The future for defenders of marriage
Marriage | In the post-<em>Obergefell</em> world, will we be treated as pro-lifers or bigots?
by Ryan T. Anderson
Posted 11/14/15, 08:24 am
With its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, the U.S. Supreme Court has brought the sexual revolution to its apex—a redefinition of our civilization’s primordial institution, cutting marriage’s link to procreation and declaring sex differences meaningless. The court has usurped the authority of the people, working through the democratic process, to define marriage. And it has shut down debate just as we were starting to hear new voices—gay people who agree that children need their mother and their father, and children of same-sex couples who wish they knew both their mom and dad.
If the polls are right, there has also been an astonishingly swift change in public opinion. Most Americans now think that justice and equality, or at least good manners, require redesigning marriage to fit couples (at this point, just couples) of the same sex. Or at least they’ve been intimidated into saying so.
I argue in my just-released book, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, that we are sleepwalking into an unprecedented cultural and social revolution. Five unelected judges have overruled a truth acknowledged for millennia. The consequences will extend far beyond those couples newly able to obtain a marriage license.
If our society teaches a falsehood about marriage, it is harder for people to live out the truth of marriage. Marital norms make no sense, as a matter of principle, if what makes a marriage is merely intense emotional attachment, an idea captured in the bumper-sticker slogan “Love makes a family.” There is no reason that mere consenting adult love has to be permanent or limited to two persons, much less sexually exclusive. And so, as people internalize this new vision of marriage, marriage will be less and less a stabilizing force.
And if fewer people live out the norms of marriage, then fewer people will reap the benefits of the institution of marriage—not only spouses, but also children. Preserving the man-woman definition of marriage is the only way to preserve the benefits of marriage and avoid the enormous societal risks accompanying a genderless marriage regime. How can the law teach that fathers are essential, for instance, when it has officially made them optional?
There is nothing “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian,” of course, about the new vision of marriage that Justice Anthony Kennedy enshrined in law. Many heterosexuals have bought into it over the past 50 years. This is the vision of marriage that came out of the sexual revolution. Long before there was a debate about same-sex anything, far too many heterosexuals bought into a liberal ideology about sexuality that makes a mess of marriage: cohabitation, no-fault divorce, extramarital sex, nonmarital childbearing, pornography, and the hook-up culture all contributed to the breakdown of the marriage culture. The push for the legal redefinition of marriage didn’t cause any of these problems. It is, rather, their logical conclusion. The problem is that it’s the logical conclusion of a bad train of logic.
If the sexual habits of the past 50 years have been good for society, good for women, good for children, then by all means let’s enshrine that vision of marriage in law. But if the past 50 years haven’t been so good for society, for women, for children—indeed, if they’ve been, for many people, a disaster—then why would we lock in a view of marriage that will make it more difficult to recover a more humane vision of human sexuality and family life?
The essence of marriage as a permanent, exclusive male-female union, however, has become an unwelcome truth. Indeed, a serious attempt is well under way to define opposition to same-sex marriage as nothing more than irrational bigotry. If that attempt succeeds, it will pose the most serious threat to the rights of conscience and religious freedom in American history.
Bigots or pro-lifers?
Will the defenders of marriage be treated like bigots? Will our society and our laws treat Americans who believe that marriage is the union of husband and wife as if they were the moral equivalent of racists?
Perhaps not. Think about the abortion debate. Ever since Roe v. Wade, our law has granted a right to abortion. And yet, for the most part, pro-life citizens are not treated as though they are “anti-woman” or “anti-health.” Those are just slurs from abortion activists.
After Roe there was a political push to make all citizens pay for abortion and to force all healthcare workers and facilities—pro-life doctors and nurses, and Catholic hospitals—to perform abortions. The argument was that abortion was a constitutionally protected right, and thus for the poor to exercise this right they needed taxpayer subsidies. And, further, abortion was a standard medical procedure, so all medical professionals and facilities should perform abortion, and all healthcare plans pay for abortion.
The abortion activists lost that debate. The pro-life movement won. Through legal protections such as the Hyde Amendment and the Church Amendment, taxpayer funds were prohibited from being used to pay for abortion, and pro-life citizens were protected from being forced to perform abortion. Until the Health and Human Services (HHS) insurance-coverage mandates imposed under Obamacare, at least, there was wide agreement that pro-life citizens shouldn’t be forced by the government to be complicit in what they see as the evil of abortion. Pro-life taxpayers, for example, haven’t been forced to fund elective surgical abortions, and pro-life doctors haven’t been forced to perform them. Even the HHS mandate only extended to abortifacient drugs and devices, not surgical abortion.
