Today I am pleased to feature this essay from first-time Mere O contributor Josiah Peterson.
The legal status of marriage was a hot button issue in the 2012 election cycle. Where has it gone in 2016?
The third presidential debate offers a clue. The opening segment—on the Supreme Court—gave Donald Trump an opportunity to appeal to social conservatives tempted to jump ship after the fallout from the hot mic tapes in which Trump brags about sexually assaulting women. But moderator Chris Wallace didn’t ask about marriage. Clinton briefly referenced losing “marriage equality” from her list of concerns about a potential Trump appointee to the Court. And Trump? He didn’t mention marriage at all. Marriage was a non-issue in this debate, even though Chris Wallace’s questions provided the best opportunity of any debate so far. Our slate of candidates lack the conviction or pressure to defend the institution of marriage.
Looking at the two major party candidates in 2016, one might easily assume “marriage equality” is a settled issue. Hillary Clinton—who supported traditional marriage in 2008 and whose husband signed the Defense of Marriage Act that Obergefell struck down—only brings up the issue to tout Democratic accomplishments and galvanize the progressive wing of her party. On the Republican side, the once “very pro-choice” Donald Trump regularly reiterates his nominal pro-life position, but has been mum on marriage since a brief comment during the March GOP primary debate, where he said he wished the Court had left marriage policy to the states. Trump’s campaign website is devoid of any mention of marriage or family policy and Trump’s position on marriage—or absence of one—has worried some evangelical leaders since they met with him in New York City last June. The Republican Party Platform offers a robust defense of “natural marriage” as the “foundation for civil society,” but it’s unclear Trump has ever read it.
The two leading candidates, with marriage histories that literally read like tabloid filler, are unlikely to champion marriage as a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. When lifelong fidelity is no longer an expectation in marriage, marriage devolves into an arrangement for personal gratification and structures that would promote full interdependence, societal stability, and the rearing of children become expendable.
But it’s not just the two major party nominees who fail to defend the marriage-based family. There is not a single major candidate running for president who is openly pro-marriage. Gary Johnson, the purported Libertarian, rather than leave the matter of marriage to the states or have the government pull out of marriage completely, embraces so-called “marriage equality” and would compel religious objectors to participate in the weddings of homosexual partners. Green Party candidate Jill Stein proudly identifies herself not only with the LGBT movement, but with the LGBTQIA+ movement and is probably quite happy to support anything that undermines the heteronormative family structure that’s contributing to the overpopulation of the planet. The Constitution Party nominee Darrell Castle makes no mention of marriage or family policy in his speeches or on his website, though the Constitution Party Platform reaffirms traditional marriage. (It does not, however, deem marriage a “key issue”).
Evan McMullin, House Republican Policy director turned NeverTrump independent candidate, claims to be “the only true conservative in the race,” and should be the likeliest candidate to run on a platform of family values. Just one day after the young Mormon jumped into the race, he discussed marriage with Bloomberg News:
I want to start by asking you about an issue that’s been big in our politics for the last couple years, same-sex marriage. It’s happened very quickly that it’s now legal. Are you comfortable with the way it’s happened and the current state of the law of the land on same-sex marriage?
Well my position on that is that as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, I believe in traditional marriage between a man and a woman but I respect the decision of the court and I think it’s time to move on.
When in the same interview another journalist offered McMullin the chance to punt the issue to the states, McMullin responded that while a federalist approach is ideal, “it’s been handled by the Supreme Court, and that’s where it is.” He went on, “This is a decision of faith for me…But my faith isn’t everybody else’s faith and I make my decision for me on those kinds of things.” When asked if he would nominate justices who would seek to overturn the decision he replied, “I wouldn’t on that.”
We might chalk up McMullin’s position to strong views of judicial review or separation of church and state, but for his exchange with George Will a week after the Bloomberg comments:
G.W.: “Social conservatives are particularly unhappy with the choice they have this year.”
E.M.: “Of course they are.”
G.W.: “But they’ve looked at your website and they’re not encouraged. They say you say that as a Mormon you believe marriage is between a man and a woman.”
E.M.: “I do.”
G.W.: “But you say the court has spoken, you respect the court’s opinion and we should move on. Does that not also apply to Roe vs. Wade which has been the law of the land for 43 years and would you, in appointing judges, appoint judges who you think or ask would overturn Roe vs. Wade?”
