On the Mutability of Marriage


There are two naive assumptions for the price of one in David Brooks’ most recent NYT column. Concluding, he writes:

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

Brooks’ entire point rests on the idea that marriage is immutably monogamous. This hopelessly naive position is undermined by (just to name one prominent example) Dan Savage’s influential argument that infidelity should be not only tolerated but that it can be embraced within marriage. For example, speaking of the infidelity in his own marriage, he writes:

People have come into our lives as lovers and enriched and enhanced our lives. Taken us into new worlds. And exposed us to new communities. New groups of people, new groups of friends. And that’s been very rewarding, and very rich.

So not only is the monogamy/marriage link not set in stone (that was his first foolish assumption), but furthermore the rhetoric of “equality and rights” was not in some way insulated from the policy of gay marriage. (The idea that policy and and supporting arguments could be so insulated was his second foolish assumption.)

Of course homosexuals didn’t invent infidelity, and there have always been heterosexual proponents of open marriage. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to miss the the extent to which the equality and rights rhetoric–by emphasizing the benefits of marriage to the spouses as opposed to their duties and obligations to each other, to the community, and to children–have substantially eroded all the quaint, freedom-limiting aspects of marriage that Brooks is so excited about.


T&S Post: Privilege and the Family

932 - Dom Viol Chart

I wrote a post for Times and Seasons today: Privilege and the Family. The post borrows heavily from work that Walker Wright has done right here at Difficult Run collecting research and data (like the chart above) on the impact of marriage and family for children’s outcomes, and also seeks to answer a couple of questions raised at By Common Consent recently: Who has two thumbs and doesn’t give a crap about the Family? The questions are:

  1. Why should we care about the family?
  2. What does it mean to stand up for the family?

If that sounds like an interesting post to you, then you should check it out.


First Things Article: The LDS Church and Gay Rights

972 - First Things Article Header

I expanded my thoughts on the LDS Church and gay rights from a blog post into a piece that First Things liked enough to run with. Couple of quick notes. First, that article has even more typos than my usual posts. The “heard of Jesus’s message”? I can only hang my head in shame and try to do better next time. Second, I’ve been talking with a law professor about religious liberty to make sure I’m not too far off-base. The one thing he says I was missing from my analysis was that liberals don’t believe religious liberty is confined to only the liberties that you get via secular civil rights (like freedom of speech or privacy). They also tend to suggest that religion ought to be treated as a suspect classification like race or gender. This means that any law which explicitly targeted a religious group would be subject to strict scrutiny.

Practically speaking, however, that doesn’t change much. Most of the rules that would constitute a real burden on a person’s free expression of religion are not going to be crafted as explicitly anti-religious, so we’re still talking about a huge gulf between what conservatives have in mind when they talk about religious liberty (and also what the First Amendment strongly implies about religious liberty by mentioning it explicitly) and what liberals have in mind when they talk about religious liberty.

The Mormon Church and Gay Rights

979 - Church Press Conference

Last week the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints held a rare public press conference. The topic was gay rights, and Jonathan Rauch described the main idea this way:

[Mormon leaders] made a startling offer to gay and lesbian America: If you will support reasonable religious-liberty exemptions for us, we will support expanded civil-rights protections for you.

So, what should we make of this? For his part, Rauch (who is gay) advocates giving the Church the benefit of the doubt and viewing the offer as a genuine olive branch. However, he concedes that “it could be a trap.” Brooke P. Hunter is not nearly as conciliatory in her piece: How the Mormons Punked the Press. She described the press conference as “mostly about defending Mormons’ right to discriminate.” She said “the new Mormon position is like that candy with a razor blade inside” and added

Today’s press conference took place in a twilight zone where parents are in danger of being jailed for teaching their kids about Jesus, and where believers can’t “share their views openly in the public square.” Oh, please. Show me the Mormons who have been jailed for sharing their views. There are none. And if you can point to one instance of the government preventing good Mormons from practicing their religion in their homes, we’ll eat our hat.

