Douglas Farrow vs. Tammy Bruce: Can Conservatives Find Common Ground on Marriage?
The Wabash Conservative Union events program for 2009 has been nothing if not diverse. In March, we hosted Ms. Tammy Bruce—a feminist lesbian and former president of the Los Angeles chapter of NOW, who contended that conservative ideas empower minorities and argued for the legalization and recognition of same-sex marriage. Then, this past November we hosted Dr. Douglas Farrow—a Canadian academic and recent convert to Roman Catholicism who argued that changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples would give too much power to the state. On the face of it, the positions of Tammy Bruce and Douglas Farrow could not be more contradictory. These two arguments highlight a critical question facing conservatives in our country: can conservatives find common ground on the issue of marriage? While this question seems currently unanswerable, what this article intends to do is argue that the two sides within the marriage debate—the more libertarian-leaning and the more socially conservative-leaning—have more chance of being reconciled than might be expected.
To set the scene: Ms. Bruce, while respecting traditional marriage as the will of the people, believes that same-sex relationships should be recognized as marriage, and that recognizing those relationships as marriage would not affect the institution’s dignity. “It’s not changing the definition,” she argued on Fox News in a recent debate with Governor Mike Huckabee, “it’s adding to it.” Of course, Dr. Farrow believes that an addition is a change—and that one change can lead down a slippery slope to many others. If we can “add” homosexual relationships to the definition of marriage, he asked, then why not polygamous or incestuous relationships? Ms. Bruce has referred to such comparisons as demeaning to homosexuals, asserting that gay marriage does no harm, while the others do.
But setting aside these seemingly irreconcilable differences, at the base of their arguments Bruce and Farrow share certain fundamental assumptions about the roles church and state ought to play in a healthy society. In their talks at Wabash, both expressed the belief that government does not belong “in the bedroom” of its people—both opposed bans on sodomy in their respective countries. Both urged vigilance against the ever-increasing power of the state—Bruce spoke of the state’s creeping control over thought; Farrow spoke of the state’s creeping control over family. Both have reverence for tradition, and lamented its decline. Bruce even criticized some of her fellow gay marriage advocates for not being respectful in their arguments of the traditions of religious adherents.
If common ground is to be found amongst conservatives on this issue, it has to be on the secular side. Dr. Farrow proved in his lecture that a secular—almost libertarian—case can be made for traditional marriage—which may come as a surprise to many in the United States, where arguments for traditional marriage tend to be focused more on the morality of the homosexuals who want the change of definition than on the power of the government that would do the changing.
Farrow is a theologian by trade and has definite religious views on the subject, but acknowledges that making a secular case is a “reasonable strategy” (For more on Farrow’s theological views, see Robby Dixon’s interview on page 16). In his book Nation of Bastards, Farrow disregards the morality of the issue and focuses his critique squarely on issues of government power. He sees the redefinition of marriage as ceding control of the family to the state. Family, he claims, has always been defined as “natural,” even in secular documents like the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. By redefining the institution, the state is stepping into new territory—territory hitherto considered defined by nature, but whose definition is now based entirely on the whims of those in government power. By replacing natural parenthood with legal parenthood, he argues, we are all becoming wards of the state—a nation of bastards.
On the issue of marriage, the staunchly conservative thought that marriage and family are not creations of the state still stands. On that plank, Tammy Bruce and Douglas Farrow would definitely agree. The state be¬came involved with those issues to pro¬mote social order and prosperity. But what happens when marriage ceases to be about stability and becomes a government power grab?
Yes, it would take a lot to reconcile Tammy Bruce’s views with those of any social conservative who stands in opposition to gay marriage. But by setting aside religious arguments and focusing on the power of the state, Douglass Farrow makes as convincing a case as we will ever get.