Think Like Progressives: Marriage and the Pro-Life Movement

Faced with declining social and political support for traditional marriage, conservative evangelicals have started wrestling with the possibility that the time has come to let go of their opposition to gay marriage.  It’s forever-ago in internet time, but I was asked to address the question last year at the evangelical Leadership JournalSomewhat more recently, the brilliant Tim Dalyrmple took up the question in his pointedly titled post “Is it time for evangelicals to stop opposing gay marriage?”  The discussion has only picked up steam since then.

For politically conservative Christians, it’s somewhat dispiriting that the question is even being asked. This isn’t the healthy, robust self-criticism of a flourishing movement. The question is oriented toward negotiating the terms of “surrender,” so to speak, on grounds that it will be the only way to keep a “seat at the table” long term.  If anything, that so many people are seriously considering such a strategy means that the evangelical pro-marriage movement is already over and now we’re all circling to preserve what scraps we can.

I understand the impulse, of course, to take up the inquiry. The demographic case for the future of marriage looks bleak.  Even while many people are still willing to tell a pollster they’ll support traditional marriage and even pull the lever in a voting booth for it, young people are clearly moving in a different direction.  Anxieties about marriage’s future are not groundless.

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Even so, the question is one that I have no opinion on other than that it is the wrong question altogether. The way conservative evangelicals frame this moment will determine not only how we proceed in the future, but is determined by what we have done in the past.  And in that sense, the question of whether we should continue to defend traditional marriage signifies a fundamental weakness in the evangelical attitude about marriage and culture.

The Wrong Messages from the Right Parallel

Over the past few years, evangelical conservatives engaged in the public debate about marriage have pointed to the pro-life’s success in shifting attitudes for comfort. One of the best examples of this was my friends Andrew Walker and Ryan Anderson’s analysis at National Review.  Given that the public’s mindset has shifted on abortion, the argument goes, then we should learn its lessons and maintain a similar sort of optimistic resolve.

There is something to the point. Christians are never to be taken by either fatalism or despair; the course of history never did run smooth.  It is possible that what is celebrated in one generation is laughed at by the next. The falseness of fatalism that stands beneath the “wrong side of history” claim stands beneath the temptation to despair as well.

But it is important to learn the right lessons from the pro-life movement and on this point I am not convinced that we have. The differences between the issues are considerable. For one, the pro-life movement has been helped by the advent of ultrasound technologies, while the steady decoupling of sex and procreation by techniques like sperm donation and IVF have weakened the link between heterosesual marriage and biological childbirth. What’s more, Hollywood has by and large demonstrated something of an aversion to presenting abortion in a positive light—there seems to be some intuitive appeal to the idea that a mother keeping a child is a noble sacrifice and a better story—but on homosexuality has clearly taken a different approach.  And the “harm argument” by pro-lifers has a good deal more persuasive force than the somewhat more nebulous, further removed case of the marriage movement. “Babies are killed in the womb” is an easier claim to defend than the institutional erosion argument that marriage advocates must make.

Perhaps more importantly, though, from a political and social standpoint the central difference between the two is that the pro-life case has gone forward within a progressive social temperament while evangelicals have largely framed their support of marriage in terms of “defense” and “conservatism”—which Jon Shields points out in his excellent book The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. The pro-life movement is not attempting to protect an institution so much as subvert and replace one. They have developed networks of care and support for pregnant mothers to provide alternative means of support for those in danger of choosing abortion. And as Shields notes, many of their most effective grassroots efforts to persuade others have emphasized tone and presentation beside the effectiveness of their arguments.  Even the energy around the legal strategy has had a progressive bent:  the sense of disenfranchisement created by Roe versus Wade motivated activists to overturn the fundamental injustices within our legal code, rather than more deeply inscribing the status quo.[1]

On marriage, though, evangelicals have mostly thought in conservative and defensive terms.  When the marriage movement started, the immediate cause was undermining the no-fault divorce regime. The first book I read on marriage policy, Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite’s influential The Case for Marriage, barely mentioned gay marriage. But when that question came to the forefront, the marriage movement seemed to lose its progressive edge.  Rather than replacing unjust laws, marriage advocates instead focused on further entrenching in American law the traditional definition of marriage while expanding the social benefits that go along with it. The law may be a tutor, but it is not strong enough to stitch back together a fraying social fabric.

Unless the pro-marriage movement takes on a progressive mentality and orients itself around pursuing social and legal changes rather than reinscribing and holding on to a particular order, then the pro-life parallel simply will not hold. It is difficult these days to win support for a position simply on grounds that it is true. The truth must be made urgent and, it seems, made clear over and against a sense of fundamental injustices.

