Same-sex marriage: Why the French protest and Americans shrug

Minnesota and France redefined marriage in the same week, yet the differences in public reaction to this decision in both places could hardly be starker.

In France, multiple protests were held in Paris and other major cities both before and after the decision, some of which had hundreds of thousands of participants. The “Manif Pour Tous” (“Protest for All”) movement, made up primarily of young people across the social and ideological spectrum, shows no sign of abating. In Minnesota, it was a small feat to get even 1,000 to the Capitol to oppose this legislation.

Strangely, however, there is broader support for same-sex marriage in France than in the United States. And, despite the obsession of the media and cultural tastemakers to make it seem that a passion for same-sex marriage is sweeping America, there has not, nor has there ever been, a broad grassroots push for same-sex marriage anywhere in the United States.

People may “not oppose” same-sex marriage in increasing numbers, but few are actively demanding it. Still, Americans are not out marching in the streets as marriage gets redefined in one state after another. The national “March for Marriage” in Washington, D.C., drew only 10,000.

Why a difference?

What may account for the difference between the United States and France? It could be reasonably described as the dominance in American life of the politics of individualism.

Individualism in politics can be summarized by the oft-heard question, “How does this affect me?” It is the tendency to view all public policy through a personal lens (and ignore politics altogether when no direct impact is perceptible).

In today’s political landscape, both Democrats and Republicans are essentially liberal individualists and, in seeking to exploit this individualism to gain political power, feed the phenomenon.

Politics generally is framed in terms of an individual’s relationship to the state. The individual is either trying to gain independence from the regulatory apparatus of the state or trying to obtain some benefit from it, whether in the form of a direct subsidy or economic policy that fosters individual financial well-being.

The parties promote one view or the other, depending on the issue.

Rarely are policy debates framed in terms of how they promote or harm the common good of a community or society, as Catholic social teaching does. Even rarer are discussions of how policies affect vital social and cultural institutions, or how they will affect future generations.

Thus, Americans are largely incapable of thinking in terms of institutions, culture or society. Everything seems to come back to “me,” and politics is mediated through the vocabulary of “rights” and entitlements. Many people want freedom, “choice,” and subsidies all at once.

In the context of the marriage debate, same-sex marriage proponents have learned to skillfully exploit the politics of individualism. First, they argue that no one should be denied the right or “freedom to marry.”

Same-sex marriage proponents then employ the Golden Rule to garner sympathy for their rights-based claim and ask Americans how they would feel if they were denied their “right to marry.” And third, they claim that no one will be harmed by this change. “What could it hurt? Same-sex marriage does not affect you, so what is there to worry about?”

Many Americans may not like same-sex marriage, or even be comfortable with it, but we are often incapable of escaping this line of argument. Therefore, when marriage is redefined, people may not like it, but they are more likely to shrug and change the channel.

By contrast, the communitarian arguments of those defending traditional marriage are falling on deaf ears. Civil marriage is described and defended primarily as an institution ordered toward protecting and promoting the well-being of others outside of the spousal relationship: children and society. Sadly, today both marriage and politics are largely understood as vehicles to obtain individual happiness, and communitarian arguments no longer make sense to many people.

Respect for tradition

France, of course, is a very secular society, and one in which the implications of the false individualism and anti-social dimensions of the French Revolution — including same-sex marriage — are still working themselves out.

But France’s Catholic cultural roots run deep, and therefore it has maintained both a communitarian political tradition on the political right and left, as well as a deep respect for the wisdom of tradition as the democracy of the dead.

The respect for tradition is seen in things as seemingly insignificant as the maintenance of linguistic standards and the regulations on the cheese and wine for which they are famous. So it’s not that surprising that any untested social change that runs counter to tradition, and that will irrevocably alter the shape of the family in French culture, would matter to them, too.

The Catholic Church has ably stirred the embers of this French character in the fight against marriage redefinition, and the “Protest for All” will likely be an important social movement contesting the new Jacobins of French society for the foreseeable future.

If we are to salvage the American experiment in ordered liberty, maybe it is time to look to the French — the “Manif” movement of today, for sure, but more importantly to the great 19th-century French observer of American life, Alexis de Tocqueville, who understood that the genius of America was the citizenry’s creation and protection of associations and institutions that rooted liberty in the exercise of virtue and maintenance of the common good.

Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference.

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