E.M.: “Yes it’s a good question, and a fair question, but I see the issues differently. On the matter, on the issue of life, it’s, it’s life, so I actually would pursue appointments, court appointments, that would overturn Roe vs. Wade. So that’s my view. But I do believe on the issue of gay marriage the American people have a certain positioning, the court has spoken, and again that’s not a matter of life, so I, I respect the decision and I do think it’s time to move on. But on, on a matter of life, I, I remain committed to overturning Roe vs. Wade.”
McMullin’s deference to the Obergefell ruling stems not from a belief that Court opinions are sacrosanct, but from his unwillingness to alienate the disaffected millennials and independents he hopes to win over from Trump and Clinton. McMullin jumps from the Supreme Court decision to an assumption that “the people have spoken”—even though voters in 31 states voted to define marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman. George Will was right to pursue the comparison with abortion. McMullin’s “personally opposed” position on marriage closely resembles the arguments made by the pro-abortion Catholics like Tim Kaine and Mario Cuomo.
The current set of major political candidates lack either the internal conviction and courage, or the external pressure and support to defend marriage on the national stage. What happened?
As recently as 2010, Gallup polling reported that a majority of Americans believed that marriages between same-sex couples should not be recognized as legally valid. In more recent polling the number hovers around 40%, which is greater than the percentage of people Gallup reports want to overturn Roe vs. Wade at 29% (though the same polling shows an overwhelming majority disagree with Roe’s result of legalizing abortion through all stages of pregnancy for virtually any reason).
Why isn’t 40% enough to garner the support of at least one serious political candidate? The popularity of candidates like Trump and acceptance of candidates like McMullin suggest that marriage hasn’t risen to the level of “deal-breaker” for enough voters. Evan McMullin shouldn’t be able to conceive of running a Trump-alternative campaign without a strong marriage platform. Whether out of despair of finding a reliable candidate, a misguided “Benedict Option” mindset that despairs of winning the battle politically, or fatigue over being called bigots, marriage supporters have remained fairly quiet this campaign cycle. Marriage supporters’ silence allows the sexual nihilists to declare a de facto victory. Candidates took notice.
Why have the defenders of marriage gone silent? Too many proponents of marriage are not confident in their ability to explain and defend the definition of marriage. With beliefs often rooted in religious convictions, marriage supporters often aren’t able to demonstrate the importance of marriage to a secular society. Up until the recent societal shift on gay marriage, it wasn’t necessary to defend these basic assumptions. Now believers in marriage find themselves at a loss for words while being belittled in mainstream media and shamed on social media.
But there is hope. While there may be 700 gender studies programs in America churning out graduates every year, there are over 425 times as many churches with over 60 million weekly attendees. The infrastructure exists for disseminating the fundamentals of natural marriage if pastors and laypeople will avail themselves of the resources available. The Alliance Defending Freedom and the American Center for Law and Justice are defending those with traditional beliefs about marriage—not just on the grounds of freedom of speech (the “freedom to be wrong,” as opponents put it) but on the principle of marriage itself. The Love and Fidelity Network conferences and local chapters have been growing in number, challenging the sexual nihilism of the college campus with guest speakers such as Robert George and Helen Alvare, who expose the “False Catechism of the Sexual Revolution,” and outline how to go about “Restoring Culture from Confusion.” John Stonestreet at Summit Ministries and the Colson Center for Christian Worldview publishes resources that ground readers in both the religious and civil foundations for marriage. Scholars, clergy, and laymen, anticipating and responding to the cultural shift, wrote books such as What is Marriage?, The Meaning of Marriage, Same Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God’s Design for Marriage, and On the Meaning of Sex. And of course there is the faithful work of publications like, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, First Things, and World Magazine.
It’s important for marriage proponents to come out of the shadows. The stakes are too high for the other side to be allowed to declare victory unchallenged. Marriage proponents must openly commit to higher standards for politicians seeking to earn their votes. Defenders of marriage must do more than tout the importance of religious liberty, carving out a space for their retreat. They must do the work to defend marriage itself.
Josiah Peterson is the debate coach and adjunct instructor of Argumentation and Debate, Persuasive Writing and Speaking, and the Debate Practicum at The King’s College (NYC). He earned his M.A. in Liberal Studies from St. John’s University and his B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics at The King’s College. His writings have appeared in Public Discourse, The Federalist, and The Orlando Sentinel, and he has twice presented papers at C.S. Lewis Foundation summer conferences. He lives with his wife, Rachelle, in Brooklyn, NY.