Today's post is prompted by a comment made by David Williamson and George Yancey in There is No God, their study of American atheists. It could, however, have come from many other standard accounts of what divides political progressives and conservatives.
In general, Williamson and Yancey note, progressives are for more government, and conservatives are for less. Atheists, who are strongly committed to progressive politics, follow that pattern. However, Williamson and Yancey note, the roles are reversed when it comes to abortion and same-sex marriage. On those issues, they argue, the progressives are the ones who want government to stay out of these "personal" decisions, whereas the conservatives are the ones who want big, intrusive government.
I do not think there is a role reversal here. The issue for progressives in abortion and same-sex marriage is not that the government has no business prohibiting either practice. Rather, what progressives want is for the government to give ethical legitimacy to abortion and same-sex marriage by protecting the legal status of both actions. Progressives do not argue that there should be no regulation of abortion and marriage, leaving these matters up to individual decision. Rather, they argue for a right to abortion and to same-sex marriage, rights which the government must defend against the (very real) attacks by conservatives.
Pro-choice and marriage-equality positions do not contradict the usual pro-government position of progressives. Progressives rely on the law to validate these actions.