Let me make two observations. First, although Hunter doesn’t seem aware of this fact, her position constitutes a drastic reduction in the scope of religious liberty. First, because she envisions no protection for religious liberty outside of the strictly private sphere. Second, because she is contemptuous of the idea of religious liberty as religious. For instance, she decries Mormons for wanting “special privileges and special rights for churches and for religious people.” Well yes, in order to be religious liberty it has to be liberty specifically for (i.e. specially for) religion and religious considerations. Whatever Hunter has in mind when she talks about religious liberty, it seems to have very little do to with our historic appreciation for the special role religion has to play in the public sphere. This attitude, especially as it seems to be both widespread and innocent of any awareness of its own novel and revolutionary character, goes a long way towards vindicating the fears of religious people.

Second, I think the most logical way to take the Church’s position is the straightforward one. I do not think the bargain is merely political or expedient. I think, and this is born out by other changes in Church policy and teaching I outlined here, that the gay rights debate has forced Mormons (and the religious community as a whole) to do a better job of separating between principled religious doctrines of sexual morality and social convention. It is possible, and for a Christian it is necessary, to commit oneself to loving gay people (and bisexual, and transgender, etc.) in a way that affirms the unique dignity of every human being as in the image of God and also the religious principles that Christians believe lead to human flourishing. Does this break down to the old “hate the sin, love the sinner” trope? In short: yes. And it’s a distinction the world may find curious but that is at the heart of the Christian faith.

In short, I think Mormonism has come to an awareness that fighting against discrimination of the LGBT community is more than politically expedient: it is the right thing to do. The LGBT community should be protected from discrimination in housing, employment, and so on. I do not believe, and so far neither does the Church, that this extends to same-sex marriage, however, which is seen not as equal access to a common institution but as the redefinition of an institution. Even if you think that last bit makes no sense, and I know that many people do, my general message is just that I think Mormons (and a lot of the religious community) have been humbled by the past couple of decades and have come to a deeper understanding of how to live as Christians. That, I believe, is also what led to last week’s press conference.

The Primordial Origins of Marriage

Michelangelo's Creation of Eve. Detail from the Sistine Chapel.
Michelangelo’s Creation of Eve. Detail from the Sistine Chapel.

You can find plenty of attacks on “traditional marriage” these days. These pieces generally take a historical approach, looking at how the institution of marriage has changed throughout history and how widely they differ from 1950s stereotypes. There is a legitimate point to this analysis, marriage has changed quite dramatically from time to time and from place to place, and there are certainly modern embellishments that are anachronistically applied to the tradition backwards throughout time.

Unfortunately, the political assumptions that frequently accompany such critiques distort the analysis. Closer inspection reveals that the same core aspects that defenders of traditional marriage emphasize are much, much older and more deeply embedded into the institution of marriage than critics and maybe even defenders of traditional marriage realize.

The proximate provocation for this post is a piece by Angela C. at By Common Consent: The Myth of Traditional Marriage. The core assumption that leads Angela astray is that marriage is an invention. As she writes:

Depending on whom you ask, marriage was either invented by men to protect or to oppress women.  And some men would argue that marriage was invented by women to domesticate men (a pouty version of the protection argument).

Of course, Angela is also employing the highly partisan assumption that the invention of marriage had to have been sexist: either the outright misogyny of exploitation or the insidious sexism of assuming women need protection. As objectionable as this assumption might be, it’s actually far less important than the subtle assumption that marriage is an invention. Which is to say that it is a social construct.

The explanation of why this idea of social constructivism is associated with socially liberal politics is an interesting one, but it is mostly also outside the scope of this post. I will just point out that it is associated with socially liberal politics. The most obvious example, of course, is the argument that gender is a social construct distinct from biological sex.

2014-09-17 Everything is ChemicalsImplicit in these theories is the peculiar notion that society is not biological. It is peculiar because it is most often embraced by those who either outright deny the role of a supernatural deity in creating humanity or at least downplay it in favor of scientific explanations. But it’s quite difficult to see how science can provide any metaphysical justification for treating humans and our society and its constructs as one class of beings and the natural world as another. It’s very much like the natural foods advocates who warn against eating anything “chemical” without realizing that everything is chemicals. Social constructivism—at least in its most extreme and naïve form—is a modern superstition.

