New York Makes History!

June 24, 2011

Something’s in the air. First there was the election of the nation’s first African-American President, then the Arab Spring, and now there is New York’s legalization of same-sex marriage. We are passing from one era to another.

Some are warning that the nation has lost its way. We’ve been led astray, they claim, by the godless liberals. Apparently they haven’t heard of Stephen M. Saland, a Republican Senator from Poughkeepsie who voted for the measure because it limits government interference in the lives of individuals. This is a line of argument that seems increasingly persuasive in our culture, but this isn’t the whole story.

The bill is less about freedom from government than it is about claiming the legal right (with the help of government) to make a huge commitment, indeed, one of the most profound and traditional commitments one can make. Marriage equality isn’t the end of marriage. Just the opposite. It’s the embrace of marriage, and it comes at time when marriage could use some new friends.

This new embrace of marriage amounts to a cultural revolution that is at once liberal and conservative. It features persons of different sexual orientations affirming the sanctity of marriage and family.  As such, this a more inclusive and flexible traditionalism, but it is still a kind of traditionalism, one that appreciates what has come before but also understands the past as part of an unfolding story.

This more open traditionalism promises to test cultural conservatives. We won’t soon know whether the debate will make for a rethinking on the part of the conservative movement in this country. What we do know is that we stand in the midst of a historic moment.

Who could have predicted, 30 years ago, that it would be LGBT persons who got our culture excited about marriage again?  It is time to rethink the narrative of culture wars, and replace it with something capable of comprehending a living tradition, one that people of good will fight over with other people of good will.  Perhaps it is simply a tradition, the American tradition, capable after all these years of ushering in a revolution as unlikely as this one.

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