Commentary Magazine


One Man’s Role in Gay Rights Shift

Wherever one stands on the issue of same-sex marriage, having the president of the United States endorse the concept is a major achievement for the gay rights movement. And it didn’t happen by accident.

The shift in the public’s attitudes toward gay marriage, and the subsequent alteration of the political landscape, is arguably the most significant we’ve seen in the last quarter-century. And among the people who are most responsible for this moment is Jonathan Rauch, a former columnist for National Journal and a guest scholar at the Brookings Institution.

I first met Jonathan in 1994, at a lunch with William Bennett. We wanted to meet Rauch because of his book Demosclerosis: The Silent Killer of American Government. The three of us talked about that book – but Rauch also made the case for why homosexuality is no threat to family or conservatism. A short time later he published a Wall Street Journal op-ed on that matter – and he later wrote articles (see here), books (see here), and op-eds (see here and here) making the case for same-sex marriage.

There are three elements to Rauch’s work worth highlighting. The first is the ingenuity of the argument. His great insight, which he shared with Andrew Sullivan (another extremely significant figure in the fight for gay marriage), was to recast the goals of the gay rights movement away from sexual libertinism toward conservatism, from radicalism toward traditionalism. Same-sex marriage, this argument goes, would bond gays into committed, stable relationships and promote monogamy. The gay rights agenda went from being an assault on the institution to an effort to become part of it.

The second thing to note in Rauch’s work is the rigor of his arguments. Anyone who has read Rauch knows he takes the case against same-sex marriage and examines the premises and empirical statements with tremendous care. His goal is to use reason to show why gay marriage will preserve and protect society’s most essential institution. Beyond that, though, Rauch habitually describes the views of those with whom he disagrees in honest, fair-minded terms.

The third thing about Rauch is his tone, which is consistently measured, civil, and respectful. In a debate in which ugly things have been said on all sides, Rauch has never in my experience attacked the motivations of his opponents. He gives the benefit of the doubt even to his critics. That is not only an impressive human quality; it’s also extremely helpful when you start out with a position in which you need to persuade large number of people who disagree with you.

I should add that I’m not in full agreement with Jonathan on gay marriage, even though his arguments have shifted my thinking in important respects. And he and I had our policy differences during the Bush years. But every time we discussed them, either in person or via e-mail, I was struck by his integrity and open-mindedness. That I’ve come to admire him is no secret. Which is why, on a day that was extremely meaningful to gay Americans, I couldn’t help but think about Rauch’s crucial role in all that has unfolded in the last few years.