So let us set aside the assumption that marriage is an invention, a deliberate construction willfully created by humans to accomplish a consciously desired end. I don’t mean to say let’s assume that marriage is not an invention. I’m merely saying: if we don’t make that assumption do we find any more likely candidate explanations? And, as it turns out, we do.

To understand the origins of marriage we first have to understand a little bit about the differences between human beings and other animals. The answer is that humans have evolved to make a very high-risk, high-reward tradeoff. The risk is that our offspring are basically helpless for an exceptionally prolonged period of time. This requires enormous resources to feed them and keep them safe. The reward is that, in exchange for that helplessness, our offspring are incredible learners (and then, later in life, incredible teachers). Learning and teaching are what humans do better than any other species. Human babies are useless at running or fighting or hiding, but they are tremendous geniuses at things like language acquisition. We have highly plastic brains that take a long time to learn anything, but that can eventually learn just about anything. That single difference pretty much explains the difference between chimps using sticks to forage for ants and humans launching the Space Shuttle.

The reason why this change has such huge dividends is that it separated human knowledge from human genetics. Other animals are capable of some pretty amazing behaviors (like migration), but these are often instinctual. That means the information is genetic. Advantage: no one has to teach it. Disadvantage: the animals can only learn and change as the speed of genetic evolution, which takes place across hundreds or thousands of generations. If the migration pattern needs to change in an abrupt way, monarch butterflies can’t just tell the next generation to take a different route next time.

Humans, on the other hand, initially used society as a repository for knowledge. Each generation could teach the skills (from language to tool use) to the next generation. This meant that exchange of knowledge (for example when a new tool was discovered) could be exceptionally rapid both across generations and across tribes. That was the basis for creating (eventually) written language, which only further increased the pace since now our knowledge can be transmitted and reproduced even more rapidly and cheaply and widely. In short: other animals learn at the speed of genetics. Humans learn at the speed of memetics which, in the Internet Age, is the speed of light.

This is pretty cutting-edge science because it relies on concepts like group selection that—although initially proposed by Darwin—have been considered more or less impossible until recently. No one could figure out how to make it work: why would one individual sacrifice altruistically in order to benefit his tribe? In short: how do you get trust? Advances in game theory and complexity science have for the first time made it possible to illustrate how these obstacles can be overcome, and therefore how it is possible for groups to compete against each other (and therefore to have group evolution) rather than just individual organisms.

So now we’ve learned two key things. The first is that the chief difference between humans and other organisms is that we have really, really expensive but also really, really high-performing offspring. The second is that this idea carries with it the notion that groups compete and evolve, which is to say that societies can compete and evolve. Most notably, these are intrinsic to what it means to be a human being. They predate any history and go back to the origins of our species.

Which means that marriage predates our history and goes back to the origin of our species, provided we define marriage as (1) monogamous sexual pairing of males and females who (2) cooperate to feed, protect, and teach their offspring. This behavior must be as old as humanity because humanity is impossible without it. Without cooperation, human children cannot be raised by subsistence cultures. They are too expensive. But without sexual monogamy, males and females are not equally vested in the offspring. These behaviors therefore co-evolved with humanity itself.

So we’ve just bypassed all the historical, cross-cultural analysis of formal marriage institutions by a couple hundred thousand years, at least. So much for an “invention.” What does the story look like from there?

Well, all of the individual cultural variations around the kernel of marriage (monogamy and cooperative child-rearing) end up only being possible because of the integral role that the kernel of marriage played in our society. The logic can’t work any other way. Why would someone use marriage as the basis for political alliance, for example, if monogamous, child-rearing relationships weren’t already fundamental to human society? No one would think to invent marriage from scratch for the purposes of political alliance and, if someone did think of it, it would never work because there would be no foundation to build upon.

So it is absolutely true that marriage comes in a wide variety of cultural and legal and historical instantiations, but it is only the variety that is in any sense invented or constructed or arbitrary. They inventions only exist because there was a stable foundation upon which to build them.

