Ronald Reagan 1980 Debate (Youtube)
Patti Davis, Ronald Reagan's daughter, recently speculated on where her father might stand on same-sex marriage. POLITICO published her thoughts under the headline, "Patti Davis says Reagan wouldn't have opposed gay marriage."
The impact of the article was immediate. A quick Google search yielded multiple follow-up articles and blog posts. Liberals nationwide were off and running with a new same-sex marriage endorsement: this one from the late Reagan, the conservative's conservative.
This is not the first time liberals have rushed to recast Reagan according to their policy preferences. Immediately after his death in June 2004, he was trotted out as a poster-boy for embryonic stem-cell research.
Please, not so fast.
In Davis' defense, she starts with a crucial point about her father, one liberals had utterly refused while the man was alive: "He was a very tolerant person."
Indeed, Reagan was tolerant -- on religion, on race, on ethnic differences, on differences of opinion on many things, and also toward gays. As Davis notes, "He did not have prejudices against gay people." Davis gives just a few of many examples.
But she then goes where I don't think we should. She states of her father and same-sex marriage: "I don't think he would stand in the way of it, at all. I don't think he would stand in the way of two people wanting to make a commitment to one another."
Davis then uses an argument that is libertarian (which Reagan was not), and which fails to understand the essence of conservatives' objection to same-sex marriage: "I also think because he wanted government out of peoples' lives, he would not understand the intrusion of government banning such a thing. This is not what he would have thought government should be doing."
The problem with that statement, applied to the same-sex marriage debate, is this: Conservatives object to the federal government rendering unto itself the unprecedented ability to redefine marriage. Such is a massive step toward government intervention (one that should worry libertarians), toward powerful government, toward big government -- not restrained and limited government.
It is a step that breaks entirely new ground in not only American history but human history, one with unimaginable and extraordinary effects yet to come on the family, the culture, the economy, government services and (among others) the court system.
The essence of conservatism is to preserve and conserve time-tested values that have endured for good reason and for the best of society and for order. Conservatives -- which is what Reagan was -- aim to conserve. By their nature and definition, conservatives do not rush into radical changes or what they fear may be another fad or fashion or popular demand. They also, by their definition, ground their ideals in both natural law and biblical law.
I know that secular liberals don't want to hear religious arguments against same-sex marriage, but, if we're talking about Reagan (and conservatives), we cannot exclude them.
Contrary to the image of him as president, Reagan was very religious and would not have so easily consented to a culture suddenly demanding the right to redefine what the scriptures (Old Testament and New Testament) say clearly about a man and a woman leaving their parents and coming together to form one flesh in marriage.
Reagan's religious roots were deep, inculcated by his mother, an extremely devout, traditional Christian, and others who profoundly influenced him in Dixon, Illinois, in the 1920s. He said that "everything" he learned about the values that shaped his life and presidency he learned back in Dixon. It was his "inheritance," one that never left him. Needless to say, Reagan did not learn to support same-sex marriage in Dixon.
Moreover, Reagan was unwavering in his conviction of the importance of a father and a mother raising children and the next generation of American citizens and understood marriage as a vital bond between a man and a woman.
To cite just one example from the final days of his presidency (January 12, 1989), Reagan insisted that "we must teach youngsters the beauty of the loving, lifelong relationship between husband and wife that is marriage."
Yes, Reagan was tolerant of gay people -- as is everyone I know who opposes same-sex marriage -- but that in no way means he would have advocated redefining marriage. Toleration of something certainly does not automatically translate into advocating its legalization.
We could list innumerable things that we tolerate -- including from friends and family and loved ones -- but wouldn't argue legalizing. Even then, that's not quite the issue. The issue, after all, isn't whether homosexuality should be legal (no one objects to that) but whether marriage will now begin a long process of continual redefinition.
It's a form of intellectual laziness for liberals/progressives to reflexively assume that anyone who disagrees with them on redefining marriage is a recalcitrant bigot with no possible legitimate reasons.
After all, same-sex marriage opponents are adhering to the prevailing definition of marriage according to its literal and ancient roots; they believe in the cross-cultural norm that humanity has adhered to since the dawn of humanity, to a human understanding as old as the Garden of Eden. It's remarkably short-sighted to dismiss them as hopeless bigots.
That brings me back to Ronald Reagan.
It's funny, people on the political left spent eight years calling Reagan a bigot. When liberals weren't denouncing him as an unregenerate racist -- the single most unfair charge unceasingly flung at Reagan -- they were saying that he didn't like gay people and did nothing about AIDS because he was happy to let gays die.
Davis remembers this well, as she does the vicious accusation that her father was a nuclear warmonger. To say that liberals were unhinged in their nastiness to Reagan is insufficient. Now, in his death, they'd like to remold him in their own image, crowning him a poster boy for same-sex marriage.
The simple truth is that Reagan was a committed and principled conservative who had thoughtful and firmly grounded reasons for his positions. That, too, ironically, is a fact that liberals ignored, caricaturing Reagan as an idiot, a simpleton, an "amiable dunce," as Clark Clifford famously called him.
He would not have merrily hopped on the same-sex marriage bandwagon without first carefully considering how the issue fit with his understanding of the laws of nature and nature's God, of the first things and first principles that conservatives of Reagan's generation spent years discussing at great length in their books and publications and conferences.
Could we at least agree on this much?
Reagan was silent on same-sex marriage, as was everyone of his generation. He, like all liberals of his time, could not have conceived of same-sex marriage, and he, like the entirety of the Democratic Party just a decade or two ago, unwaveringly supported traditional marriage.
Let's leave it at that.
A version of this column first appeared on CNN.com