A Classically Conservative Argument on Same-Sex Marriage

Maggie Gallagher's anti-gay marriage argument is an example of pure conservative thinking.

I have an ongoing interest in the meaning of the term “conservative.”  This interest manifests in multiple ways, including personal introspection (I have long self-identified as “conservative”—although less so of late), teaching (I am a political scientist and one of my areas is political theory), and writing (it is obviously an issue in looking at contemporary American politics, for example).

As a general proposition, I have decided that we use the word “conservative” (and, for that matter, “liberal”) rather imprecisely (this includes my own colloquial usage of the term over time).  I think that we are at an especially odd place at the moment in terms of what the word means in the American context.  Such facts forward my interest in better definitions, especially in terms of public discourse.

Having said that, this post looks first at a basic, fundamentally academic, definition of “conservative” and then looks at what I think qualifies as a pretty good example of truly conservative thinking in this sense by Maggie Gallagher on the question of same-sex marriage.

A basic definition of “conservative” from an academic (and historical) point of view is one which the status quo is seen as having been arrived at through a long series of trial and error which leads to some degree of stability.  As such, tinkering with the status quo should be undertaken only with extreme care because it is largely impossible to know the full consequences of choices.  In other words, unintended consequences are certain and the ability of the human mind to fully understand the ramifications of change is quite limited.  As such, if change is to be undertaken it should only be done in small, incremental steps so as to decrease the chances that seriously damaging moves are made.  Now it should be noted clearly that conservatives in this sense do not oppose all change, but rather they a) oppose rapid or large change, and b) sincerely believe human reason to be a limited tool.

On change, for example, Edmund Burke wrote: “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” But to him, as one would expect of the patron saint of classic conservatism, change was an issue not of innovation, but rather one of “correction.”  The aim of this correction was conservation of the good and functioning aspects of the existing order.

When one considers that the foundation of classic conservative thinking is that the current socio-political order has evolved slowly through a long, slow process of testing what works and what does not, one can understand both the basic conservative resistance to change and, moreover, why classic conservatism is appealing to those who benefit the most from a given existing status quo.

Of course, by this measure, not all self-professed “conservatives” in the colloquial sense are, indeed, conservatives in the proper sense of the term.  Many are reactionary seeking to turn the clock back to the past (e.g., Rick Santorum and birth control) and others are liberal (if not progressive) in the sense that they think that the application of reason leads to a better life for all (i.e., any number of Gingrich’s ideas—I mean for goodness’ sake, whatever else Gingrich’s moon base idea might be, it is hardly the stuff of a conservative worldview, regardless of how one defines the term).

All of that was preface, but perhaps needed (even useful?) before getting to the basic inspiration for this post.  I was reading the Salon profile of Maggie Gallagher, the conservative writer (mostly at NRO) and anti-same sex marriage advocate (The making of gay marriage’s top foe).  The piece is interesting, and while I am bit uncomfortable with the straight line that it draws between Gallagher’s college pregnancy (and subsequent single-parenthood) and her views on gay marriage, a compelling case is made.  However, the pop psychology of it all isn’t something I am adequately equipped to comment upon.  Instead, I was especially struck by the following passages:

“The questions began by talking about what people think about homosexuality,” Gallagher recalls. “And I said that’s a perfectly legitimate question, but that’s not my concern. My concern is that marriage really matters because children need a mom and a dad, and after gay marriage, I can’t say that anymore. I won’t be allowed to say it. Marriage will not be about that anymore. We will not have an institution dedicated to putting together mothers and fathers and children.”


Reading Gallagher’s portion of “Debating Same-Sex Marriage” and watching numerous clips of her debates, what surprises me is how little Gallagher talks about gay people, or even gayness. Gallagher’s opposition to gay marriage seems to have very little to do with gay people, indeed with people at all. What really excites her is a depersonalized idea of Marriage: its essence, its purity, its supposedly immutable definition. If properly supported by the right laws and the right customs, Gallagher’s heroic Marriage is good for women, children and society. For Gallagher, gay people are the enemy only insofar as their desire to marry is yet another attack on Marriage: Like no-fault divorce, the welfare state and the normalization of single parenting, same-sex marriage challenges the idea that every child should be with its biological mother and father.


In her forthcoming book, she writes that “including same-sex unions in the legal category of ‘marriage’ will necessarily change the public meaning of marriage for the entire society in ways that must make it harder for marriage to perform its core civil functions over time.” How do we know? We just do.