I saw this dynamic as an undergraduate at Princeton University. Even many of those who disagree with the pro-life cause can understand what motivates our concern. As a result, they tend to respect pro-lifers and recognize that the pro-life position has a legitimate place in the debate over public policy. And—this is crucial—it’s because of that respect that pro-abortion leaders generally respect the religious liberty and conscience rights of their pro-life fellow citizens.
Will the same tolerance be shown to those who believe the truth about marriage? Will the government respect their rights of conscience and religious liberty? It doesn’t look good. So far, the trend has been in the opposite direction. We must now work to reverse that trend. And our work must start by helping our neighbors at least understand why we believe what we believe about marriage. Only if they can understand what motivates us will they respect our freedom to act on such motivation.
The false analogy of interracial marriage
For years, the refrain of the left has been that people who oppose same-sex marriage are just like people who opposed interracial marriage—and that the law should treat them just as it treats racists. Indeed, The New York Times reported that while the amicus briefs filed with the Supreme Court in Obergefell were evenly divided between supporters and opponents of state marriage laws, no major law firm had filed a brief in support of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. “In dozens of interviews, lawyers and law professors said the imbalance in legal firepower in the same-sex marriage cases resulted from a conviction among many lawyers that opposition to such unions is bigotry akin to racism.”
Same-sex marriage advocates insist that the court’s Obergefell ruling is not like Roe v. Wade, which engendered undying controversy, but like Loving v. Virginia, the universally accepted decision that struck down bans on interracial marriage—a decision now so uncontroversial that most Americans have never heard of it. If that is true, then anyone who opposes Obergefell is an irrational bigot—the moral and legal equivalent of a racist.
But as I explain in my book, great thinkers throughout human history—and from every political community until about the year 2000—thought it reasonable and right to view marriage as a gendered institution, a union of male and female. Indeed, this aspect of marriage has been nearly a human universal—even while many other aspects about marriage have been subjects of contention. Viewing marriage as a gendered institution has been shared by the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions; by ancient Greek and Roman thinkers untouched by the influence of these religions; and by Enlightenment philosophers. It is affirmed by canon law as well as common and civil law.
Bans on interracial marriage, by contrast, have no such historical pedigree. They were part of an insidious system of racial subordination and exploitation that denied the equality and dignity of all human beings and forcibly segregated citizens based on race. When these interracial marriage bans first arose in the American colonies, they were inconsistent not only with the common law of England but also with the customs of every previous culture throughout human history.
As for the Bible, while it doesn’t present marriage as having anything to do with race, it insists that marriage has everything to do with sexual complementarity. From the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation, the Bible is replete with spousal imagery and the language of husband and wife. One activist Supreme Court ruling cannot overthrow the truth about marriage that is expressed in faith and reason and universal human experience.
We must now bear witness to the truth of marriage with more resolve and skill than ever before. We must now find ways to rebuild a marriage culture. The first step will be protecting our right to live in accordance with the truth. The key question, again, is whether liberal elites who now have the upper hand will treat their dissenting fellow citizens as they treat racists or as they treat pro-lifers. While liberal elites disagree with the pro-life position, most understand it. With the exception of the most hardened Planned Parenthood supporter, the recent undercover videos have shocked the consciences even of liberals—and they certainly can understand why pro-lifers are concerned. They can see why a pro-life citizen defends unborn life—so, for the most part, they agree that government shouldn’t coerce citizens into performing or subsidizing abortions. The same needs to be true for marriage. And we need to make it true by making the arguments in defense of marriage.
What do we do now?
In January 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court created a constitutional right to abortion throughout all nine months of pregnancy in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. Pro-lifers were told that they had lost, that the issue was settled. The law taught citizens that they had a new right, and public opinion quickly swung against pro-lifers by as much as a two-to-one margin. One after another, formerly pro-life public figures—Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Bill Clinton—“evolved” in their thinking to embrace the new social orthodoxy of abortion on demand. Pundits insisted that all young people were for abortion, and elites ridiculed pro-lifers for being on the “wrong side of history.”
The pro-lifers were aging, their children increasingly against them. The only people who continued to oppose abortion, its partisans insisted, were a few elderly priests and religious fundamentalists. They would soon die off, and abortion would be easily integrated into American life and disappear as a disputed issue.
But courageous pro-lifers put their hand to the plow, and today we reap the fruits. My generation is more pro-life than my parents’ generation. A majority of Americans support pro-life policies, more today than at any time since the Roe decision. More state laws have been enacted protecting unborn babies in the past decade than in the previous 30 years combined.
