Marriage Movement: Opportunities or Threats?

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One common observation in the business world is that status-quo managers focus on avoiding threats, while entrepreneurs focus on seeking opportunities. Here’s yet another way in which marriage is like entrepreneurship. The marriage movement needs to focus on seeking opportunities, not avoiding threats.

In the new National Review, the authors of the excellent new book What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense – who, to judge from the promotional email I got, are apparently now styling themselves as “GAG” after the initials of their last names, of which I heartly approve . . . where was I? Oh, yes: in the new National Review, GAG has an interesting self-interview on NRO, where they asked themselves key questions that they thought reasonable critics might ask.

The interview canvasses a lot of issues, but here’s one I think deserves more attention. They asked themselves, “Why focus on opposing the recognition of
same-sex partnerships as marriages? Aren’t widespread divorce and single
parenting the real problems?
” They give a lengthy response to this question in which they:

  1. do not actually explicitly answer the question; but
  2. create the general impression that they’re defending a focus on gay marriage; while
  3. actually conceding (implicitly) that the hypothetical questioner is right - that it would be preferable not to focus on gay marriage, and that widespread divorce and single parenting are the real problems.

Copyright law precludes me from reproducing the entire answer here, but this should give you the gist:

Why do conservatives focus exclusively on same-sex marriage? The answer is simple: We don’t. Conservatives always did, and still do, make other social and political efforts to strengthen the marriage culture. The push to redefine marriage was brought to us. We don’t know a single person involved in this effort who wouldn’t rather focus on something else. But now that this is the live debate, we can’t ignore it, for its outcome will have wider effects on the marriage culture that really is our main concern.

Long before the debate over same-sex marriage, a “marriage movement” was launched to explain why marriage was good for husbands and wives faithful to its demands, for their children, and for society more broadly…

There follows a lengthy history of the marriage movement and its fight against divorce, illegitimacy, etc. “None of this was about gay anything.”

Then:

The question of whether to redefine marriage to eliminate sexual complementarity didn’t take center stage until 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court created a constitutional right to recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages. By then, the marriage movement’s leaders had no choice. They had to decide: Would recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages strengthen the marriage culture or further weaken it?

They obviously saw that it would weaken it, so they took up the fight against gay marriage.

Disastrous policies such as no-fault divorce were motivated by the idea that a marriage is made by romantic attachment and satisfaction — and comes undone when these fade. The marriage movement’s leaders knew that to keep any footing for rebuilding the marriage culture, they had to fight the formal and final redefinition of marriage as essentially romantic companionship.

In other words, divorce and single parenting are the real problems.

What Is Marriage? is a fantastic book – unanswerable, really – if what you’re looking for is an essentially Thomistic philosophical argument that marriage as historically understood to be an opposite-sex union is a social manifestation of something that’s basic to human nature, a cultural universal rather than a teaching of some specific religious group, and justifiable on the basis of natural reason. I have my doubts that such an argument is the best strategy for winning the debate over gay marriage even on philosophical grounds. I said the book is unanswerable if that kind of argument is what you’re looking for; I wonder how many of the people we need to reach, even among those who are interested in the philosophical arguments, are reachable by this kind of argument. But that’s an argument for another day.

In this post I want to ask: is gay marriage really the best place for the marriage movement to be making its big investments? Isn’t that threat avoidance rather than opportunity seeking?

I am not a fan of David Blankenhorn. He wants to have his cake and eat it, too, saying that he’s changing his position to support gay marriage even though he’s not changing his opinions on any of the issues that caused him to oppose gay marriage. I say that’s not intellectually honest.

But he is at least seeking opportunity rather than just avoiding threats. Check this out. He’s done something impressive here. America’s cultural leaders are turning against divorce. Blankenhorn sees that there’s a huge opportunity to win the fight for marriage here, and he’s doing something about it.

The question is, can we do this kind of thing without repudiating our consciences on gay marriage, as Blankenhorn’s manifesto seems to be asking us to do? If not, I see no hope for a humane outcome to the present crisis – one side or the other will have to be crushed. But that kind of thinking is threat avoidance. What we have to do is focus on seeking the opportunity for another kind of outcome.

David Mills is right: Blankenhorn’s manifesto means well and says good things, but it will have the effect of weakining resistance to the gay marriage movement, and some of its signers no doubt sign it for that reason. But beyond saying that, is there a constructive response our side can make without signing? The manifesto is entitled “A New Conversation on Marriage.” A conversation implies two participants. Blankenhorn and his support-marriage-but-surrender-on-gay-marriage caucus are one side. Who will be the other? People who want to destroy marriage entirely? Or people like us, who want to save marriage as much as Blankenhorn does, but are not willing to surrender our consciences on the gay marriage issue?

Rest assured, Blankenhorn’s caucus is where all the cultural power is. Therefore, the terms of the discussion going forward will depend on who engages with them and how. Let’s seize that opportunity. A new movement to destroy casual divorce that brought together supporters and opponents of gay marriage would reframe the marriage debate in America. Such cross-ideological coalitions are actually very common in politics – consider the immigration debate, which pits libertarians and ethnic collectivists on one side against big business and big labor on the other. This is often the way old battle lines get redrawn. The way the lines are drawn now, we are losing badly. Time to get entrepreneurial.

2 thoughts on “Marriage Movement: Opportunities or Threats?

  1. Pingback: Re: A New Conversation » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  2. Pingback: We Need New Methods in the Fight for Marriage – The Gospel Coalition Blog

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