Oral language was not invented. It evolved. Written language was not invented. It evolved. Nation-states were not invented. They evolved. Markets were not invented. They evolved. And, like these other bedrock institutions, marriage was not invented. It evolved. Just as oral and written languages vary widely, just as forms of government run the gamut from tribal chiefs to Prime Ministers, and just as the laws for doing business vary from place to place: so do does the institution of marriage alter and change from time to time and from place to place.

But there are individual characteristics that languages, governments, and markets must have in order to exist at all, and similarly there are traits that marriage—despite its many variations—must exhibit in order to exist. Those are sexual monogamy between men and women raising their biological children. Which, not at all coincidentally, are the characteristics that are of utmost importance in the minds of social conservatives defending “traditional marriage.” Whether you believe that marriage was ordained of God by divine fiat in a literal Garden of Eden, was orchestrated by God through the process of natural selection and evolution, or simply evolved spontaneously without any help from a Creator of any kind: marriage remains the fundamental institution that made the human species possible.

The key lesson to learn here is not necessarily that marriage should never change. Marriage—the entire package including the biological kernel and the social embellishments on top of it—changes all the time. Some of those innovations are bad. When society codifies marriage in a way that treats women as property to be bought or sold or gives men a legal right to rape their wives, then society is leveraging the power of the biological kernel of marriage to do great evil. But when marriage is used as a model to care for those in need—like with fostering or with adopting children—then in that case we’re building something beautiful and worthy on top of the foundation that we’ve inherited to work with.

Because this isn’t an argument that marriage should never change, this post cannot function as a direct argument against same-sex marriage, open marriages, or other currently controversial topics. It is possible to believe that the kernel of marriage has filled its evolutionary purpose. Now that we have enormously greater economic prosperity, perhaps the old rationales no longer apply.

This may be so, but at least those who advocate changes to marriage at a fundamental level ought to admit that they are tinkering with the evolutionary foundations of human society. To use a computer analogy: debates about marriage that get to its essential characteristics are not like swapping out one app for another. They are about making changes to the kernel of the operating system. It would be best to know what one is doing before one undertakes such an endeavor. Those propounding the “myth of traditional marriage” manifestly fail to apprehend its true nature and significance. Therefore, they are the last folks I want involved in the process.

College that Opposes Gay Marriage Loses Accreditation

2014-05-02 Trinity Western

The first caveat is that this story comes from Canada, and of course legal systems vary greatly from country to country. I don’t know how their religious liberty protections compare to those in the United States. But this story definitely has some of my fellow Mormons worried, because they can’t help but note the parallels between Trinity Western University (a small, private, religious college in Ontario) and Brigham Young University (a large, private, religious college in Utah

The story comes from the Ottawa Citizen, which reports that:

The Law Society of Upper Canada has voted against accrediting a private Christian university in B.C. that forbids intimacy outside heterosexual marriage… the vote means graduates of Trinity Western University’s future law school will not be eligible for admission to the Ontario bar.

The policy that triggered the backlash required that students

abstain from gossip, obscene language, prejudice, harassment, lying, cheating, stealing, pornography, drunkenness and sexual intimacy “that violates the sacredness of marriage between a man and a woman.”

That’s a pretty basic statement of conventional Christian (and Jewish and Islamic) morality. I guess that renders traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims unfit to practice law in Canada. As I’ve written before, stories like this make me worried for the future of my kids.

Andrew Sullivan Doubles Down on Tolerance

2014-04-07 hounding-of-a-heretic-sd

When I wrote about Brendan Eich being forced out (he resigned, but under duress) from Mozilla one of the sources I leaned on was Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan is an interesting voice because he is not only in a homosexual marriage, he was the guy who wrote the very first article in a major, mainstream outlet in support of legalizing gay marriage He has had some time to think about his initial response to the controversy and he’s decided “the more I have mulled this over, the more convinced I am that my initial response to this is absolutely the right one.”