And even if somehow the evidence showed, conclusively, that same-sex marriage were good for children? Gallagher would still be dissatisfied: “Nothing could make me call a same-sex couple a marriage, because that’s not what I believe a marriage is.”

In short:  marriage is defined by human nature, no more, no less and this is not a thing to be reasoned about, per se, because it simply is.  Further, this is immutably true to the point that nature will win out over supposed reason:

But for Gallagher these facts are temporal, contingent and ultimately meaningless. They just appear to be facts. In an email two months after our first conversation, she explains why her opponents are mistaken: “One of the lessons I learned as a young woman from the collapse of Communism is this: Trying to build a society around a fundamental lie about human nature can be done, for a while, with intense energy (and often at great cost); but it cannot hold.” Same-sex marriage is just a big lie, she believes, like Communism. It is weak at its foundations, like the Iron Curtain. It may get built, she seems to concede — in 10 years, or 20, there may be more states that recognize same-sex marriage, more shiny, happy couples raising rosy-cheeked, well-adjusted children, children who play with dogs and go to school and fall from jungle gyms and break their arms, children often adopted after being abandoned by the heterosexuals who did not want them or could not care for them — but in time (big time, geological time, God time) the curtain will be pulled back, or it will fall. Because it has to. It cannot be otherwise. Because a son, as Maggie Gallagher will tell you, needs a dad.

That which has been is proof that it ought to be preserved and there is no room for the possibility that this key institution has been socially constructed over time.  (I have written on the question of whether or not the definition of marriage is immutable here:  Redefining Marriage).

On thing that the piece makes clear, and deserves underscoring:  Gallagher does not appear to be a homophobe nor does she appear motivated by any particular concern about homosexuality in general.  Rather, she is dedicated to her view of marriage.**

This strikes me as rather useful example of classic conservative thinking:  human beings have developed an ideal institution, based on practice and human nature called marriage and when properly followed (man+woman=children) this is best and there is no argument to be made in opposition to this notion.  It is not a thing of reason, but of tradition and nature (and likely the divine).*  Further, if we muck about with what nature has ordained, the ultimate result will be a negative one for society at large.  Same-sex marriage, therefore, is highly misguided social engineering that will a) cause harm and b) ultimately be doomed to failure.

A side note (which does touch on the pop psychology part after all).  The piece quotes Gallagher’s early writings and the following is striking, especially in context of her biography:

“Sometimes they [men] prefer a hotel room to a house in the suburbs, or beg us to exchange bodily fluids without ever exchanging phone numbers. Sometimes they do not appreciate that making a baby is making a long-term commitment you cannot just walk out on when you’re feeling unfulfilled.” Because men are so different, society developed norms to pressure men to take responsibility they might wish to avoid.

While there clearly are men of the type described above (and, one presumes, some women), may add a few data points of my own here?  As I frequently point out, I am been married for going on 22 years and have three children.  I actually very much prefer a house in the suburbs to a hotel room.  And most of the males I have known over the years are just as interested in long-term relationships as the women I have known.

Now, granted, I cannot credibly extrapolate an empirically comprehensive view of human nature from simply my own personal observations.  But then again, neither an Maggie Gallagher, but it seems as if that is precisely what she has done.  It is certainly quite difficult to read that quoted passage and not see the connection between her early unhappiness in life and her subsequent views of the universe.

To bring this to contemporary domestic politics in a general sense, I think it is worth noting that part of why social conservatives and their opponents have such conflicts is that social conservatives tend to base their views on positions that are not amenable to reasoned argument.  By that I mean:  it is difficult to have an argument with immutable truth, yes?  This is why, by the way, the culture wars are not only back, but they never actually left and never will.

*I use the phrase “likely the divine” because while on the one hand it seems quite clear that Gallagher is heavily influence by conservative Catholicism, on the other she does not seem to predicate her arguments on theology.

**BTW, I do find her definition problematic insofar as it precludes a non-procreative marriage as being a real marriage.  It is a formulation that is problematic for obvious reasons, I should think.  I shan’t go into this as I am more interested in this post as to the nature of her reasoning that I am in criticizing her position, per se. (Although, I will grant, not all social conservatives approach all issues in this manner).

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Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. Alanmt says:

    I agree that the argument “We don’t know what the consequences are, so we should move with extreme caution” is a classically conservative one, and is one of the most frequent arguments that Maggie Gallgher makes.

    However, while the argument is classically conservative, Maggie Gallagher is not, which may legitimately cause one to inquire into her motivation for that argument.