The pro-life community woke up and responded to a bad court ruling. Academics wrote the books and articles making the scientific and philosophical case for life. Statesmen like Henry Hyde, Edwin Meese, and Ronald Reagan crafted the policy and used the bully pulpit to advance the culture of life. Activists and lawyers got together, formed coalitions, and devised effective strategies. They faithfully bore witness to the truth.
Everything the pro-life movement did needs to be done again, now on this new frontier of marriage. There are three lessons in particular to learn from the pro-life movement that I explore at length in Truth Overruled:
1. We must call the court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges what it is: judicial activism.
Just as the pro-life movement successfully rejected Roe v. Wade and exposed its lies about unborn life and about the U.S. Constitution, we must make it clear to our fellow citizens that Obergefell v. Hodges does not tell the truth about marriage or about our Constitution.
Nothing in the Constitution justifies the redefinition of marriage by judges. In imposing on the American people its judgment about a policy matter that the Constitution leaves to citizens and their elected representatives, the court has inflicted serious damage on the institution of marriage and the Constitution. Our Constitution is silent on what marriage is. It protects specific fundamental rights and provides the structure of deliberative democracy by which we the people, retaining our authority as full citizens and not subjects of oligarchic rule, decide important questions of public policy, such as the proper understanding of marriage and the structure of laws defining and supporting it. The majority of the court, however, has simply replaced the people’s opinion about what marriage is with its own—without any constitutional basis whatsoever.
2. We must protect our freedom to speak and live according to the truth.
The pro-life movement accomplished this on at least three fronts. First, it ensured that pro-life doctors and nurses and pharmacists and hospitals would never have to perform abortions or dispense abortion-causing drugs. Second, it won the battle—through the Hyde Amendment—to prevent taxpayer money from paying for abortions. And third, it made sure that the government could not discriminate against pro-lifers and pro-life organizations.
Pro-marriage forces need to do the same: Ensure that we have freedom from government coercion to lead our lives, rear our children, and operate our businesses and charities in accord with the truth about marriage. Likewise, we must ensure that the government does not discriminate against citizens or organizations because of their belief that marriage is the union of husband and wife.
3. We must redouble our efforts to make the case in the public square.
We have to bear witness to the truth in a winsome and compelling way. The pro-life movement accomplished this on different levels. Specialists in science, law, philosophy, and theology laid the foundations of the pro-life case with research and writing in their disciplines, while advocacy groups tirelessly appealed to the hearts of the American people. Pro-lifers did much more than preach, launching a multitude of initiatives to help mothers in crisis pregnancies make the right choice.
Now we must employ reason to make the case for the truth about marriage, communicate this truth to our neighbors, and embody this truth in our families and communities. Just as the pro-life movement discovered the effectiveness of ultrasound and letting women speak for themselves, the pro-marriage movement will, I predict, find the social science on marriage and parenting and voices of the victims of the sexual revolution to be particularly effective. And just as grassroots pregnancy centers exposed the lie that abortion is a compassionate response to unplanned pregnancy, we must show what a truly loving response is to same-sex attraction.
No matter what, religious communities—either through action or inaction—will play a major role in the debate over the meaning of marriage. Here I suggest four things in particular they should do to help rebuild a strong marriage culture.
1. Present an appealing and engaging case for biblical sexuality.
The virtues of chastity and lifelong marriage are enriching, but after 50 years, religious communities have still not devised a compelling response to the sexual revolution. The legal redefinition of marriage could take place when and where it did only because the majority of Americans lacked a sound understanding of the nature of man and the nature of marriage.
Religious communities need to find a way to capture the moral imagination of the next generation. They need to make the truth about human sexuality and its fulfillment in marriage not only attractive and appealing, but also noble and exhilarating. This is a truth worth staking one’s life on.
In the face of the seduction of cohabitation, no-fault divorce, extra-marital sex, non-marital childbearing, pornography, and the hook-up culture, what do we offer as a more fulfilling, more humane, more liberating alternative? Until we find an answer, we will make no headway in the same-sex marriage debate, which is the fulfillment of those revolutionary sexual values.
A proper response to the sexual revolution also requires engaging—not ignoring—the best of contemporary thought, especially the best of contemporary secular thought. What visions of the human person and sex, of marriage and personal wholeness do today’s thinkers advance? Exactly where and why do their ideas go wrong? Religious communities need to show that the truth is better than a lie. And that the truth can defeat all lies. I provide a philosophical defense of the truth in Truth Overruled, we need theologians to continue developing theological defenses.