Sullivan believes his response is “a vital one to defend at this juncture in the gay rights movement.” I, on the other hand, do not support gay marriage. So why is it that I like his post? It’s not just because the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s because Sullivan is actually defending “liberalism” in its original, authentic sense. He’s preaching tolerance. We disagree on gay marriage, but I agree with him on the need for real tolerance:

The ability to work alongside or for people with whom we have a deep political disagreement is not a minor issue in a liberal society. It is a core foundation of toleration. We either develop the ability to tolerate those with whom we deeply disagree, or liberal society is basically impossible. Civil conversation becomes culture war; arguments and reason cede to emotion and anger.

He then goes on to say:

A civil rights movement without toleration is not a civil rights movement; it is a cultural campaign to expunge and destroy its opponents. A moral movement without mercy is not moral; it is, when push comes to shove, cruel.

This all makes me want to cheer. Someone gets it. But is Sullivan in the majority on this one? I do not have any scientific polls, but I have a strong suspicion that he is not, and that perhaps his protests represent some of the last gasps of genuine moral principle in a movement that long since sacrificed principle for expedience in its headlong rush to win by intimidating rather than convincing the skeptics. I think you have to read this entire piece to really understand just how far we’ve come in a few short years, and it’s that rapid transition that makes me think there is too much  momentum to stop the train now.

Burn the (Socially Conservative) Witch

2014-04-03 brendan-eich-mozilla

Today Brendan Eich, the CEO of the Mozilla Corporation (the guys who make Firefox) resigned. He had been CEO for less than two weeks. Here’s a rough timeline.

March 24, 2014 – Mozilla announced the appointment of Brendan Eich as the new CEO.

The Mozilla Board of Directors has announced that co-founder and current Chief Technology Officer Brendan Eich will be appointed to the role of CEO of Mozilla, effective immediately.

March 26, 2014 – News stories begin to break about the angry reaction by Mozilla employees and others in the tech world to Brendan Eich’s promotion. The Silicon Valley Business Journal had one search early example:

Wikipedia Mobile creator Hampton Catlin revealed he would no longer develop apps for the Firefox Web browser.

April 1, 2014 – The angry attacks on Mozilla escalate with OKCupid putting up a full banner ad denying access to anyone attempting to use their site with Firefox and explaining their opposition to Eich, as covered by International Business Times.

2014-04-03 OK Cupid Message

April 3, 2014 – News about the angry reaction concerns social conservatives. An anonymous article at First Things compares the reaction to “ritual sacrifice.” The excellent article also gave detailed back story on Eich’s history on the issue of gay marriage.

Why, then, the ruckus? Amazingly enough, it is entirely due to the fact that Eich made a $1,000 donation to the campaign urging a ‘yes’ vote on California’s Proposition 8. When this fact first came to light in 2012, after the Internal Revenue Service leaked a copy of the National Organization for Marriage’s 2008 tax return to a gay-advocacy group, Eich, who was then CTO of Mozilla, published a post on his personal blog stating that his donation was not motivated by any sort of animosity towards gays or lesbians, and challenging those who did not believe this to cite any “incident where I displayed hatred, or ever treated someone less than respectfully because of group affinity or individual identity.”

Upon being named CEO last Wednesday, Eich immediately put up another post which among other things pledged in direct terms first that he would ensure Mozilla continued offering health benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees; second that he would allocate additional resources to a project that aims to bring more LGBTQ individuals into the technology world and Mozilla in particular; and third that he would maintain and strengthen Mozilla’s policies against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. It’s worth emphasizing that Eich made this statement prior to the storm of outrage which has since erupted, and that with these policies and others Mozilla easily ranks among the most gay-friendly work environments in the United States.

The First Things article also quoted from a very widely-read blog post demanding that Eich (1) stop claiming his support of Prop 8 was a private matter (2) recant his support of Prop 8 (3) swear loyalty to the cause of gay rights in general and gay marriage in particular, and (4) pay reparations to the Human Rights Campaign (or similar). The First Things article noted that:

The remedies demanded (public recantation, propitiatory sacrifice) are of the sort necessitated by ritual defilement, rather than the giving of offense.

