As we approach the week when the Supreme Court is going to hear two important gay-marriage cases (the challenges to California’s Prop 8 and the federal Defense of Marriage Act), I wanted to check in on the best arguments of the opponents and challenge my own support of marriage equality, which is so self-evidently right to me as a gay liberal.

What helps me keep an open heart in this very personal (to me) and gripping debate is the realization, now being increasing verified by science, that conservative and liberal brains work differently.  Each of us literally sees different facts, has different automatic reactions to circumstances and therefore stakes out very different political positions. And it’s really hard for either side to “get” the worldview of the other. This is precisely why it is so important for integralists to practice inhabiting other worldviews. Not to water down our positions or even to necessarily make compromises — sometimes the way forward is for one side to be soundly defeated (may it be so in this case!). But this does not require that we hate the other side or decry them for being stupid, deluded, ignorant or co-opted.  In “protecting marriage”, conservatives are making very good sense by their own lights, and we’re wise to do our best to see their perspective.

87zJXJvOne of my go-to conservatives is New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who in my view often exhibits an integral sensibility. He didn’t disappoint: here he is presenting a case against legalizing gay marriage that isn’t based on bigotry or religion.  This was written a couple years ago, and is an excerpt from a well-known blog debate between him and Andrew Sullivan, another more or less integral thinker.  The whole debate is excellent (Ross 1, Andrew response, Ross 2), and really all you need to read to be aware of the most thoughtful arguments on both sides of this issue.  Here are Douthat’s key ideas:

The benefits of gay marriage, to the couples involved and to their families, are front-loaded and obvious, whereas any harm to the overall culture of marriage and childrearing in America will be diffuse and difficult to measure. I suspect that the formal shift away from any legal association between marriage and fertility will eventually lead to further declines in the marriage rate and a further rise in the out-of-wedlock birth rate (though not necessarily the divorce rate, because if few enough people are getting married to begin with, the resulting unions will presumably be somewhat more stable). But these shifts will probably happen anyway, to some extent, because of what straights have already made of marriage. Or maybe the institution’s long decline is already basically complete, and the formal recognition of gay unions may just ratify a new reality, rather than pushing us further toward a post-marital society. Either way, there won’t come a moment when the conservative argument, with all its talk about institutional definitions and marginal effects and the mysteries of culture, will be able to claim vindication against those who read it (as I know many of my readers do) as a last-ditch defense of bigotry.

But this is what conservatism is, in the end: The belief that there’s more to a flourishing society than just the claims of autonomous individuals, the conviction that existing prohibitions and taboos may have a purpose that escapes the liberal mind, the sense that cultural ideals can be as important to human affairs as constitutional rights. Marriage is the kind of institution that the conservative mind is supposed to treasure and defend: Complicated and mysterious; legal and cultural; political and pre-political; ancient and modern; half-evolved and half-created. And given its steady decline across the last few decades, it would be a poor conservatism that did not worry at the blithe confidence with which we’re about to redefine it.