December 11, 2012 | Commentary on Protecting the Institution of Marriage
With the Supreme Court now set to rule on same-sex marriage, George Will yesterday ignored actual polling data and ballot-box results (both support marriage as it has always been in America) to claim on ABC’s “This Week” that there is an “emerging consensus” in support of redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships. Will went further: “Quite literally, the opposition to gay marriage is dying. It’s old people.”
Despite our youthful reluctance to disagree with Mr. Will, we do. As two people born in the 1980s who work at The Heritage Foundation explaining what marriage is and why it matters, we’re happy to say that reports of our death have been greatly exaggerated.
One of us (RTA) releases a book tomorrow, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense. One of the two co-authors is a 2008 Rhodes Scholar pursuing a law degree at Yale and doctorate in philosophy at Princeton. And last we checked, his health was just fine.
Regardless of what some might imagine, support for marriage isn’t a relic of the past. A careful look at the polls reveals complex and dynamic trends. But how those polls change over time will depend on human choice, not blind historical forces. The right question is not what will happen, but what we should do. Would George Will have us give up market economies if polls showed an “emerging consensus” in favor of socialism? We think not.
Consider, first, the much-vaunted 2012 election results of marriage-related referenda. As we pointed out for Heritage:
• In Maine, Romney received 41 percent of the vote, while marriage received 47 percent.
• In Maryland, Romney received 36 percent, marriage got 48 percent.
• In Minnesota, Romney won 45 percent, marriage got 48 percent.
• In Washington state, Romney won 43 percent, marriage got 48 percent.
All this in a campaign in which, on average, pro-marriage forces were outspent four to one, and had no national figure leading the charge. The other side had the backing of President Obama, Vice President Biden, governors and a lineup of business, sports and entertainment figures.
Yes, exit polls showed the youth vote went for redefining marriage. And we do not naively deny that there are strong cultural headwinds against marriage. But that is no reason to give up. It suggests that we should redouble our efforts to re-educate a generation of heirs to the sexual revolution’s bitter fruits, who are deeply confused about the nature and social purpose of marriage.
We will lose heart in those efforts only if we lose our historical perspective. And in this, there is a parallel to the pro-life movement, as one of us (RTA) argues in the forthcoming issue of Human Life Review. The day after Roe v. Wade was decided, a front-page headline in the New York Times declared: “Supreme Court Settles Abortion Issue.” This headline, today, is embarrassingly false, shortsighted—an artifact of astonishing elite hubris.
But it wouldn’t have seemed that way in the years just after Roe, when public opinion shifted strongly in favor of abortion access. With each passing day, it seemed, another pro-life public figure—Ted Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, Al Gore, Bill Clinton—would switch to embracing abortion on demand. Elites ridiculed pro-lifers as being misogynists, on the wrong side of history. The pro-life ranks were aging; their children, increasingly against them. It looked like a losing battle. How easy it would have been just to give up and go home.
But courageous Americans refused to sit silently. And now the pro-life side has turned the tide in key areas of the struggle. On the question of the humanity of the child in the womb, pro-lifers have won the intellectual battle decisively. Today, most Americans oppose most abortions, and pro-life state laws are making great progress.
There are lessons here. Today’s young people basically inherited pro-life arguments, organizations and strategies ready-made. Now we have to do that work on a new issue. Whatever journalists, intellectuals and other elites may tell us, the only way to guarantee a political loss is to sit idly. Arguments must be developed, coalitions formed, strategies devised and witness borne.
Witness to the truth matters for its own sake, but persistent, winsome witness also tends to bear good fruit, even if it takes 40 years and counting.
So, taking this longer view, we like our chances for at least two reasons. First, as young people themselves settle down, marry and have kids, they’ll develop greater appreciation for what makes a marriage and for the gendered nature of parenting. They’ll come to see that husbands and wives aren’t interchangeable, and that mothers and fathers aren’t either.
Second, if we are correct about the likely harms of redefining marriage, then even a season of nation-wide genderless marriage and its consequences would lead to a reassessment—just as the harms of divorce and non-marital childbearing led to the marriage movement of the 1980s and 90s.
For us, defending marriage is not about reclaiming a vestigial social unit of yesteryear. Marriage exists to bring a man and a woman together as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces. And as ample social science has shown, children tend to do best when reared by their married mother and father.
Government recognizes marriage because it is an institution that benefits the public good.
Marriage is society’s least restrictive means to ensure the well-being of future citizens. State recognition of marriage protects children by incentivizing adults to commit permanently and exclusively to each other and their children.
Although some within the conservative movement may see marriage as a losing issue, the claim that the times have relegated the defense of marriage to the geriatric ward is inaccurate and rhetorically opportunistic.
Ryan T. Anderson is the William E. Simon Fellow and Andrew T. Walker is a policy analyst in The Heritage Foundation’s DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society.
First appeared in National Review Online's "The Corner."