April 4, 2014 – Brendan Eich announced his resignation. Here’s one story from the New York Daily news, but it’s been widely covered.

This tale serves to highlight two issues I’ve repeatedly raised on this blog. The first is the extent to which ostensibly secular movements and organization frequently assume distinctly religious behavior. One prominent example of this is global warming, of course, and many folks have pointed out that ardent supporters of policies designed to reduce human greenhouse emissions frequently embrace distinctly religious themes and rhetoric. The witch hunt against Brendan Eich is another example. As the anonymous First Things writer put it:

The key realization is that the howling mob which Thomas has ginned up is only partially an instrument of chastisement. It is also intended to educate. Thomas is in this to save souls.

Sound familiar?

Lots of people react with scorn to the idea that secular institution can be called “religious”. Obviously on one level, they cannot. But the deeper reality is that the human behaviors most closely associated with religion are not in fact derived from any of the supernatural beliefs religions hold. Concepts like ritual, purity, obedience, authority, and tradition don’t depend in any way on belief in gods. Religious institutions throughout history took on the traits and characteristics they did not because of religious belief, but because of human nature. Take away the belief in the supernatural, and all the elements of organized religion that critics decry remain just the same. In fact, it is precisely those who believe that belief in god causes the negative characteristics of organized religion that are most prone to repeating the mistakes of the past.

The second issue is the extent to which those who fail to toe the line concerning gay rights are in store for some very, very tough times to come. I understand that the first reaction from many people might be “serves them right.” There is truth to that. I have stated before that the worst mistake social conservatives ever made on this issue was to rely on animosity and fear in the early years of the gay-rights movement. It is only in the last few years that there have been highly visible examples of leading opponents of gay marriage overtly repudiating their prior practices and embracing a more loving and nuanced opposition to gay marriage. (See examples here and here.)

But, as the old saying goes, two wrongs don’t make a right. Andrew Sullivan (“a pioneering crusader for gay marriage” who married his boyfriend in 2007) said as much on April 3:

The whole episode disgusts me – as it should disgust anyone interested in a tolerant and diverse society. If this is the gay rights movement today – hounding our opponents with a fanaticism more like the religious right than anyone else – then count me out. If we are about intimidating the free speech of others, we are no better than the anti-gay bullies who came before us.

I hope tolerant voices like Sullivan’s win out (and it’s no surprise he went with the headline: The Hounding of a Heretic), but I doubt that they will. To the extent that gay marriage advocates have embraced the rhetoric of civil rights to make their case, there is no way to stop this train. Do opponents of interracial marriage have any kind of legitimate place within our society? No. Would the employees of Mozilla be willing to accept a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan as their CEO? No. Then why, based on the arguments that the proponents of gay marriage have proposed so far, should they be any more willing to put up with an anti-gay bigot like Eich? (And yes, merely donating $1,000 to Prop 8 is enough to qualify for bigot status.)

What makes me the most sad is that a lot of the folks who stand to suffer most in the future are those who have done nothing wrong in the past. I’m thinking of all the young Christian, Jewish, and Muslim kids growing up now, or yet to be born, who will be forced to choose between devotion to their religious faith and family traditions and acceptance within society. Are they guaranteed to follow the political or religious beliefs of their parents? No, of course not, but my fear is that in the not too distant future adherence to traditional religions will be taken (in the absence of explicit denials) as proof positive of anti-gay bigotry. Sound far-fetched? Maybe, but I think a couple of weeks ago the story of what happened to Brendan Eich would have sounded pretty far-fetched too.

Gay Marriage and Levels of Abstraction

2014-02-13 two-men-arguingAdam Greenwood has a pretty insightful look at one of the commonly confused aspects of arguing about gay marriage over at Junior Ganymede.

A lot of time gets wasted in arguments that are really about what the proper unit of analysis is, without any of the participants quite realizing that is what their argument is about.

Let’s take gay marriage, for example. Defenders of the traditional definition of marriage believe that marriage is fundamentally tied to procreation. Proponents of gay marriage pooh-pooh the suggestion. The defenders, they point out, do not try to prevent old or infertile couples from getting married, nor do they try to prevent couples who have decided not to have children from getting married.

