The Struggle Over Marriage

ROBERT P. GEORGE

Recently, the editor of Public Discourse sat down with Robert P. George to discuss the state of the marriage debate. While supporters of same-sex “marriage” claim that history is on their side, it turns out that supporters of traditional marriage have more reasons for hope than they may realize.

PD: What is the struggle over the legal recognition of same-sex unions a struggle about? Is it about legal benefits? Or is it about something else?

George: It's about sex. Those seeking to redefine marriage began by insisting that what they were fundamentally interested in was gaining needed benefits for same-sex domestic partners. Legal recognition of same-sex partnerships was necessary, they said, so that partners could visit each other in hospitals, extend employer-provided health insurance and other benefits to each other, and so forth. Some people who said this were, I'm sure, being sincere. Most, however, were not telling the truth. Their goal was to win official approbation for sodomy and other forms of sexual conduct that historically have been condemned as immoral and discouraged or even banned as a matter of law and public policy. The clear evidence for this is the refusal of most same-sex "marriage" activists to accept civil unions and domestic partnership programs under which the benefits of marriage are extended, but which do not use the label "marriage" or (and this is very important) predicate these benefits on the existence or presumption of a sexual relationship between the partners. So, it is not really about benefits. It is about sex. The idea that is antithetical to those who are seeking to redefine marriage is that there is something uniquely good and morally upright about the chaste sexual union of husband and wife -- something that is absent in sodomitical acts and in other forms sexual behavior that have been traditionally -- and in my view correctly -- regarded as intrinsically non-marital and, as such, immoral.


PD: The movement for legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriages has been astonishingly successful. Twenty years ago, virtually nobody supported the idea or even contemplated it. Now it is the law in six states and may soon become the law in several others. Can you comment on your opponents' strategy?

George: It goes without saying that I profoundly disagree with those who seek to redefine marriage in order to treat same-sex partners as spouses. Yet, I admire their determination, political savvy, and willingness to contribute time and enormous amounts of money to their effort. Defenders of marriage can and should learn from them.

An important point to notice is that the advocates of redefining marriage have a national strategy. That strategy involves the use of courts as well as legislatures. In state courts of last resort on which liberal judicial activists constitute a majority, they have gained swift and comparatively inexpensive victories. This has happened in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Iowa. Even where they have not won total victories in the courts, they have made progress in several states by persuading liberal activist judges to impose civil unions or domestic partnership schemes which provide same-sex partners with the benefits of marriage and do so precisely on the basis of the existence or presumption that the partners are in an "intimate" (i.e., sexual) relationship with each other. In other words, these schemes honor homosexual conduct (and, in effect, treat the partners as married) by excluding from eligibility other domestic partners (such as elderly sisters who share living quarters and expenses and look after each other) who have needs identical to those of same-sex sexual partners but who are not "intimate" with each other. Where activist courts have done this, they have set things up for the final step which advocates of redefining marriage hope will be the re-labeling of the civil unions or domestic partnership schemes as "marriages." In some cases, they hope, this will be done by the courts themselves; in others, by state legislatures.



The idea that is antithetical to those who are seeking to redefine marriage is that there is something uniquely good and morally upright about the chaste sexual union of husband and wife. . .

PD: It seems clear that elite opinion these days is virtually unanimous in supporting the redefinition of marriage. That view is now the unquestioned orthodoxy in Hollywood and among mainstream journalists, college and university professors, and the like. Many young people embrace it. How did that happen?

George: The movement to redefine marriage is part of a larger movement to entrench and extend the sexual revolution that got into full-swing in the mid-1960s. This movement wields extraordinary cultural power. Its hegemony in the elite sector of the culture enables its proponents to transmit its ideological tenets through television shows, movies, newspapers and magazines, popular music, colleges and universities, high schools, middle schools, and, increasingly, even elementary schools. Many people today, especially younger people, take these tenets for granted. They usually go unquestioned. I find in talking to students that when I raise questions about their assumptions about the legitimacy of non-marital sexual cohabitation, their first surprise is the recognition that they were making assumptions; their second surprise is that there are grounds for questioning those assumptions. Of course, only a fraction of college students ever encounter professors who question these assumptions.


PD: Surely the cultural power you mention is the most powerful weapon in the armory of advocates of same-sex marriage. How do they deploy their power?

George: Very shrewdly! They use their cultural power to enforce assumptions instead of advancing arguments or engaging the counterarguments made by defenders of the conjugal conception of marriage as the union of husband and wife. First, they use cultural power to create the impression that the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages is something inevitable. The idea here is to sap their opponents' will to defend conjugal marriage by encouraging people to believe that it is a lost cause. The re-definition of marriage is coming, they claim, so there is no point in fighting. After all, it is supported by the celebrities and all the beautiful people, by the professoriate and the rest of the intellectual class, by the mainstream media, by the leadership of the major professional associations and civic and philanthropic organizations. It has already won the day among those occupying the commanding heights of culture. So it's just a matter of time. You might as well get on the winning side of history.

Campaigns of intimidation succeed only if the victims of such campaigns permit themselves to be intimidated. They fizzle when people refuse to alter their behavior out of fear. As anyone who has ever confronted a school-yard bully knows, bullies are cowards. When their victims stand up to them, they fold like accordions.

