Marriage and Society: A Response to Michael Bradley, Part I

This piece was originally published at Ethika Politika on January 14, 2014. 


A few weeks ago, Michael Bradley responded to a piece I wrote for the Intercollegiate Review, “Defining Marriage Isn’t Defending Marriage.” The more I have read Bradley’s response, the more I have come to appreciate his comments and concerns. This places me in a somewhat awkward position, considering much of his piece sought to be a corrective to my own thoughts.

My Mistakes, and the Big Picture

Bradley writes, “[Damian] misunderstands the same ‘proponents of traditional marriage’ whose view he critiques in his piece, or at least, he understands that view to be narrower than it actually is.” Bradley seems to me to be correct about this, at least regarding some of these proponents. He includes among the misunderstood Ryan Anderson, Sherif Girgis, and Robert George, whose book, What is Marriage?, I  critically reference in my own piece. Bradley is right in that simply placing those advocates as the historically-unaware proponents of traditional marriage whom I discuss and criticize is to caricature their views and to fail to understand the complexity and comprehensiveness of their arguments. In doing so, I have committed error, and I apologize for this.

So while I still hold my criticisms towards many conservatives, one must note that they do not hold universally for all conservatives. As Bradley writes, “While opponents of same-sex marriage may be politically conservative, there are nevertheless meaningful differences in how opponents of same-sex marriage ground their arguments against it, in how they understand the “traditional” marriage… that they do support, and why they support it.” I think he’s entirely correct about that.

Nonetheless, I still maintain my particular criticisms as responding to the actual views of many—perhaps most—conservatives in America, although my easy recognition of these views may be intensified by the fact that many of them are views that, for the most part, I once held. Further, my piece sought to respond to my expected audience. If I were to write for a different publication—say, The Advocate—I would have tried to argue in such a way so as to challenge the views of liberal progressives. I suspected, however, that the primary audience of the Intercollegiate Review would be conservatives. Thus I hoped to present arguments that would challenge my particular readers to consider how to move forward in, and in some ways change, their work.

The particular views of conservatives should not overshadow, however, two broader arguments I hoped to make. First, I hoped to argue that, while clarifying the meaning and purpose of marriage is important, solely doing this fails to address the primary problem facing us: why people desiresame-sex marriage. Second, I hoped to argue that the views held and lived out by many—again, perhaps most—conservatives are at least partially, though certainly not entirely, responsible for the current state of marriage and the popular desire for same-sex marriage in the United States.

An Analogous Issue: What the Pro-Life Movement Can Teach Us

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: ‘Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth!’ One without the other becomes a destructive lie. Blessed John Paul II

To give an idea of where I’m coming from, I’d like to discuss an issue related to gay marriage, an issue that conservatives of late have been tremendously successful in addressing: abortion.

In a blog post last year I suggested that the pro-life movement has much to teach the defenders of marriage. In that post I discussed Abby Johnson’s book Unplanned, in which she writes about her first day as a Planned Parenthood Volunteer in 2001. She recalls protesters outside the facility, one dressed as the Grim Reaper and another waving a sign with an image of an aborted fetus. One should note that from the pro-life perspective, this is the most direct response to the question of abortion—elective abortion is the direct killing of an innocent human life. Abortion is the Grim Reaper and a dead body.

Yet, these “direct truths” caused the opposite of the desired result. Although she had been originally uncomfortable with volunteering, Abby writes, “On my first day as a Planned Parenthood volunteer, the confrontational and hostile demeanor of a few in the pro-life crowd not only colored my perception of their movement but solidified my commitment to Planned Parenthood.” These “pro-life” protesters, by their actions, won one more woman over to the largest abortion provider in the country.

Things changed, however, largely through the work of the local pro-life organization, the Coalition for Life. By 2004, the Coalition had trained the pro-life community to remake itself. Abby writes, “Many simply stood… and prayed… When they addressed patients, they spoke gently and offered literature or an invitation to come outside the fence and talk—no accusations, no nasty signs, simply a peaceful, prayerful force. And they consistently spoke words of welcome and kindness to us clinic workers. In fact, they were killing us with kindness.”

The demeanor gradually changed for everyone, on all sides. When I started “sidewalk counseling” in 2007 with the Coalition, women would rarely accept the information I tried to offer them. A few years later, women took countless pamphlets. A few even drove to the clinic, got out of their cars, and walked straight up to me. And then they asked if I had information on options other than Planned Parenthood.

Eventually, when Abby was confronted with the “direct truth” about what abortion was, she left her office and drove over to the Coalition for Life, seeking its support (it’s a truly moving story—you should read it in her book). What this story reveals is that people desire compassion, and this compassion often colors the way in which they view others. Human beings have a natural inclination to distrust those whom they perceive to be uncompassionate, and to align themselves with those whom they perceive to be the best listeners and the most caring.

Abby’s story also reveals that the most direct answers are often the least effective answers. In the 1990s, the Caring Foundation ran contrasting pro-life ads in Michigan. One ad presented the pain of a post-abortive woman. The other showed a woman who had chosen life and presented her life in a positive light. Paul Swope wrote in 1998, “While this [second] ad is not always popular among pro-life activists, polls showed it is extremely effective with young women.” Swope argued that, to be most effective, the pro-life movement needed to listen to the concerns and ways of thinking of abortion-minded women and to respond to them. He claimed that the most effective responses to abortion have been the indirect ones: ads depicting the empowerment in choosing motherhood, crisis pregnancy centers, alternative resources, and positive messages.

These lessons from the pro-life movement have not transferred over to many promoting a traditional Christian sexual ethic. The defenders of traditional marriage are full of their Grim Reapers and death images; they’re the people who predict the destruction of America and the ruin of its children. These messages are not appealing; they may even reinforce support for gay marriage and solidify opposition to Christian teachings on sexuality. They are certainly undermined by flesh-and-blood images of smiling same-sex couples and their happy and healthy children. Images of real happy children are much more compelling than statistics about their ruin.

If politicians are largely motivated by the views of the constituents, conservatives promoting the “traditional” view of marriage should find discomfort in them. In the past few years, the views of many politicians across the political spectrum have “evolved” from opposing same-sex-marriage to ignoring the issue to supporting same-sex-marriage. I have heard no stories of politicians who have evolved in the opposite direction. Powerful and consistent arguments against same-sex-marriage abound. They may be convincing, but they are not compelling. As Michael Hannon has pointed out, such arguments are necessary, but they are not sufficient.

A creative response is needed. I’m not sure what the crisis pregnancy center of the traditional marriage movement would be, but conservatives need to be interested in finding it. Perhaps it will be aid programs to gay youth on the streets (many of whom are abandoned by Christian families). Perhaps it will be support for men and women suffering from HIV and AIDS, many of whom are gay. Perhaps it will be, as it has been for me, loving family and friends offering meaningful and enduring love and support over the course of a lifetime. Perhaps it will be looking into the ways in which we can better understand the particular roles and unique importance of gay people in American society.

To find these and other answers, we need to start asking the non-obvious questions. And to discover what these questions are, we need to be much more interested in the actual mindset and concerns of the people we’ve been opposing. In short, to win the culture wars, as the pro-life movement has been doing, we may need to stop being culture warriors.

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