Read the rest for his resolution of this problem, which is really helpful in bringing some clarity to the debate.

Will Gay Marriage Ever Be Settled? Lessons from Duck Dynasty

The American Left has been instrumental in past decades at advancing the cause of equality, but their track record has been mixed. On the one hand, no one questions the morality of the Civil Rights campaign to end segregation and Jim Crow. In the 21st century racial debates tend to be about the nature of equality, but everyone in the mainstream of American life takes for granted that racial equality and integration is a good thing. The very unanimity with which interracial marriage is now accepted (just as one example) demonstrates, to my mind, the rightness of the cause. I would not say that popularity is a perfect metric of morality by any means, but I do think that acceptance of progress over a long time period is relevant to assessing the validity of that progress.

2014-01-07 Interracial Marriage Poll

On the other hand, 40+ years after Roe v. Wade the American Left continues to try and frame the issue of abortion in terms of women’s equality and Americans–women included–continue refuse to buy it.

2014-01-07 Abortion Poll

The contrast is, to me, stark and informative. On some social issues there is initial resistance followed by unanimous consent. On others, however, there is no sign of progress whatsoever. In fact, many indications are that the pro-life side is slowly gaining ground. Since the policy opinion is not shifting substantially, this reflects a growing awareness on the part of American citizens of just how radical and extreme our laws are. Americans are moderate on abortion, Roe v. Wade isn’t.

So the big question is: which category does gay marriage fall into?

The American Left naturally relates gay marriage to issues like interracial marriage and assumes we’ll see a chart like the one above: in 40 years time the idea of opposing same sex marriage will seem as backwards and forgotten as the idea of opposing interracial marriage. That explains the initial reaction to Phil Robertson’s comments about homosexuality: he was roundly denounced as a bigot and A&E immediately booted him from his own show (Duck Dynasty, which is the #1 non-scripted cable show of all time). Writing for the Daily Beast, Keli Goff correctly detected that this was an example of dangerous overreach:

Though nearly half of the country opposes same-sex marriage, the media narrative has become dominated by the storyline that only a small segment of backward bigots who hate gay people oppose same-sex marriage. That simply isn’t true.

Goff also points out that Robertson’s actual comments had been mischaracterized:

Despite the fact that in the next quote Robertson also quotes scripture to denounce those who commit adultery, drink too much, and slander others as sinners, he was roundly denounced as a bigot and hate monger, particularly in progressive and liberal leaning news outlets.

Just to add to that, Robertson did not equate homosexuality with bestiality. He listed homosexuality as a form of sexual deviance along with bestiality and adultery. As a confessed adulterer (before he was born again), Robertson was not calling gays sinners in any sense that didn’t include his own life as well. It’s a rare bigot who operates by painting himself and his targets with the same brush.

Goff even calls out media bias in the language used to cover the controversy:

Reinforcing bias in reporting on this story is the fact that many outlets caved to pressure to use the term “marriage equality” in coverage, when such a term is an activist creation. Interracial marriage is called interracial marriage, not “marriage equality.” If supporters of same-sex marriage view the civil rights fights as comparable, the same language standard should be applied.

It’s obvious that the reaction to Roberton’s comments was overreach, because within days A&E had to repudiate their own position and allow him back on the show. They weren’t the only ones to misjudge public opinion on this one, either. Outlets like restaurant chain Cracker Barrel yanked Duck Dynasty merchandise, and then faced angry customer backlash. They also caved.

