I have filled enough pages on same-sex marriage to make a book, at least by the low standards of neoconservative publishing, and only one important question remains to be settled: What is to be done? It is an important question, not only because marriage is a vital part of ordinary life, but also because it illustrates the bankruptcy of what is called American conservatism.
American conservatives have, for the most part, taken two approaches to this question. The older generation has dug in its heels and continued to support the entirely fatuous efforts of Republican politicians and the Catholic bishops to pass legislation defining marriage. Two years ago, I was explaining this problem to an audience in St. Paul, Minnesota, and after I presented an impeccable logical, Christian, and historical argument against increasing state regulation of marriage, the bishop's spokesman had to make a presentation telling everyone to go out an campaign for such legislation.
Some very nice people afterwards told me that while they tended to agree with me, it was nonetheless important to inspire young men to take to the streets for a Christian cause. I was polite, but, really, political action is not an end in itself. Most of us have real lives to lead--jobs to do, kids to feed, fish to catch--and if we have spare time for activism, let us be sure we know what we are doing and that we have some chance of success. The same sort of arguments used in analyzing whether or not a war is just should be applied to such gratuitous human activities as demonstrating, petitioning, voting, and campaigning. Unless we believe we are doing good--and more harm than good--we should not be wasting precious time or deluding ourselves into thinking we are truly involved in politics.
Besides, even the typically dull-witted bishop ought to be able to figure this one out. The last thing in the world we need these days is to increase the power of government to regulate, much less define, our basic institutions. In fact, our first priority ought to be to protect our customs and institutions FROM government, not to increase the regulatory power of government. The power to regulate, like the power to tax, is the power to destroy.
This is not a Christian country and has not been a Christian country for many decades. Decent and well-meaning conservatives who pour their time and energy into building up government are committing suicide on the installment plan. Imagine some family foolish enough to raise a lion in the home. As the lion gets hungry, he gets aggressive. Their solution, to keep their pet lion quiet, is to chop off first their fingers and toes and then their arms and legs. The soundest and most important strategy to develop at this point is to QUIT FEEDING THE LION.
Younger conservatives on the make--the Andrew Sullivan conservatives--are eager to give up the defense of marriage. In some cases, the reasons are pretty obvious (there is a reason they identify with Mr. Sullivan), but in most cases it is not personal perversity but only shallow opportunism. Spending their lives on the internet and watching TV, they have only rarely taken the trouble to read, much less to think seriously. They honestly have no idea what marriage--or anything else is--and they defend their cowardice and lack of conviction as a manifestation of Russell Kirk's opposition to ideology.
Even on the level of personal careerism, this strategy is a non-starter. The Left has hundreds, indeed, thousands of intelligent and semi-educated foot-soldiers, all writing for The Nation, Mother Jones, The New Republic, and the Wall Street Journal. They really have no need for conservative turn-coats, except in the short run, when they are in a mood to divide and ridicule the right. In the good days, Sam Francis and I were more than once targeted for flattery by creeps like Sidney "Sid Vicious" Blumenthal and Jacob Heilbrunn. The poor saps never seemed to have tumbled to the fact that we were onto their game from the beginning, though it was amusing to feed them disinformation.
On the grander stage of political strategy, the sell-out might work down the road, when everyone with half a brain is rotting in his grave, but in the short run self-identified conservatives are not buying the argument that they should sacrifice everything they have always believed in order to make friends with the admirers of David Brooks and Barack Obama.
There is only one proper and practical strategy for confronting a broad range of social dilemmas, from abortion and same-sex marriage to affirmative action, higher education, and that is to keep in mind one fundamental goal, and that goal is to liberate ourselves, our families, and our communities from our servile dependence on the federal government that makes war on every fundamental institution and moral value.
In this brief column, I have to be content with stating the principle, but some of the applications should be obvious. Where power can be shifted from Washington to the states, from the states to the counties and cities, from cities to neighborhoods and families, then that is the policy to support. That was the deal I cut with Rothbard years ago. The only progress is devolution.
There is much more to be said, but you will have to be reading Chronicles. (Fortunately, this should soon be possible in a number of formats not previously accessible for those who have been turning away from print technology.) But I do wish to underscore my main point, which is that opportunistic or ill-considered political actions can only do harm.
What is needed at this point is effective statesmanship, and a statesman is a man of principle , who will make all sorts of real-word compromises if they help him to reach his goal. He must be like the master of a sailing vessel, who often cannot sail directly to his object but must take account of winds, tides, and currents. Historically statesmen have largely devoted themselves to policy and politics in the exercise of legislative and executive functions, but they can also be intellectual leaders, as Burke and Cicero were, as Russell Kirk, Mel Bradford, Robert Nisbet, Thomas Molnar, Sam Francis, and Murray Rothbard have been more recently. They have all left the scene, and their place has been taken--in just about every journal or website I can think of, by people who cannot even understand, much less emulate them.
Whether he is a thinker or a man of action, the statesman qua statesman is neither a philosopher, who must stick to the purity of his argument to the end, nor a mere politician or journalist, people who almost by definition lack both principle and courage and pursue only a narrow self-interest.
There is nothing practical about politicians and political writers who excite themselves unnaturally over the hot topics of the week without every understanding the fundamental questions at stake, much less doing anything about them. At the best, such people (and they lead the Republican Party), they live down to J.K. Galbraith's complaint against "the bland leading the bland."
I used to know a mad boy named Dean who wanted to fly. He made up names for the flying muscles in his arms--"This is the possa and this is the bels," he'd say-- but when he used his possa and bels to flap his arms, he rose no higher from the ground than Andrew Sullivan or his conservative admirers.
Thomas Fleming is the former editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. He is the author of The Politics of Human Nature, Montenegro: The Divided Land, and The Morality of Everyday Life, named Editors' Choice in philosophy by Booklist in 2005. He is the coauthor of The Conservative Movement and the editor of Immigration and the American Identity. He holds a Ph.D. in classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Before joining the Rockford Institute, he taught classics at the University of Miami of Ohio, served as an advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, and was headmaster at the Archibald Rutledge Academy. He has been published in, among others, The Spectator (London), Independent on Sunday (London), Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, USA Today, Chicago Sun-Times, National Review, Classical Journal, Telos, and Modern Age. He and his wife, Gail, have four children and four grandchildren.