I was as surprised as anyone by David Frum’s declaration that the facts no longer support the claim that gay marriage will damage straight families. David and I have been friends since college, but our friendship was strained when he asserted in the 1990s that sodomy laws—i.e., menacing people like me with arrest and imprisonment—would be a good way to discourage judges from imposing SSM. When he and his wife offered last year to host a reception in honor of my marriage to Michael, I was deeply touched, but I understood his gesture as one of friendship, not as a recantation.
And, in fact, I think David’s statement on gay marriage is not a change of principle. Just the opposite. It represents fidelity to a principle—a conservative principle—and therein lies its importance.
David, in the past, has expressed philosophical objections to SSM, having to do with marriage’s being founded on distinctive gender roles and so on. You’ll note that in his article he doesn’t embrace SSM. What he does say is that his consequentialist objections—objections based on real-world consequences—have been disproved.
None of that nuance will matter in conservative-land. Right-wingers will cite this as yet another example of his apostasy. But here’s the irony. They are not the real conservatives. He is.
Specifically, he’s a Burkean conservative, one who begins from a presumption that social change is disruptive, but who is also open to real-world evidence that sometimes change is necessary or beneficial. Burke, remember, supported the American revolution as protective of basic rights, even as he bitterly opposed the French one.
There is nothing conservative about never changing your mind, regardless of the facts. Nor is there much that is truly conservative about the strange coalition of anti-government radicals and social reactionaries that dominates the American right. Nor will that coalition do itself any political favors by excommunicating Burke and his pragmatic descendents. A better approach would be to understand why David Frum, far from betraying conservatism’s greatest tradition, exemplifies it.