Can We Find Common Ground in the Gay Marriage Debate?

I’ve been watching a fascinating series of video interviews that are being posted online by the New York-based Institute for American Values as part of an initiative called “A New Conversation on Marriage.” The Institute is a nonprofit think tank that was founded in the late 1980’s by the author David Blankenhorn to “study and strengthen civil society.” Despite identifying as a liberal Democrat, Blankenhorn and his organization have long been involved in causes that are traditionally championed by social conservatives, like promoting the value of two-parent households or proposing policies “to reduce unnecessary divorce.”

Until June 2012, when he published a New York Times op-ed reversing his earlier position, Blankenhorn was also one of the most visible opponents of the movement to legally recognize same-sex marriage. He changed his mind after coming to the conclusion that “the equal dignity of homosexual love” requires offering equal legal status to gay and straight couples, and that opposition to gay marriage had done little to strengthen marriage more generally or to counteract its “steady transformation in both law and custom from a structured institution with clear public purposes to the state’s licensing of private relationships that are privately defined.”

While this shift should hardly have come as a shock to anyone who had heard or read about – or seen dramatic reenactments of – Blankenhorn’s conflicted (and occasionally incoherent) testimony at the California Prop 8 trial in early 2010, it did alienate some of his conservative backers and board members and upset some liberal commentators uncomfortable with his continuing critiques of out-of-wedlock childbearing and single parenthood. The upside for him, as recounted in a more recent NYT profile, was that the realignment freed Blankenhorn to take up the task of building a new coalition of advocates for what Jonathan Rauch has dubbed “the family values agenda for the post-gay world.”

The result has been an innovative attempt to seek common ground in the marriage debate. The project was launched with the publication of “A Call for a New Conversation on Marriage: An Appeal from Seventy-Five American Leaders,” a document signed by a wide array of academics, clerics, lawyers, journalists and others. It lays out some guiding principles for how we might have a productive public discussion about marriage that both accepts the reality of shifting public opinion on issues of gay rights and acknowledges the concerns of social conservatives about the potential costs associated with an increasingly privatized view of adult relationships. It has continued with “The Conversation,” the YouTube interview series I mentioned at the outset.

Blankenhorn’s guests so far have run the ideological gamut. They have included Peter Steinfels, a pro-life Democrat and columnist for the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal; Rusty Reno, a theology professor and editor of the traditionalist journal First Things (and an alum of my very own alma mater); Amy Ziettlow, a progressive Lutheran pastor and Huffington Post contributor; Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of a controversial book on race and intelligence entitled The Bell Curve; Glenn Loury, a Brown University scholar who was also Harvard’s first tenured black economist; and John Corvino, a gay philosopher and author of several books on homosexuality and gay marriage.

My goal is to put up some brief thoughts about each of the videos as I make my way through the series. So far I’ve found them to be well worth watching and chock-full of thought-provoking insights, although they do require a significant time commitment (the average length to date has been around 90 minutes).

The one downside is that Blankenhorn’s style and demeanor can be somewhat distracting; his opening exchanges with guests about their backgrounds and biographical details are often halting and awkward, and he outright forgets a question in mid-sentence during his interview with Rusty Reno. That said, he is generally quite skilled at playing Devil’s Advocate and at steering the conversation in interesting directions. I look forward to seeing where he steers the capital-C “Conversation” in future episodes.

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