Spring 2004  Vol. 7, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2004

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Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
Journalistically Ignorant

God the Poppa

Gendering the Religion Gap

Hindus and Scholars

Godawful Numbers

Georgia Evolves

Bare Naked Christians



Same-Sex Culture War  by David W. Machacek

In the country at large, the Massachusetts supreme court’s same-sex marriage decision inaugurated a vigorous debate between liberals and conservatives, but for the most part it was an example of what the French call a dialogue of the deaf.

On November 27, David Crary of the Associated Press predicted a “nation-wide, state-by-state struggle that will be complicated, nasty and politically treacherous.”

Not surprisingly, reporters associated most of the nastiness with those who opposed gay marriage on religious grounds. “Comes now the parade of homophobes, the army of fear, the snarling intolerance of bigots,” Norm Prattis predicted in the December 1 Connecticut Law Tribune.

He could well have been thinking of the Rev. Lou Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition, who the day before had offered this reaction to the Massachusetts decision to Helen Kennedy of the New York Daily News: “It’s nuclear is what it is—it’s nuclear. That court struck like a terrorist.”

Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution in the March 7 New York Times agreed with the premise that marriage is “the bedrock of civilization.” But he couldn’t grasp how the establishment of gay matrimony would threaten it. “Would millions of straight couples flock to divorce court if they knew that gay couples, too, could wed?”

“This is hardly the greatest challenge to the sanctity of marriage. No, that would be the succession of nutty television shows in which one humiliated contestant after another is discarded before one of them ‘wins’ the path to the altar,” argued Boston Globe columnist Adrian Walker on November 20. “If Massachusetts Family Institute president Ron Crews is so concerned about the American family, why doesn’t he take on ‘The Bachelor’?”

Of course, Ron Crews and others on the religious right have been taking on television shows that glorify promiscuity and satirize marriage for years. They have also been taking on rising rates of divorce, out-of-wedlock childbirth, premarital and extramarital sex, and parents who pursue self-fulfillment at the expense of their children’s needs. And a survey of the coverage suggests that few journalists are trying very hard to report the religious right’s arguments against same-sex marriage with much depth.

A more sober account of objections to same-sex marriage would recognize that opponents see gay marriage as only further evidence of a more general trend in American culture away from traditional norms and toward a culture of sexual and family irresponsibility—a culture that even glorifies such irresponsibility in the name of personal freedom and individual rights.

“It’s not that the gay marriage movement suddenly unleashed a withering assault on the sturdy institution of marriage,” commented columnist David P. Gushee in the Religion News Service file on December 8. “Every dimension of the historic meaning of marriage in Western culture has been in decline for some time.”

The clearest enunciation of the religious right’s position on same-sex

marriage can be obtained from the movement’s websites. Here, for example, is a statement from Peter Sprigg, posted on the website of the Family Research Council (FRC):

 “The divorce revolution has undermined the concept that marriage is a life-long commitment. As a result, there’s been an epidemic of broken homes and broken families. The sexual revolution has undermined the concept that sexual relations should be confined to marriage. As a result, there’s been an epidemic of cohabitation, sexually transmitted diseases, abortions, and broken hearts.

“The concept that childbearing should be confined to marriage has been undermined. As a result, there’s been an epidemic of out-of-wedlock births, single parenthood, and fatherless children. The pornography revolution, particularly with the advent of the Internet, has undermined the concept that a man’s sexual desires should be directed toward his wife. As a result, there’s been an epidemic of broken relationships, abused wives, and sex crimes, and the consequences have been overwhelmingly negative.”

Religious right organizations have opposed legal recognition of other interpersonal domestic relationships as well as gay marriage. Also on the FRC website, Dr. Allan C. Carlson objects that “a series of recommendations from the American Law Institute (ALI) issued last November would strip traditional marriage of most of its distinctive legal status—not by direct repeal, but rather by extending the protections afforded by marriage to other relationships,” including, “cohabitating domestic partners, both heterosexual and homosexual.”

