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WASHINGTON—Called to speak at the March 26 marriage rally in Washington, D.C., Alison Howard ran to the stage’s microphone in an adrenaline-fueled burst. The 24-year-old graduate of Liberty University said she wanted to “talk to the grown-ups” supporting traditional marriage at the event on the National Mall. 4 “Do not give up on us young people,” said the communications director for Concerned Women for America. “The media will tell you that I don’t exist. Well, I’ll be the unicorn. I do exist, and I believe in the marriage between a man and a woman.”
It would be easy to dismiss Howard’s plea as a voice crying in the wilderness. A recent Pew survey found that 70 percent of those in the millennial generation (ages 18 to 33) favor same-sex marriage. But the same poll shows that 65 percent of young evangelicals oppose same-sex marriage. And a number of them, like Howard, are willing to face scorn by taking very public stands against the redefinition of society’s most basic institution.
Many of them did not grow up expecting to stand on the front lines of the marriage debate. “Everyone I know who is working on this issue would rather be doing something else,” said Ryan Anderson, 31, who co-authored the book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. “But we feel like we have an obligation to be doing this.”
Just how many of Anderson’s generation will answer this call and take up the banner of biblical marriage? The answer may go a long way toward determining the future of the family in America.
The youngest person to speak live at the rally, Howard began to learn the importance of marriage when she was 8 years old. Rummaging through her father’s truck looking for snacks, she discovered a wallet-sized baby photo of her dad. Howard asked her father why she had never seen a baby picture of him. He said his mother abandoned him at a hotel when he was an infant. He spent the rest of his childhood in foster care.
It’s her father’s ordeal as a parentless youth (he told stories about having his hand held over a lit stove for punishment) compared with the Christ-centered family he reared as an adult, that Howard often thinks about when she defends traditional marriage. “My generation grew up in a culture that does nothing to support and protect marriage,” Howard said at the speech. “We bear those scars that saw divorce just tear apart our country.”
As Howard spoke, Caitlin Seery, 25, listened with a group of 20 students. They had left Princeton University by bus at 5 a.m. to make the event. Seery is the director of programs for the Love and Fidelity Network, which offers a conservative viewpoint in campus debates on marriage, family, and sexuality.
Her first job was at a New York consulting firm. The company decided to celebrate National Coming Out Day by having its employees wear badges in support of the gay community. Seery, a Catholic, dealt with the social debate the way many in her generation do: by blogging. That led to her position with the network, which has chapters in 25 schools.
Confrontation remains part of the job: In February, a liberal group at Columbia University hijacked a Love and Fidelity values conference by reserving the bulk of the tickets. They interrupted the speaker, standing to protest with signs.
But Seery doesn’t believe the marriage cause is lost: “Just because things are polling one way today doesn’t mean that will always be the case. Forty years ago the media said that all young people are becoming pro-choice. We proved them wrong. The youngest generation is the most pro-life generation.”
She said Christian students are hungry to learn ways they can show compassion to family and peers who are gay without retreating from their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman.
Eric Teetsel, the 29-year-old executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, also spoke at the March 26 rally in Washington, encouraging the crowd not to grow weary. Teetsel sees young believers who struggle with being fully Christian while enmeshed in contemporary culture. They go to church, but they also watch The Daily Show. And, according to Teetsel, they often don’t do well integrating those worlds. Fearing blowback on Twitter and Facebook, many young Christians remain silent on marriage even if they have not embraced the changing attitudes.
“We wasted a generation by being complacent and by believing that people would always understand what marriage is and why it matters,” said Teetsel, whose group promotes life, marriage, and religious liberty. “That’s no longer true, and now we have got to show them.”
That teaching should not ignore contemporary tools like web films and social media. “We have no excuse,” Teetsel said. “Even if we can’t be on CBS, we can reach people in a thousand different ways.”
While Teetsel and Howard spoke at the rally on the first day of the Supreme Court’s marriage hearings, Anderson, the author and a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, defended his views in the lion’s den of the mainstream media.