Now, maybe the only thing that happened is that A&E, Cracker Barrel, and others misjudged the timing of America’s acceptance of gay marriage. Maybe we’re on that upward slope of acceptance (like for interracial marriage) and in 5 or 10 years comments like Robertson’s wouldn’t generate any widespread support. But I doubt it. I doubt it because what seems to be happening is a growing awareness among many, and not just social conservatives, that there is a real and important difference between bigoted homophobia and opposition to gay marriage. Goff writes:

Among my family members who oppose same-sex marriage, I have been told to congratulate my gay friends whose weddings I have attended. But I have simultaneously been told that such unions don’t fit my relatives’ biblical definition of marriage. I have further been told that in the context of the oft repeated phrase “love the sinner, hate the sin,” they see gay people no differently than they would view a straight person like me who decides to live with someone “in sin” (as the biblical saying goes). It wouldn’t make me a bad person but one who according to biblical text would be “living in sin.” In other words, they wouldn’t throw holy water on me but also wouldn’t throw me a parade. Most of all, they wouldn’t really care how I live my romantic life at all, as long as I was happy.

There’s a big gulf between the relatives I describe and someone who “hates” gay people.

Brandon Ambrosino made pretty much the same point for The Atlantic. Ambrosino, who is gay, criticizes the argument that “if you are against marriage equality you are anti-gay.” He writes:

If it’s “anti-gay” to question the arguments of marriage-equality advocates, and if the word “homophobic” is exhausted on me or on polite dissenters, then what should we call someone who beats up gay people, or prefers not to hire them? Disagreement is not the same thing as discrimination. Our language ought to reflect that distinction.

Ambrosino then concludes: “I would argue that an essential feature of the term “homophobia” must include personal animus or malice toward the gay community.” But, as I’ve already said, Robertson seemed to be placing sexual transgressions like homosexuality in the same category as adultery, of which he is guilty and about which he speaks publicly. I do not share Robertson’s born-again take on Christianity, but I understand it enough to grasp his meaning when he talks about sin and sinners and, most importantly, so does his audience. Millions of Americans were unafraid to stand for Robertson (albeit sometimes with rather strange conceptions of the First Amendment) not because they joined with him in anti-gay bigotry, but because they clearly understood that what he had said wasn’t bigoted.

So here’s the actual graph, so far, of the American public’s opinion on gay marriage.

2014-01-07 Gay Marriage

Now, you can’t compare the shape of this graph to the abortion and interracial marriage graphs because the time frames are different. The interracial marriage chart goes back to 1958, the abortion chart goes back to 1975, and the gay marriage chart goes back to 1996. There’s no evidence, just based on the charts, to predict whether the gay marriage issue is going to be locked in a stalemate for decades (like abortion) or whether it will eventually resolve into near unanimity (like interracial marriage).

And, to be perfectly honest, I don’t have a high degree of confidence that I can predict the future on this issue either. Frankly, I suspect that the gay marriage chart will end up looking more like the interracial marriage chart than the abortion chart in decades to come. But it might not.

Goff and Ambrosino, both of whom support gay marriage, have already tacitly accepted that the gay marriage issue is not tied to broader acceptance of homosexuals as equal human beings in the same way that the interracial marriage issue is inextricable from racial inequality. You can’t logically support racial equality without supporting interracial marriage. But you can support equal rights for gays without supporting gay marriage. Race is not the same kind of identity as sexuality. This makes sense, since race is a nebulous biological category at best, but gender is much more clear cut.

The best thing that the gay marriage debate has done is force social conservatives to practice what they preach. In the 1990s and before, much if not most of the opposition to gay rights was really based on bigotry. It was based on “ick.” Conservative defenders of traditional marriage, as they style themselves, were much too slow to distance themselves from hateful rhetoric and genuine bigots. This blunder–both morally and strategically–cost them big. It may have been the deciding factor in the entire issue. Americans do not like haters.

But recently the traditional marriage movement has been sincerely careful in their articulation of a position that is anti gay marriage without being anti gay (to use Amrosino’s distinction). This distinction is obviously accepted by the broad swathe of American social conservatives, and I believe it explains the upwelling of support for Robertson better than the theory that half of Americans are just bigoted, hateful jerks. More importantly, even proponents of gay marriage like Goff and Ambrosino accept this possibility as well. All of this means that support for gay marriage may continue to climb until it reaches near-universal acceptance, or it may stall out well before that level (probably about where it is now) and become an entrenched, ongoing controversy like the abortion debate.

It’s too early to tell.