The Religious Right's Terms of Surrender

Rachel Ensign/Twitter (@RachelEnsignWSJ)

Last week's Supreme Court rulings striking down the Defense of Marriage Act and denying standing to California's Proposition 8 supporters have brought out the usual clown show of conservative religious leaders proclaiming the end of days. It's the standard stuff from the activist right: Here comes pedophilia, incest, polygamy, and bestiality. Christian florists will be dragged to jail for refusing to cater a same-sex wedding. School children will now be forced to simulate lesbian sex with their Barbies. Stirred to action by the decision, the Christian right has vowed to resist the spread of same-sex marriage nationwide, using civil disobedience if necessary. There's even talk of reviving the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would amend the U.S. Constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.

But conservative intellectuals aren't expressing the same bravado as their activist counterparts. Like the 73 percent of Republicans who say gay marriage is "inevitable," thinkers on the right are conceding defeat, and considering what the future looks like for opponents of same-sex marriage. Here's conservative columnist Ross Douthat at The New York Times:

Unless something dramatic changes in the drift of public opinion, the future of religious liberty on these issues is going to depend in part on the magnanimity of gay marriage supporters—the extent to which they are content with political, legal and cultural victories that leave the traditional view of marriage as a minority perspective with some modest purchase in civil society, versus the extent to which they decide to use every possible lever to make traditionalism as radioactive in the America of 2025 as white supremacism or anti-Semitism are today.

Maggie Gallagher, founder and former president of the National Organization for Marriage (NOM)—the country's most powerful traditional-marriage group—expressed a similar sentiment in a conversation with the Prospect's E.J. Graff after the 2012 election. After passing constitutional amendments in 30 states banning same-sex marriage, in November voters in four states rejected similar amendments. Gallagher conceded that it was a turning point, and said wistfully that she hoped same-sex marriage would become, in the future, something reasonable people could disagree on—that opponents of gay unions would not be branded as bigots and shunned from public discourse. Think abortion—where you can be an upstanding member of society and still hold the minority view—not racial segregation, where a firm public consensus exists.

Douthat and Gallagher's pleas for pluralism will go unanswered. As I've written before, in the future opposition to marriage equality will indeed be the moral equivalent of racism, and whether or not this happens depends little on the magnanimity of gay-marriage supporters.

For one, you can't go to war with one idea and concede another. The argument from religious conservatives—both the activists and the intellectuals—was never that they should be free to perform and celebrate marriage in accordance with deeply held beliefs about human nature, gender, and divinity. Nor was it that the traditional view of marriage is entitled to cultural respect. It was an absolutist one: Either civil marriage excludes same-sex couples, or it is meaningless for everyone.

Key to understanding this view is the Orwellian term "religious liberty," a watchword whose meaning is a far cry from the "freedom of religion" guaranteed by the Constitution. Among Christian conservatives, "religious liberty" means having one's views codified as those of the state. This isn't just my uncharitable characterization. Current NOM President Brian Brown said precisely this a month ago:

The reality is, if you pass [gay marriage], you're undermining religious liberty … there isn't really a way to sort of carve out the rights of those of us who believe that marriage is the union of a man and a woman because the law undermines that belief.

Comedians love to poke fun at it, and it's baffling, but "my toys are ruined if I have to share" is really what it amounts to. The point is not that, after the dust settles, individual gay-marriage supporters will hold these extremist views against those who privately oppose same-sex marriage. It's that, three decades after conservative Christians jumped the Church-State divide with the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition, opposition to same-sex marriage has become synonymous with this sort of religious absolutism.

Over cocktails after work, Douthat can get into a lengthy conversation with one of his liberal colleagues at the Times about how his views are different from those making the case on the front lines. But most exchanges about political issues don't work that way. If you tell someone under 30 you oppose gay marriage, the instant assumption is that you're a religious extremist. You won't get much further than the first few words. Given how this battle played out, the swell of support in favor of same-sex marriage will drive the extremists back across the line along with their nicer friends.

There is another reason opposition to same-sex marriage won't hold the cachet that opposition to abortion still enjoys. Public opinion on abortion has remained about where it was in 1973, largely because the question of where on the continuum from zygote to full-born child life, and therefore civil rights, begins is so difficult to answer—no less so because of advances in medical technology. As the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade acknowledged, there are many legitimate views, which is why the Justices refused to answer the question directly.

But there is no coherent case against civil marriage for gay couples. The only argument against same-sex marriage that holds water is the religious one. It may have been codified in our secular legal system, but the religious view of marriage was always on shaky ground; with religiosity plummeting and support for same-sex marriage skyrocketing, it was only a matter of time before public opinion turned against it too. As a former Catholic, I understand the religious view of marriage well. I used to stress to my catechism students that the union of man and woman in marriage wasn't just natural, but supernatural. In court the opponents of same-sex marriage have stressed the reproductive capabilities of heterosexual relationships, but theologically the bond between the sexes runs much deeper. "Male" and "female" aren't just biological designations, but deeply marked in human nature. Marriage joins them at a spiritual level. In nature the union can produce offspring, but this is merely a reflection of this deep spiritual compatibility, woven into the order of creation. As a symbol of the bond between Christ and the ark of salvation, the Church, the sacrament of marriage is also redemptive. If this is how you see marriage, it's easy to understand why the very idea of same-sex marriage seems ludicrous.

But in a secular democracy—and in court, where it matters—you have to make the case by skirting the surface, without referencing these deep spiritual truths. Of course the subtext has been there all along in the legal arguments about the "history and traditions of Western civilization." You can hear the echo—"In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." When it came time to argue in Court why marriage should be restricted to heterosexual couples, the best opponents of same-sex marriage could do was bring up the point about reproduction, which leaves out the tens of thousands of couples who cannot reproduce, and those who are too old to.

Next, they tried to argue the flip side of the coin: That same-sex marriage would harm the institution, harm society, and harm children. These have long been consequences religious people assumed would come with breaking God's law, but they've never been borne out by any research. Growing up with two parents of the same sex doesn't harm children. Gay marriage doesn't lead to more crime. And the burden of proof is on the religious right to show how exactly it harms the the abstract notion of "the institution." After promising the trial court judge in the Prop. 8 case that they would present him with 23 ways in which allowing gay marriage would do just that, they presented no such evidence at trial. Wondering where the goods were, Justice Vaughn Walker asked Chuck Cooper, lead attorney for the proponents of Prop. 8, directly: What would be the harm of allowing gays and lesbians to marry? "My answer is, I don't know," Cooper relied. "I don't know." Religious conservatives have failed to make the secular case against same-sex marriage because, quite simply, there isn't one.

Where does all this leave religious conservatives? Out of politics, where these views belong. 

Follow the author on Twitter @gabrielarana