Keeping the Light on for Marriage—and Religious Freedom

Witnessing to truth.

Ryan T. Anderson has spent the last months and years of his life doing a lot of clear, honest, courageous, thankless work defending traditional marriage. The William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow in American Principles and Public Policy at the DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society at the Heritage Foundation, Anderson is now author of Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom. He discusses the book’s topics with National Review Online, in the light of the Supreme Court’s recent ruling on marriage. — KJL

Kathryn Jean Lopez: Is there really a future for marriage as you see it?

Ryan T. Anderson: Marriage needs to have a future. And it’ll be up to people like you and me and our readers to make it have a bright future. I wrote Truth Overruled precisely to help ordinary Americans better understand the importance of marriage so that they could better defend it in the public square, teach the truth about it to their children, and — most important – live out the truth in their daily lives. Anyone with any passing familiarity with the breakdown of marriage in America — most recently documented by Charles Murray on the right and Robert Putnam on the left — knows that marriage matters, and that the breakdown of marriage had the largest impact on the least well off. It is vitally important that we get marriage right: for spouses, for kids, and for our entire society.

Lopez: Why should your view of marriage be considered? It would seem like it is becoming a relic of history more than a lived experience or even what is considered civilized.

Anderson: That’s the problem. As I point out repeatedly in Truth Overruled, the legal redefinition of marriage could take place only after 50 years of a cultural redefinition — with all of the broken hearts and broken homes that it has left in its wake.

There is nothing “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian” about the new vision of marriage that Justice Kennedy enshrined in law. Many heterosexuals 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, non-marital 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.

There is nothing “homosexual” or “gay” or “lesbian” about the new vision of marriage that Justice Kennedy enshrined in law. Many heterosexuals bought into it over the past 50 years.

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

Lopez: How is the existence of same-sex marriage a threat to husbands and wives?

Anderson: This isn’t the best way of putting the question. The real issue here is how does the legal redefinition of marriage affect the future of marriage. How does changing our legal — and thus further changing our cultural — understanding of marriage affect society as a whole? I argue in Truth Overruled that as our society teaches a falsehood about marriage, it will be 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. The history of the past 50 years of cultural redefinition demonstrates exactly this. The legal redefinition will simply lock it in, increase the damage, and make recovery even more difficult.

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?


Lopez: Why is bringing up interracial marriage a “false analogy”? Why does it resonate so if that’s the case? 

Anderson: The analogy to racism is used to shut down discussion. It’s used to silence people. Same-sex marriage hasn’t come to the United States because the majority of people have changed their minds on the issue, it’s come because people have been bullied into silence, and the label of racism has been one of the means of doing so.

While it’s an effective analogy to shut down debate, it’s an intellectually bankrupt analogy. After all, race has absolutely nothing to do with marriage, no serious thinker ever suggested it did, and no plausible argument has ever been produced as to how race could have anything to do with marriage. By contrast, sexual complementarity goes to the heart of what marriage is, more or less every serious thinker has said as much, and even if someone disagrees with this viewpoint they can’t seriously deny the strength of the argument.

As I explain in Truth Overruled, 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 with the customs of every previous culture throughout human history.

Only if they can understand what motivates us will they respect our freedom to act on such motivation.

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.

Lopez: Do we really have to “redouble our efforts in the public square” about marriage as between a man and a woman? The culture doesn’t seem to want to hear it. We’re being called bigots and having to go to court.

Anderson: That’s exactly why we need to redouble our efforts. As I explain in Truth Overruled, we must work to help 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.

That’s what happened in 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.

#related#The abortion activists lost that debate. The pro-life movement won. Through legal protections such as the Hyde Amendment and the Church Amendment, tax-payer funds were prohibited from being used to pay for abortion, and pro-life citizens were protected from being forced to perform abortion. Until the 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.

I saw this dynamic as an undergraduate at Princeton. 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-choice leaders generally respect the religious liberty and conscience rights of their pro-life fellow citizens.

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.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute and editor-at-large of National Review Online. She is co-author of the forthcoming revised and updated edition of How to Defend the Faith without Raising Your Voice

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