Of course, this overlooks the fact that every time the issue is put to the people, even in deep blue states such as California and Wisconsin, conjugal marriage wins and same-sex "marriage" loses. In fact, polling often shows greater support for the re-definition of marriage prior to campaigns in which the issue is tested than at the end of such campaigns after the competing sides have made their arguments and the people render their decisions. And this is despite the fact that the advocates of re-defining marriage are extremely well-funded and well-organized and enjoy the overwhelming support of the cultural establishment. So people who oppose redefining marriage should not let themselves be railroaded by those on the other side to believe that their cause is lost and that same-sex "marriage" is inevitable. It isn't. Indeed, even in states that have redefined marriage, whether by judicial imposition or legislative action, territory can be reclaimed. Supporters of conjugal marriage in Hawaii enacted a state constitutional amendment to undo a state Supreme Court decision redefining marriage in that state. If supporters of conjugal marriage remain united and disciplined, they will do essentially the same thing soon in Maine where marriage was redefined by the state legislature.

Sometimes people who claim that same-sex "marriage" is inevitable point to polling data showing strong support among young people for redefining marriage. "It's a generational thing," they say. As the generations roll on, same sex "marriage" will come to be regarded as uncontroversial and even natural. People will wonder why anyone ever opposed it and what all the fuss was about. The support of so many young people for regarding same-sex partnerships as marriages isn't surprising, given the cultural power of the movement for sexual liberalism; but I seriously doubt that it makes the redefinition of marriage inevitable. Young people grow up. Most will marry and have children. They will perceive the ways in which moms and dads complement each other, especially (though not exclusively) in child rearing, and the ways their children benefit from paternal and maternal complementarity. Their vision of marriage and sexuality as having everything to do with feelings and romance will fade. They will learn something about love as an act of the will, and not merely a species of affection; and their understanding of what marriage actually is and why it exists will, in many cases, be deeply enriched. I do not claim that the experience of growing up, marrying, and bringing up children will lead all young people or even most who today say they favor the redefinition of marriage to change their minds; obviously, lots of married grown-ups with children today hold liberal views about sex. But I suspect that it will have a significant impact.

Another and far more insidious and brutal way in which many advocates of sexual liberalism deploy cultural power in the cause of redefining marriage is by depicting their opponents as bigots. Across the country, they have pursued a strategy of intimidation against anyone who dares to dissent from their position in a public way. Their appalling treatment of Carrie Prejean is merely one example. Their relentless personal attacks on her were designed to send a clear message to others who aspire to succeed in any area of public life, from beauty pageants to careers in journalism and politics: "If you oppose us, if you have the temerity to express support for the conjugal conception of marriage, we will smear you as a rube and a bigot, make your life hell, and do our best to ruin you."

After losing the Proposition 8 battle in California, the campaign of intimidation went into full swing. Anyone who contributed money to the Prop 8 effort or played any identifiable role in supporting it was targeted for intimidation. They were depicted as agents of intolerance and enemies of equality. Pressure was put on their employers to fire or discipline them. (I speak from personal experience here: the president of Princeton University, where I am a member of the faculty, was deluged with letters demanding action against me.) Boycotts were launched against their businesses. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) and its members, who were, as always, generous and active supporters of conjugal marriage, were made a particular target because they were perceived as an especially vulnerable religious minority. The LDS faithful were harassed, their church services were disrupted, and a grotesquely libelous and bigoted video ad depicting Mormon missionaries as home invaders was run against them.


PD: Will the campaign of intimidation work?

George: Campaigns of intimidation succeed only if the victims of such campaigns permit themselves to be intimidated. They fizzle when people refuse to alter their behavior out of fear. As anyone who has ever confronted a school-yard bully knows, bullies are cowards. When their victims stand up to them, they fold like accordions. My advice to supporters of marriage who are targets of intimidation is this: make clear to the bullies that if they seek to intimidate you, your response will be to ratchet up your support of marriage by, for example, increasing your financial contributions to the pro-marriage cause, devoting more time to making phone calls to family members, friends, and members of your religious community, and doing other grassroots work on behalf of marriage. That is what I have personally done. Just as the campaign of intimidation will fail if we refuse to be intimidated, it will backfire if we decide to make it backfire by redoubling our pro-marriage efforts in the face of it.

In the words of a prominent politician who says that though he supports civil unions he opposes same-sex "marriage": Yes, we can!

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Robert P. George. "The Struggle Over Marriage." The Public Discourse (May 29, 2009).

This article is reprinted and republished with the explicit permission of the Withersoon Institute. Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good is an online publication of the Witherspoon Institute that seeks to enhance the public understanding of the moral foundations of free societies by making the scholarship of the fellows and affiliated scholars of the Institute available and accessible to a general audience.

THE AUTHOR

Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is a member of the President's Council on Bioethics and previously served on the United States Commission on Civil Rights. He sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse. He is the author of The Clash of Orthodoxies, Making Men Moral: Civil Liberties and Public Morality and In Defense of Natural Law, and editor of Natural Law Theory: Contemporary Essays, The Autonomy of Law: Essays on Legal Positivism, Natural Law, Liberalism, and Morality, all published by Oxford University Press. He is also editor of Great Cases in Constitutional Law and co-editor of The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market, and Morals, and Constitutional Politics: Essays on Constitution Making, Maintenance, and Change, from Princeton University Press. His most recent book is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life. Robert George is a member of the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2009 The Public Discourse




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