    Cautious conservatism is not about blind adherence to tradition in the face of fact or changing reality. It grants progress its due, after applying the brakes of caution and respect for existing insitutions. First, she ignores existing evidence suggesting that her concerns are not founded and that there is societal good achieved by gay marriage as insufficient and grants it no weight at all. This attitude seems partisanly cavalier, but it may be partially defensible.. It’s early days and hte evidence is still developing. But Ms. Gallagher is quoted in the article as saying that she could never accept that a same sex relationship is a marriage. She has ruled in advance that there can never be enough evidence to make the gradual change to a new result that must be left open as an ultimate result of the principles of classical conservatism. This closemindedness is a departure from what the classically conservative argument she is making requires.

    There is a second issue which the intriguing article fails ot examine, which is the nature of her dedicaiton to this abstract ideal. I would humbly suggest, based upon the evidence provided, that her desire for fame and fortune played not a small part of her decision to jump into the same-sex marriage arena early on. It has given her a place front and center in the so-called culture wars, on an issue where people’s passion ensures her a steady paycheck. How much money is being donated to encourage a return to her idealized concept of marriage as compared to how much money is being donated to stop gay marriage? She followed the money.

    It is also worth noting that she provided a valuable service to the antigay equality side. The U.S. has been steadily trending away from the use of religious-based anti-gay animus as an acceptible policy basis for limiting the rights of gay people. Since at least 2005 (See her guest stint as blogger at Volokh in October 2005), she has formulated, tested, and disseminated nonreligious reasons for antiequality policies. I think they are fairly weak, and I think Judge Walker demonstrated that in the courtroom. But she has slowed down equality by providing the conscience-troubled genteel disapprovers of gay marriage with secular resons for opposing it.

  2. Rob in CT says:

    Extrapolation from personal experience: yeah, the whole “knocked up in college and he wouldn’t marry her” thing seems to be a driving force behind her conversion to cultural conservatism (she went from being a Randian to a SoCon).

    The converts are always the worst.

  3. I think the problem is that people like you and a want a normative definition of Conservative (i.e. some procedure which can be applied to a particular individual, at the end of which we can say “yes you are conservative” or “no you are not conservative”), when the term is now adays used almost entirely in a positive sense (i.e. here is a group of people who are conservatives, what things do these people have generally have in common?).

  4. @Stormy Dragon:

    “people like you and I” even.

  5. Alanmt says:

    The salon article was a facinating look into Ms. Gallagher. In some ways, the informaiton revealed makes me pity her. She is a sad person. But she is also a dangerous one. Rigid adherence to and pursuit of abstract ideals while being oblivious to actual harm to real people caused by the same is dangerous to individual liberty.

    So, yeah. I do pity her. But not nearly as much as I pity the millions of gay couples denied equality under the law in part because ofher efforts. Not nearly as much as I pity the tormented high school kids whose antigay bullies she has enabled, even if that has not been her intent.

  6. Hey Norm says:


    “…I think that we are at an especially odd place at the moment in terms of what the word means in the American context…”

    No kidding.
    I also read the Salon piece and by the end of it I really just felt sad for her.
    Generally speaking, sadly, she is symptomatic of today’s conservative. Facts and new information do not matter. As Ms. Gallagher states:

    “…Nothing could make me call a same-sex couple a marriage, because that’s not what I believe a marriage is…”

  7. Hey Norm says:

    @ Norm…
    So conservatism has become more of a set of beliefs, a relgion, than anything else. Thus it is more and more irrelevant, and less and less able to deal with a modern world, with each passing day.

  8. Gromitt Gunn says:

    In Maggie’s classically conservative world, my ex-partner’s mother would have stayed married to his father, despite the fact that he beat her regularly, because “a boy needs a dad.”

    In Maggie’s classically conservative world, two devoted and stable men who build a household together are a less adequate home for a child than a pair of unemployed drug addicts.

    In Maggie’s classically conservative world, children should be raised by parents who hate each other – and let each other know it, daily – but stay married for the sake of the children.

    What a horrific place.

  9. Ron Beasley says:

    In the past marriage was for the most part an economic transaction, a political transaction or a spiritual thing. Today there are all sorts of legal considerations – decisions made at a time of a medical crisis, pensions and social security and taxes to name just a few. Marriage is not what it used to be. I personally think that government should simply get out of the “marriage business”, it has only been in it fairly recently, Instead the government should issue civil or domestic partnerships which would be recognized by the Federal government.