The Wrong Question

Should evangelicals continue to defend traditional marriage?  The question, of course, presupposes that there is something there left to defend.  The institution of marriage may be stronger than advertised, but then that’s just the problem, isn’t it?  It’s stronger than advertised.  And in this case perception matters. As Rod Dreher pointed out last fall, once you reach the point where you have to make the arguments for marriage you’ve probably already lost.

In other words, evangelicals should have never taken a stance of defending traditional marriage over and against the forces that threatened it. Marriage needs no defense—if we will but live well within it than its reasons will be clear enough on their own. But it does need advancement, cultivation and care. Weeds that grow up from within must be rooted out.  The failure of evangelicals to do this in the past has hollowed out any “defense” we might give now. That much is well known.

Still, defense is the wrong mindset.  And it was always the wrong mindset. In the middle of a vibrant marriage culture, the fundamental principles, goods, and practices of marriage are handed down and inculcated through transmission. We can only have traditional marriage if marriages are properly traditioned, and the failure to form and educate the young with respect to the importance of a traditional Christian sexual ethic left them on their own when it came to navigating their relationships with the opposite sex.  Is it any wonder that those who had pseudo-marriages they called “relationships,” who chronically dated, and who had to find their own path through the courting phase are now in favor of inscribing such a preference-based mentality into the law?

The latest turn in our public discussion has been to focus on which arguments will be successful when presented in public (if any).  That is an important question, of course. We need more and better arguments for marriage, with all due respect to those who have come up with some already. Let a thousand rhetorical and argumentative flowers bloom, I say.  But we should also look to the pro-life movement for guidance on this point, as their arguments have been situated within an emphasis on building alternative institutions.  Their stance has been one of advancing a culture of life, not defending an existing order. And that means that the arguments have institutional backing (which makes them more powerful) and are always aimed at persuasion rather than demonstration. Insurgency and not defense, in other words, as Michael Brendan Dougherty once put it to me.  Marriage may have been a given once in our culture, a fundamental axiom which we were able to start from. But it is no longer, which means the change in rules means we have to change in tactics.  Because one crucial lesson of the pro-life movement is that social change begins when people are moved out of their complacency and when they have something to change.

What might all this mean practically?  For one, the renewal of alternative institutions of marriage within the churches is of paramount concern. There is no faster way to ensure that our public proclamations sound like a clanging gong than to make them without having internalized them ourselves. Publicly, conservatives should reconsider returning to the marriage movement’s roots: ending the no-fault divorce regime. It is true that there is no political or cultural will for that at the moment. But that is precisely the problem: as long as there is no political will around divorce than it seems like our main concern is keeping gay people out of marriage rather than restoring marriage itself. Prioritizing undermining no-fault divorce in our public efforts need not come at the expense of making the case for traditional marriage. But if we start with no-fault divorce, our arguments for traditional marriage may gain more credibility and support.

Such proposals are tentative, of course, and speculative. But as long as the rhetoric and disposition of “defense” continues to be the default for conservatives on marriage, our policy proposals and our public witness will lack the creative imagination that the pro-life community has been forced into developing by virtue of being a minority.  The sooner those of us who care about marriage learn that lesson, the better off we will be.


[1] “For instance, opponents of gay marriage are defending the status quo. And like the pro-choice movement, those that oppose gay marriage are not deeply invested in a massive campaign of moral suasion. In other Christian Right issue domains, there is simply nothing comparable to the varied organizational universe that exists in the pro-life movement.” –Jon Shields, The Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right, page 110.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/ngilmour Nathan Gilmour

    I like this take, Matt. My own inner Anabaptist has often wondered whether we should be inviting people into Christian marriage as a semiotic sacrament rather than assuming that we even know where to build the walls to make sure marriage doesn’t wander out of its “definition.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=606395883 Christopher M. Marlink

    Good stuff, Matthew. I agree that it is incredibly important to learn the right lessons from the pro-life movement’s successes. Revitalizing a culture of marriage will require a holistic approach–and that does mean addressing the injustices of no-fault divorce even if the possibility of legal change seems small today.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=606395883 Christopher M. Marlink

      Important too, to articulate who bears the brunt of the “fundamental injustices” under no-fault divorce and redefining marriage: children.

  • Ryan Richardson

    Matthew,

    I really enjoy the blog – started reading about a month ago and it’s made for some enjoyable, thought-provoking reading. I’m also a little jealous of all you are doing right now as it matches up almost exactly with my childhood dreams of what I always wanted to do, and have currently put myself on a track to potentially end up there.