“I think marriage exists to bring a man and woman together as husband and wife to be mother and father to any children their union produces,” said Anderson during a live appearance that night on Piers Morgan Live on CNN. Anderson didn’t get invited to the studio’s table where Morgan sat with Suze Orman, the best-selling author, financial guru, and aggressive advocate for gay marriage. They looked down on Anderson from an elevated stage as he sat in the audience. The lecture they gave included calling the young conservative and his ideas bizarre, odd, offensive, and uneducated.
“It’s interesting to me that someone of your age still maintains this kind of view,” Morgan told Anderson. “It’s not fair, it’s not tolerant, it’s not American.”
The studio audience applauded, but Anderson is far from uneducated. The Princeton graduate postponed finishing his doctoral dissertation on ethics and economics at Notre Dame so he could take a post on the firing lines of the marriage debate. “We don’t do a good enough job articulating that there are civil society solutions to government programs, and the key institution of civil society is the family,” said Anderson, citing a study from the left-leaning Brookings Institution that $229 billion in welfare payments between 1970 and 1996 could be attributed to the breakdown of marriage.
Anderson, one of five brothers, brushed off the criticism and attacks: “I had three older brothers who would pick on me, and if I picked on the younger brother then I’d have three older brothers who would defend the baby. So I was placed in just the right birth order to have this temperament.”
Hours before Anderson’s televised showdown, Owen Strachan had positioned himself for his own marriage clash. The 31-year-old father of two had flown into Washington the day before the rally from Louisville, Ky., where he is a professor of Christian theology and church history at Boyce College. He maneuvered his way to the second row of marchers headed past the U.S. Capitol toward the Supreme Court. Hispanics, Asians, and African-Americans strode alongside him.
“This reflects the diversity of the body of Christ,” he thought.
When they turned onto the street that runs past the court, they ran into a blockade of gay marriage supporters trying to halt the march. The counter-protestors refused to move. A man in fishnet stockings, devil horns, and a rainbow-colored tutu danced and taunted the marchers. In the midst of the chaos, Strachan and the others offered a unified response: They knelt where they stood and prayed aloud.
Strachan grew comfortable being countercultural while growing up as a Baptist in Maine. As an undergraduate at a liberal Maine college, he stood up during a school-wide assembly memorializing the Sept. 11 attacks and, with legs shaking, shared how the gospel can provide hope during tragedy. His academic studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago on gender roles led him to realize that defending traditional marriage had to be a touchstone issue for his ministry.
“Many of us have drafted off the importance of marriage for years. We’ve known at a subconscious level that this institution is important. Now that it is threatening to be undone culturally, we are waking up. It seems unthinkable even five years ago that this issue would be vaulted into the cultural mainstream.”
Now that the future of marriage is center stage, Kellie Fiedorek hopes that the Supreme Court does not offer a radical ruling that cuts short the debate. A lawyer with Alliance Defending Freedom, Fiedorek, 29, sat in the courtroom as the justices heard the arguments. She’s been to seven states this year testifying before legislatures about the ways redefining marriage would interfere with religious freedom. She’s learned that many citizens have never had to think about the meaning of marriage and why it matters. Now that people are alert, social conservatives have the opportunity to make their case to a young generation that has both rallied for life and dealt with the aftereffects of divorce.
“I think that, as more young people engage in the issue, we will see more of them eager to defend marriage, recognizing how important it is to parents and children,” Fiedorek said.
Young Christians still will face growing temptations to conform to the world’s understanding that marriage is primarily about emotional fulfillment. The scorn they endure may one day include discrimination in the workplace. Anderson, for example, faces uncertain job prospects in secular academia as an author of a book defending traditional marriage. But Christian millennials were among those taking a stand on the stage, among the crowd, in the march, on television, and inside the courtroom on the day that marriage went on trial.
And as these Christian millennials stand against the tide, an even younger generation is already facing decisions. Howard gets calls from her younger sisters in New Jersey who navigate a world where teachers advocate for same-sex marriages in the classroom. Her advice? Get away from cell phones, computers, and peers—and pray.
—with reporting by J.C. Derrick in Washington