  10. Gromitt Gunn says:

    Additionally, I don’t really even see how one can legitimately argue that the nuclear family is a conservative, traditional family unit. It seems to me like the idea of mom, dad, and the kids is a very recent invention, one which hasn’t really born out its trials, either.

    For hundreds of years in agrarian societies, the concept of family was multi-generational. Fathers died in horrible accidents. Mothers died in childbirth. Everyone died of influenzas and poxes and plagues. These things were unavoidable and expected, and it made economic sense for several generations to live together or nearby, and for everyone to play the role they were best suited to. And that included spinster aunts and bachelor uncles helping to manage the farm or family business and help raise their nieces and nephews.

    I would posit that the extended family model is the true classically conservative model, and the nuclear family model is a recent aberration that has, judging by divorce rates and the overflowing foster care system and a number of other systematic failures, proven to be unsustainable.

  11. de stijl says:

    When you’ve settled upon a conclusion before you’ve examined the data, and then refuse to even consider new data…, well there’s not much else to say, is there?

    Dogma is not a path to truth. It’s a signpost – this is the truth, ignore everything else, it is a capital S Sin to entertain any other viewpoint or consider any contravening evidence.

    I’ll remain a Sinner.

    Ms. Gallagher can remain whatever the Hell she is, but it sure ain’t “Conservative”.

  12. Vast Variety says:

    =( My comment must be trapped in the spam filter….

  13. Rob in CT says:

    I would posit that the extended family model is the true classically conservative model, and the nuclear family model is a recent aberration that has, judging by divorce rates and the overflowing foster care system and a number of other systematic failures, proven to be unsustainable.

    I don’t know about proven to be unsustainable, but I do think there is something to this. Particularly when you consider an economic environment in which both spouses need to work (which is also a recent thing), it produces a lot of strain unless you have significant resources. We may well see a shift back toward more of an extended family thing (especially with the need to care for elderly parents).

    Point being, of course, that circumstances change and therefore structures like families will change as well. This is, to some, VERY scary.

  14. @Gromitt Gunn:

    Additionally, I don’t really even see how one can legitimately argue that the nuclear family is a conservative, traditional family unit. It seems to me like the idea of mom, dad, and the kids is a very recent invention, one which hasn’t really born out its trials, either.

    I think that there is a lot to this observation.

  15. de stijl says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Particularly when you consider an economic environment in which both spouses need to work (which is also a recent thing)

    The single-earner-family era was probably the economic aberration. We’re now just reverting to the norm.

    circumstances change and therefore structures like families will change as well. This is, to some, VERY scary.

    We humans got here by being adaptive generalists. If we don’t blow ourselves up, we’ll figure out something that works. (Knocks wood, crosses fingers, tosses salt over shoulder)

  16. What makes marriage, marriage? Only this: the procreation of the next generation. Everything else is incidental. Here’s why.

  17. @Donald Sensing: But your argument only holds if one accepts the predicates you lay down for your definition. it is a tautology: marriage is what you say it is because that is what you say that it is.

  18. (But. btw, I appreciate the detail and thought put into the linked post).

  19. @Steven L. Taylor:
    Thanks for the kind words, Steven, but are you saying my predicates are invalid? If so, why?

  20. Rob in CT says:

    @de stijl:

    Hard to say, given the other dramatic economic changes that have occurred relatively recently (industrial revolution -> present).

  21. mattb says:

    @Donald Sensing:
    The flow of your argument is solid.

    Part of the issue is that of translation — once you move outside of a judeo-christian definition of marriage, then things get sticky very quickly with a number of your core concepts. The institutions that get translated to as “marriage” in those other cultures are far more flexible than the more codafied forms that emerged in Europe.

    Further, one must ask — to what degree — the reproduction of culture can be boiled down to the reproduction of humans. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a core component — and granted without it there’s nothing else — but at the same time reducing all aspects of cultural reproduction to human reproduction is a dubious proposition when you get into the nuts and bolts of things. It works well in a purely rational/logical space, but fails to in any way adequately account for actual lived human practices.

  22. mattb says:

    @de stijl:

    The single-earner-family era was probably the economic aberration. We’re now just reverting to the norm.

    Completely agree. Part of what has masked this is that our idea of “earning” is a byproduct of the industrial revolution. During that period work became increasingly hierarchically structured (boss/worker) and increasingly specialized (the creation of paying and unpaying tasks).