    But on to discussion: among friends, this debate has come up a lot lately (for obvious reasons), and the thing I have a hard time justifying that I’d like to hear your thoughts on, is that I have a hard time politically taking a firm stance against ‘legalizing’ homosexual marriage. Now I am not saying that I condone the practice or in any way want to take the all-to-common route of more liberal theologians of letting culture permeate the church. The Bible is pretty clear that it is wrong and a sure sign of moral depravity in a culture, and, as such, I am clear that I stand against churches condoning it – you cannot hold a theologically conservative position with a high view of Scripture and take the tragic route that many churches are taking today.

    However, due to the modern thought of separation of church and state (for good or ill), the differences between sin and crime are becoming increasingly stark. For example – divorce and adultery are currently rampant throughout culture as a whole (the most recent statistic I’ve heard for all the accuracy those have lately puts divorce at 33% among Evangelicals, and just over 50% among the general populace) … obviously both of these show that the world is fallen in sin and in desperate need of a Saviour. However, from a political stance these have not been treated as illegal or crimes.

    Therein lies the other issues I see with pitting the concept of homosexual “marriage” against abortion. Both are clear sins, however, when you look at abortion through a Biblical viewpoint it is an absolute tragedy and murder which also falls into the cultural classification of a crime. I haven’t been able to make that leap with keeping homosexual marriage illegal, unless we follow a somewhat consistent application of all sexual immorality and that is a whole other can of worms that I haven’t even begun to think through.

    One final, unrelated thought: even if we legalize it on the political scale, we certainly don’t have authority to on a Biblical scale. Obviously, we should strive to make this world reflect God’s future kingdom, however the world is fallen, and Paul wrote Romans 13 while Nero is Emperor – not that we shouldn’t strive to change culture, even through politics, but regardless of what happens, how do we practically “rend unto Caeser’s…” in this matter? Do we realize that there will be sexual immorality, that homosexuality is a sin happening today, regardless of whether we “legalize” it or not, and minister to that as best we can? Or do you think there is a better way?

    Thanks,
    Ryan

    • Ryan Richardson

      I thought of an amendment I should make for clarification: my stance on divorce aligns with yours that you mention, but I think stopping at no-fault divorce might ultimately be too-short of a step without addressing the problems of the rest of sexual immorality as well – be it the pervasiveness of pornography in all of culture to the sexual “freedom” found in most colleges. It all sounds extremely Victorian, which I’m not sure is the aim, but for the sake of a consistent, logical argument, we have to go further than just no-fault divorce.

    • Thomas Aquinas

      Sigh. Only if it were a matter of legalizing same-sex marriage we would not be having this discussion. Because, right now, SSM is legalized, everywhere. Any two people of the same gender can procure the services of their church–or even make promises to each other–and declare themselves “married.” That is perfectly legal. What SSM proponents want is state approval so that everyone else in society not be allowed in their public lives to reject SSM. After all, everyone–including SSM proponents–believe that male-female marriage is real, while half of us believe that SSM is ontologically on par with square-circle. So, no one is being coerced to accepted male-female marriage, while half the population may be coerced in accepting an institution they cannot in good conscience accept.

    • jamesfarnold

      Ryan,

      Thanks for the comment. We’re appreciative of your reading; hopefully you’ll continue to enjoy reading Mere-O in the future!

      I won’t presume to know how Matt would answer your questions, even if I’ve got a few guesses. But here’s one possible argument that I’ve heard (and even made, if memory serves):

      You said: “I have a hard time politically taking a firm stance against ‘legalizing’ homosexual marriage.”

      And the question about legalization, in my mind, has to do a lot with the assumptions we make about the nature of sin. If sin is the sort of thing that harms us only in the context of our own lives, or in the context of our eternal destination, or some similar non-public or non-immediate way, then we’re going to have a hard time standing against the legalization of something we deem sinful, provided there aren’t other universally-agreed-upon harmful results (the abortion debate has this advantage: killing babies is obviously evil, so the debate simply [well, usually] has to convince people that the fetus is the same as a baby). Homosexual marriage doesn’t have the same sort of obvious evils associated with it, at least from a universal standpoint (you’ll see this in arguments for gay marriage: stable families are superior to divorced or broken homes, gay couples are usually very loving and get divorced less, etc.).

      If, however, we assume that sin is the sort of thing that damages the whole self, that any intentional furthering of sin harms us whole-sale, then it seems easy to make the argument against legalizing homosexual marriage. If we actually believe that homosexual behavior is sinful, then we believe that when the state condones that behavior, the state acts in a way that is intrinsically harmful to her members and her own future. That seems like a problem, and one that shouldn’t be too hard to stand on, at least if you’re willing to grant the Christian premise that homosexuality is sinful.

