forth too a new birth, long before the former is out of a dependency for support on his parents help” and the “father, who is bound to take care for those he hath begot, is under an obligation to continue in conjugal society with the same woman longer than other creatures.”

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