    Small scale/family farm/agrarian work doesn’t comply well to this sort of formula. So the fact that mom and kids worked the farm came to be understood as chores versus actually being a multi-earner family (when they are taken in aggregate).

    Likewise, for the urban poor, side jobs to “make ends meet” weren’t particularly seen as true earnings either (which were typically thought of as coming from a full time job). And of course, housework was never really seen as “earnings” (even though, in the 20th century, it was about not having to pay for “help”).

  23. JohnMcC says:

    Well, I don’t plan to read the Salon interview with Ms Gallagher but hope I can add a few remarks about Prof Taylor’s excellent post. About “conservatism” first, I guess. When I was in college (and dinosaurs roamed the earth) the usual analogy to explain the difference between conservatives and liberals was that from the ‘right’ society appeared organic and evolved rather like a living being. From the ‘left’ that same society appeared mechanistic, as if pieced together by human intelligence but capable of being modified and re-crafted by similarly intelligent people when new ideas or new challenges occurred.

    As Dr Taylor shows, Edmund Burke is the universally cited archetypical ‘conservative’. And as the words ‘right’ and ‘left’ that I just used show, the French Revolution that Mr Burke’s most familiar book is about describes politics to this day. (The French Assembly of 1789 divided, of course, into the conservatives to the right of the podium and the liberals to the left and the language of politics has never recovered.)

    But what passes these days for ‘conservatism’ has virtually nothing to do with Edmond Burke or any philosophical point of view, it seems to me. It is either interest-driven (as for example the painting of ‘cap and trade’ as a left-wing plot against liberty) or reactionary (as for example Ms Gallagher). Which is what one would expect if one were to agree with the author of The Reactionary Mind, Conservatism From Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin; it seems that ‘conservatism’ has always been the cloak that wrapped the desire of those who rule to continue to rule, even in the days of the sainted Mr Burke.

    In this present age, in which change occurs so blindingly fast and is of course accelerating it’s pace, it is hard to know what a gradual and ‘organic’, evolutionary change would be like. For example the phrase ‘Pro-family’ would in my lifetime (rather a long time BTW) have meant a favoring of EXTENDED families in opposition to the NUCLEAR family in which a couple married and moved off from the circle of grandparents, uncles and cousins. The family of Mom-Dad-Kids was thought of as a dangerous modern aberration. And to use child-bearing as a philosophical foundation for marriage is–well–both quaint (in the sense of ‘charming’) and stupid. Is the state to refuse to license the marriages of post-menopausal women? The argument collapses instantly upon being considered.

    There are indeed benefits to the child who is raised by loving parents in a secure home. But if that platonic ideal is the only ‘marriage’ recognised by the state there will be amazingly few marriages. The ideal marriage is actually only a weapon in the hands of so-called-conservatives; the Oklahoma legislature recently voted on a bill that would have made the father of every fetus in the state financially responsible for the rent, clothing and living expenses of the baby’s mother during the pregnancy. It was of course soundly defeated. Which says everything one needs to know about the sincerety of the right-wing’s concern for those living in the womb, eh?

  24. Vast Variety says:

    Here is another example of why the GOP has strayed far away from conservatives. If this isn’t homophobia and bigotry then I don’t know what is.

  25. JohnMcC says:

    @Vast Variety: Google reader is homophobic?

  26. Vast Variety says:
  27. SKI says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: Ah but to Ms. Gallagher and her ilk, the 1950’s are, by definition the highest and best example of “forever” and “right” and therefore “traditional.”

    It is the Norman Rockwell rule – if he painted it, it is traditional and if he didn’t, it isn’t.

  28. Turner says:

    High unemployment, high gas prices, high food prices, economy in the hole, devalued dollar: I think we have more important problems to worry about than someone’s social calendar.

  29. Ron Beasley says:

    @Gromitt Gunn: So true. Historically it was the grandparents that raised the children because if you were young enough to have them you weren’t yet smart enough to raise and train them; plus you had more important things to do like find or produce food. One of the problems we have today is that it still applies but the grandparents aren’t around.

  30. Trumwill says:

    Steven, I know I have the tendency to nitpick a lot on your posts, so I just wanted to say: I have nothing to nitpick on this one. Awesome stuff.

  31. @Trumwill: Thanks. I appreciate you saying so.

  32. Delmar says:

    I would hope that pastors can get some counseling and help for these unfortunate, misguided people.

  33. Hello World! says:

    Maybe marrage should be changed so its only open to people who have children and automatically annulls when the kids reach age 18.