 “The ultimate result of expanding the definition of marriage,” says Glen T. Stanton in “Is Marriage in Jeopardy?” on the Focus on the Family website, “is that marriage would mean everything—and nothing.”

“Promiscuity, adultery, cohabitation, divorce and out-of-wedlock births have severely damaged the institution of marriage,” William J. Bennett argued on his Empower America website. “When our behavior does not live up to the standard, we have two choices: We can change our behavior or change the standard.” Proponents of gay marriage, Bennett claimed, “would change the standard.”

The culprits were not just ‘radical homosexual activists’ but the much broader “sexual revolution, which replaced the traditional marriage ethic with a code that has sought to free both marriage and human sexuality from restraint and commitment.”

When portrayed in this way, it would appear that both conservatives and liberals could agree with Adrian Walker’s characterization of the Massachusetts court decision in the November 20 Boston Globe: “Ultimately, this decision recognizes, and codifies, social changes that have been evolving over decades.” For proponents, this was why same-sex marriage should be legally recognized; for opponents, precisely why they shouldn’t be.

If social acceptance of same-sex couples was only one (small) part of a much bigger threat to marriage, then why was the religious right so vociferous about it?

Mobilization against same-sex marriage can draw on the considerable prejudice against homosexuals that remains in the general population, with or without the help of the religious right. Homosexuals made easier scapegoats than sexy young adults, struggling single moms, or disenchanted divorcés. 

For like it or not, premarital sex, divorce, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock childbirth have all been widely accepted, if not entirely embraced, as facts of contemporary social life. Those horses are out of the barn.

While the overwhelming public response to the religious right’s objections to changes in American sexual and family norms has been a resounding “Butt out,” same-sex marriage has been like a “shot of adrenaline” for the movement, as Sandy Rios, president of Concerned Women for America, explained to Nancy Benac of the Associated Press on November 24. The issue “promises to reopen the flow of financial contributions to their advocacy groups that had slowed to a trickle when Republicans took over Washington,” the New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick reported February 8. 

The main reason, however, for the religious right’s focus on gay marriage seemed to be that so many within that fold were genuinely terrified by the prospect. Legally sanctioned gay marriages from this viewpoint place American society at the bottom of a slippery slope, teetering on the edge of moral chaos.

“What is happening in our culture,” wrote conservative syndicated columnist Cal Thomas November 18, “is an unraveling of all we once considered normal….It is like morally corrupt ancient Israel when there was no king ‘and everyone did what was right in his own eyes’ (Judges 21:25).”

Many see marriage, family, and church as refuges of moral order in a society increasingly characterized by moral anarchy. Gay marriage, to say nothing of the ordination of gay bishops, suggests that the chaos is now moving into the safe zone.

Advocates of same-sex marriage and other alternative family forms, says a statement on family values by the Alliance Defense Fund, “scoff at the idea that there is any set of values or beliefs that is generally good for families or culture.”

Without moral absolutes, anything and everything goes. “Issues of what’s right and what’s wrong, and what constitutes moral and immoral, no longer matter,” wrote Thomas a year before the SJC decision in an article prophetically entitled “The Gay Rights War is Over and We Lost.”

The only arguments that seemed to hold any promise of bridging the chasm came from a few on the pro same-sex marriage side who took the religious right’s fears about the dissolution of marriage seriously. “Gays are not attacking marriage. They want to practice it,” wrote Washington Post house liberal Richard Cohen in a November 20 column. And by doing so, they provided “the last, best argument” for shoring up an embattled institution: “love and commitment.”

And from the moderate right came the New York Times’ David Brooks, expressing concern, in a November 22 column, about a “culture of contingency” in which marriage is treated as valid only as long as it is enjoyable and convenient.

“You would think that faced with this marriage crisis, we conservatives would do everything in our power to move as many people as possible from the path of contingency to the path of fidelity.” The way to fight moral chaos was by promoting marriage as a “moral commitment, renewed every day through faithfulness.” Conservatives “shouldn’t just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage.”•



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