Amidst the flurry of excitement and celebration among gay marriage supporters last week, former Congressman Barney Frank thanked John Boehner, as well as the Republican-led Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group (BLAG), “for the most pro-gay opinion ever” in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) case. Much as it pains me to say it, Frank is more right than he knows. Indeed, we can actually thank most marriage traditionalists for the result of the ruling.
There are two main reasons why. The first is limited to the case itself; the second is much broader.
For starters, the Supreme Court specified why it ruled in Windsor, striking down DOMA, but not in Perry, which was sent back down to a lower court. As Kennedy states in the majority opinion for Windsor:
[T]he attorneys for BLAG present a substantial argument for the constitutionality of Section 3 of DOMA. BLAG’s sharp adversarial presentation of the issues satisfies the prudential concerns that otherwise might counsel against hearing an appeal from a decision with which the principal parties agree.
In other words, had Boehner avoided DOMA altogether and not appealed the original decision, the Supreme Court would not have ruled the way that it did. And Edie Windsor, the plaintiff, would have lacked standing. The speaker seriously miscalculated.
But there’s a second, more fundamental way in which marriage traditionalists are to blame for the current inevitability of gay marriage: their utterly failed articulation of the traditional view of marriage as an institution.
Defenders of traditional marriage have all too often relied on their religion and fallen back on their faith in their justifications. But we live in an increasingly pluralistic society where people adhere to different faiths — or to no faith at all. As such, it is no longer a viable strategy to base one’s position in one’s own faith, especially on a national level where such a position can result in the alienation of many who might otherwise be open to debate. It is no surprise, then, that these appeals to God and faith have fallen flat.
What’s more, using such religious language has helped cement the idea that opposition to gay marriage is based solely in bigotry, on the Bible, or both.
Some of the recent reactions to the DOMA ruling from leaders on the right are indicative of this dilemma. Take Rep. Michele Bachmann, for instance, who remarked that the justices “attacked something they have no jurisdiction over whatsoever,” for marriage is “something that God created.” Or former Gov. Mike Huckabee, who tweeted, “My thoughts on the SCOTUS ruling that determined that same sex marriage is okay: ‘Jesus wept.'” And then there was the National Organization for Marriage, which felt the need to invoke God simply to say that gay couples cannot create new life.
To hold the belief that marriage is a holy sacrament uniting a man and a woman under God is perfectly noble, but wholly unconvincing to a national audience. It also obscures a crucial fact: Traditional marriage can be defended on secular grounds.
And there are many perfectly rational secular arguments in its favor. One is that the only reason the state ever instituted marriage in the first place, butting its nose into the private lives of heterosexual couples, was precisely to regulate the only sexual activity that affected the rest of society. Why else would the government care about the romantic and sexual lives of its citizens?
Another point is that this model of marriage is the only one that can offer a coherent explanation for the marital norms of monogamy, exclusivity, and permanence — all norms that go counter to our natural sexual urges.
And yet another argument is that frankly, the gay marriage position, with notions of equality, fairness, and love as its springboards, unfairly discriminates against polyamorists who wish to codify their consensual love into law and to have their relationships recognized by the state. Shouldn’t they be allowed government benefits too? The logic only follows.
Now, these arguments certainly have worthy objections — answerable objections. But the point here is not to present these arguments in full; rather, it’s to show that they can exist without the usual religious coating.
Moreover, by expressing unnecessary disapproval of homosexuality, marriage traditionalists have only given ammunition to their opponents.
Cue, for example, former Senator Rick Santorum’s infamous comment: “In every society, the definition of marriage has not ever to my knowledge included homosexuality. … It’s not, you know, man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be.” Or Bachmann, again: “If you’re involved in the gay and lesbian lifestyle, it’s bondage. It is personal bondage, personal despair, and personal enslavement.” The list goes on.
This focus on the nature of homosexuality rather than on the nature of marriage allowed gay rights activists to portray the traditionalist position as ignorant and intolerant. Instead of defending a centuries-old institution, traditionalists allowed themselves to be painted as going after people’s friends, daughters, brothers — even members of their own families.
Now some might argue that the movement toward more and more acceptance of gay marriage is not so much caused by the language and focus of religious conservatives as it is by the media’s complicity in pushing this agenda. While the media are without question biased against conservatives, blaming the current situation on them only gets you so far. At a certain point religious conservatives need to own up to their alienating language against gays and their unconvincing and faith-based defense of traditional marriage.
Fortunately, there are some things traditionalists can do if they wish to revive their position.
Before anything else, they should immediately begin crafting legislation that would protect religious institutions. On both a federal and state level, such legislation will be increasingly important for religious liberty as the secular state continues to grow and impose its morality of tolerance and equality on all. As Tim Carney argues, this threat is getting significantly stronger as more and more the “freedom of religion” becomes the “freedom of worship,” being limited to the Church pews on Sundays.
That being said, these laws will have little to no force if the wave of American opinion continues to stigmatize and reduce the traditional view to mere bigotry. Ross Douthat notes as much:
Unless something dramatic changes in the drift of public opinion, the future of religious liberty on these issues is going to depend in part on the magnanimity of gay marriage supporters—the extent to which they are content with political, legal and cultural victories that leave the traditional view of marriage as a minority perspective with some modest purchase in civil society, versus the extent to which they decide to use every possible lever to make traditionalism as radioactive in the America of 2025 as white supremacism or anti-Semitism are today.
Therefore, a long-term view is needed. If marriage traditionalists wish their opinions to continue to hold any weight in the public square, they must start being able to understand, believe, and defend the secular case for traditional marriage, thereby slowly combating the stigma. This would require an near-total abandonment of religious language, and a termination of the antagonism toward homosexuality.
With the exception of a few intellectuals like Robert George, I’m not so sure marriage traditionalists are up for the task. But if they want their position to still be a tenable one in the future, they’d better start rethinking their message.