      But to make the argument against same sex marriage in a public sphere that doesn’t include that premise? I only see a couple of ways to go about that, at this point. Either you’ve got to do something akin to what Matt’s argued (don’t defend, focus on divorce, etc.), or you’ve got to do what Ryan Anderson has done. He’s argued that the State shouldn’t be involved in marriage, except where it benefits the State. His arguments are a bit lengthy, so I’ll just leave you with a link: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2013/03/marriage-what-it-is-why-it-matters-and-the-consequences-of-redefining-it

      Anyway, hope that was all helpful.

      • Ryan Richardson

        James,

        Thank you for the response and I appreciate the input. Your fifth paragraph about the nature of sin and and damaging the self is particularly striking and something I believe I could stand on.

        I suppose the question that arises from this is how do we appropriately interact with a sort of political system that doesn’t act in the benefit of its members. Again, I’ll bring up Romans 13 here and that it is written when Nero was emperor and clearly wasn’t acting to the benefit of the Roman Empire at large.

        • jamesfarnold

          Right. That’s tricky to work through–and we’ve been attempting to do this for years and years.

          One answer is to act as best we can when voting, and when persuading to vote, but then submitting ourselves to the government during the rule. You can campaign for and vote for and encourage people to vote for one candidate, and then pray for the president, even if ‘your guy’ loses. The same can be said for policy: pray for the nation to seek to better itself, do your best, and pray for the leadership.

          That’s the best I’ve got, at the moment, at least.

  • http://twitter.com/matthew_loftus Matthew Loftus

    I think that conservative evangelicals MUST address prison reform and immigration reform, as our current official policy on both is not particularly good for marriages.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Marcus-Lindroos/100000301060166 Marcus Lindroos

    Andrew Walker and Ryan Anderson claim that “pro-lifers have won the intellectual battle decisively. Today, most Americans oppose most abortions, and pro-life state laws are making great progress.”

    Oh really??

    It’s true that well organized abortion opponents in Red states have had some success thanks to backdoor legislation attacking the issue in less than honest terms (e.g. by imposing crippling regulations and standards). But the “most Americans oppose most abortions” claim seems rather meaningless: what the pro-life side really wants is an unconditional ban without exceptions for rape etc… The Dems made a big issue out of it in 2012 and won decisively.

  • Hermonta Godwin

    I would attack the view that the pro life movement is so very strong and should be the pattern from which we mimic. It has gained using a progressive gameplan along the lines of, “What would the baby choice if given a choice” vs. “Abortion is murder and is inherently evil.” Since the case hinges on choice, I don’t believe the case against abortion in the case of rape etc has gained any strength. To defend marriage we have to overthrow the entire progressive framework of the individual will rules over all else.

    I think the natural law case of the existence of a human nature and the ability to know what leads to human flourishing, can in fact be made to stick. However, many are afraid of natural law because it will restrict various options that many take for granted: birth control etc.

  • Tawanda

    Great article!!!! I keep turning this issue around in my mind again and again, and at this point, I’ve concluded that what the church should surrender is the supposedly universal belief that most men and women prefer to be married to the same person for the rest of their lives. (Bear with me, this does eventually lead its way to gay marriage :) The way I read the Bible, God’s idea of marriage was always supposed to be an insane idea that people could have the power to do after receiving an overflow of unconditional love and forgiveness from their relationship with God. I don’t believe in the romantic notion that men and women were happily married in a traditional setting and things have recently gotten messed up. Before women had the rights they do today, they had to get married in order to be provided for and to have children. Now that women can be financially dependant and can largely control when to have a baby, the “traditional” view of marriage is getting turned upside down. Amidst all of this turmoil, I don’t think the church should have to defend the idea that traditional marriage should be required of everybody, even when they don’t have the power of God to equip them. Instead, the church should get out of the business of issuing government approved marriage licenses and should get better at explaining what a christian marriage truly is. If the church got out of issuing licenses, then it would be perfectly fine if we never allow gay marriage to be blessed and sanctified within the church. Instead of trying to defend an old custom based on necessity and culture, let’s start defending God’s view of marriage and work on showing the world how to love one person for the rest of your life. I don’t believe this is an issue of the church following culture. I believe that this time period is a chance for the church to separate itself from bureaucracy and government alliance and to finally separate the wheat from the chaff. Instead of debating non-Christians about God’s idea of marriage, let’s work on demonstrating God’s true plan: two equal partners in a loving, sacrificial, out-of-this-world commitment that has never been common in any generation. Am I missing something….any holes in my argument? :) Thanks for listening.