In an election otherwise disastrous for conservatism, “same-sex marriage” was banned in three more states, including even fruits-and-nuts California. And yet pro-life measures failed across the country. What gives? Why are so many people who will not scruple the butchering of unborn children (including even their own unborn children) nevertheless unwilling to make a sacrament of sodomy?
At least three possible motives suggest themselves. I put them forward only as speculations.
1. Though every murder is a more grave offense against the natural law than is sodomy, sodomy is arguably more obviously contrary to the natural law than the specific kind of murder that occurs in most abortions. Hence, while centuries of bad moral theory and decades of marinating in a cultural cesspool have largely deadened most people’s intuitive sense that killing children in the womb is wicked, it has not quite entirely eliminated the intuitive sense that sodomy is contrary to nature, or at least that it would be indecent and impious to give to it the label “marriage.” Perhaps it is easier to deceive oneself into thinking that an embryo is “just a ball of cells” rather than a human being, or even that murdering a Down syndrome baby is an “act of mercy,” than it is to deceive oneself into believing that sodomy is an act of marital union, or indeed anything other than at least faintly indecent – titillating to some people, to be sure, but hardly the stuff of romance or tender wedding night fantasies.
In this connection, it is perhaps worth remembering that Aristotle, and even Plato, both condemned homosexual acts as contrary to nature, though they did not condemn infanticide when done for eugenic reasons. (One suspects they would have regarded abortion or infanticide for the purposes of securing “cost-free” sexual indulgence with nothing but contempt.) This would seem to provide at least some support for the thesis in question: Even in the context of ancient Greek aristocracy, thinkers like Plato and Aristotle could see that sodomy was contrary to nature, though they could not see that infanticide for any reason is too. Similarly, even in decadent 21st century America, people who would not even require a teenager to notify her parents before aborting her child are capable of perceiving that “same-sex marriage” is a contradiction in terms.
(BTW, hostile readers ignorant of what classical natural law theory actually says are asked to spare me stupid remarks along the lines of “Isn’t wearing glasses ‘unnatural’ too?” “How come sterile people can marry?” “If it’s ‘natural,’ shouldn’t everybody already agree about it?” etc. etc. I’m not going to get into a long exchange over sexual morality and natural law here, sorry. I’ve written on this topic at length elsewhere, most recently in chapter 4 of The Last Superstition.)
2. An otherwise healthy procedural conservatism is at play, but partly at the expense of substantive conservatism. By “procedural conservatism” I mean the generally salutary pragmatic principle of avoiding the upsetting of existing apple-carts. By “substantive conservatism” I mean the moral principle of ensuring that the apple-carts are really carrying apples, as it were, while the orange-carts are carrying the oranges and the refuse is in the trash cans where it belongs. Every conservative knows that justice should not always be done “though the heavens fall”; some evils ought to be tolerated, at least under certain circumstances, lest greater evils be brought about by the effort to extirpate the minor ones. But it is possible to make an idol of this pragmatic conservatism, and the procedural tail must never be allowed to wag the substantive dog. There are lines that must never be crossed under any circumstances, and existing apple-carts that must be upset so that the refuse they are carrying may be cleaned out and the apples restored. As I have argued elsewhere, the conservative who forgets this soon loses his moorings and becomes little more than the opposite bookend to the proverbial “liberal in a hurry,” namely a “slow-motion liberal” who is willing to accept virtually any social change, however intrinsically evil, so long as there is a consensus behind it and it is implemented gradually.
Procedural conservatism might be trumping substantive conservatism in the minds of at least some of those who have voted against the recent pro-life measures but also against “same-sex marriage.” Such people might realize that abortion is evil, or at least be willing to concede that it is seriously morally questionable in at least some cases. Yet because it has become so embedded in modern American life, they are wary of interfering with it. “Same-sex marriage,” by contrast, is still a novelty, and those who are pushing it are obnoxious and their methods lawless. Hence the misguided procedural conservatism that tolerates a very grave evil like abortion is still willing to resist the relatively milder evil of “same-sex marriage,” in both cases in the name of keeping the apple-cart stable.
3. Some heterosexuals who have at least a grudging respect for traditional sexual morality are more keen to see it respected by others than to practice it themselves. (Think e.g. of the secularized Beltway conservative think-tank or journalist type who heartily endorses pragmatic Burkean arguments for the social utility of stigmas against fornication and the like, but who nevertheless lives with his girlfriend.) Hence, while it costs such people little or nothing personally to vote against “same-sex marriage,” limitations on abortion might put a crimp on their own lifestyle should their less-than-conservative personal sexual behavior “punish them with a baby.”
Again, these are just speculations. And no doubt there are other factors too.