In these efforts, we shouldn’t discount the potential of slumbering communities to wake up. It’s easy to forget that, in 1973, the Southern Baptists were in favor of abortion rights and supported Roe v. Wade. Today they are at the forefront of the pro-life movement. People who are on the wrong side of the marriage debate today can change their minds if we help them.
2. Develop ministries for those with same-sex attraction and gender identity conflicts.
People with same-sex attractions or gender identity conflicts, for whom fidelity to the truth about human sexuality requires special courage, need our loving attention. Pope Francis’s description of the church as a field hospital after a battle is especially apt here.
These ministries are like the pro-life movement’s crisis pregnancy centers. Abortion is sold as the most humane and compassionate response to an unplanned pregnancy. It’s not. And pro-lifers’ unprecedented grassroots response to women gives the lie to that claim. Likewise, those who believe the truth about marriage should be the first to walk with men and women dealing with same-sex attraction or gender identity conflicts, showing what a truly humane and compassionate response looks like.
Young people experiencing same-sex desire can face isolation and confusion as their peers first awaken to the opposite sex. They suffer humiliation if they say too much, but they bear the heavy burden of a secret if they keep silent. Parents and teachers must be sensitive to these struggles. We should fight arbitrary or abusive treatment of them. As relatives, coworkers, neighbors, and friends, we must remember that social hardship isn’t limited to youth.
A shining example of ministry to those with same-sex attraction is Courage, an international apostolate of the Catholic Church, which has produced the documentary film The Desire of Everlasting Hills.Every community needs groups like this to help their neighbors with same-sex-attraction discern the unique life of loving service to which God calls each of them and find wholeness in communion with others. But this work can’t just be out-sourced to special groups and ministries. Each of us needs to be willing to form deep friendships with men and women who are attracted to their own sex or struggle with their identity, welcoming them into our homes and families, especially when they aren’t able to form marriages of their own.
After all, the conjugal view of marriage—that it is inherently ordered to one-flesh union and hence to family life—defines the limits of marriage, leaving room for meaningful non-marital relationships, especially deep friendships. This is liberating. Those with same-sex attraction, like everyone else, should have strong and fulfilling relationships. Marriage isn’t the only relationship that matters. The conjugal view of marriage doesn’t denigrate other relationships. Those who would redefine marriage as a person’s most intense or deepest or most important relationship devalue friendship by implying that it’s simply less: less meaningful, less fulfilling. The greatest of Justice Kennedy’s errors may be his assertion that without same-sex marriage some people are “condemned to live in loneliness.” His philosophy of marriage is anemic. And as our society has lost its understanding of marriage, it has suffered a corresponding diminution, even cheapening, of friendship.
We all need community, and those who for whatever reason never marry will know certain hardships that the married are spared. We should bring those left dry by isolation into other forms of community—as friends, fellow worshippers, neighbors, comrades in a cause, de facto members of our families, big siblings to our children, and regular guests in our homes.
3. Defend religious liberty and help conscientious people bear witness to the truth.
This task is especially imperative since a radical sexual agenda has become a nonnegotiable public policy. What should bakers and florists and photographers do? What should directors of local Catholic charities or evangelical schoolteachers do?
There is no one single answer for every circumstance. Each person’s situation will require a unique response, based on his vocation and the challenges he faces. The answers for schools and charities and professionals may vary with a thousand particulars, but religious communities will need to teach their members the moral principles to apply to their own circumstances.
Religious communities also have to help the rest of society understand the importance of freedom, particularly religious freedom. The national conversation on this important civil liberty hasn’t been going well, and Indiana revealed how extreme a position the corporate and media establishments have staked out. They have the money and the megaphones. We have the truth.
4. Live out the truth about marriage and human sexuality.
This fourth task is the most important and the most challenging. Husbands and wives must be faithful to one another for better and for worse till death do them part. Mothers and fathers must take their obligations to their children seriously. The unmarried must prepare now for their future marital lives so they can be faithful to the vows they will make. And they need the encouragement of pastors who are not afraid to preach unfashionable truths.
Saints are the best evangelists. The same thing is true when it comes to marriage. The beauty and splendor of a happy family is our most eloquent testimony.
In Truth Overruled,I explain, in clear and sober terms, the enormous task before us of defending our families, churches, schools, and businesses from opponents who now wield coercive power in government, commerce, and academia. My goal is to equip everyone, not just the experts, to defend what most of us never imagined we’d have to defend: our rights of conscience, our religious liberty, and the basic building block of civilization—the human family, founded on the marital union of a man and a woman.
This essay was adapted from Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom (Regnery Publishing, 2015).
Ryan T. Anderson
Ryan is the William E. Simon senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation and author of Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom.