This is not a post about whether we should have same-sex marriage. Rather, it is an exploration of the ways that strategic options for same-sex marriage proponents and advocates of traditional restrictions on marriage are evolving. What kinds of arguments are likely to be meaningful to persuadable people?From the traditional-marriage camp, many frequently-advanced arguments are likely to lose their persuasive utility over the next few years, given the evident resilience of new institutional rules for marriage in Massachussets, as well as legislative and judicial victories in Iowa, Washington, D.C., and throughout New England for advocates of making marriage available on equal terms for same-sex and different-sex couples. In particular, the following arguments are either now unlikely to persuade anyone who is not a member of the traditional-marriage movement, or they will quickly attain that status.
- The argument that same-sex marriage is being undemocratically imposed. A majority of the jurisdictions in the U.S. that currently recognize same-sex marriage made that decision through the standard democratic legislative process. The fright-night figure of the “activist judge” is no longer especially relevant to this debate.
- The argument that same-sex marriage changes the definition of marriage. In practice, given the large portions of our country that have had at least some experience with same-sex married couples and the significant number of such couples now legally recognized by various state governments, the definition of marriage in the U.S. has already become more flexible. People know how to imagine a “gay marriage,” and many of us now know men with husbands and women with wives. The lived definition of marriage in the U.S. is now one in which heterosexual marriage is the prototype but other options exist. That is to say, the definition has changed, and a return to a more purely traditional conceptualization of marriage would itself now constitute a change to our definition of marriage.
- The argument that same-sex marriage is an untested experiment. This has not really been true for some years, as there are countries in Europe which now have a fairly extensive period of experience with same-sex marriage. In those countries, there is little evidence that traditional heterosexual families have been harmed by legal recognition of other kinds of family structures. But Americans are often persuaded by the argument that we are unique. Well, the experiment is now being tested here. There is not much compelling evidence to date that the traditional family in Massachusetts is in any new or extraordinary state of decomposition, but perhaps it will come. We can wait a decade or two to get more definitive results, if the reader would like. I doubt very much that undecided or persuadable Americans will wait that long, however. If there is not clear and compelling evidence of actual harm to traditional families in states that allow gay and lesbian marriage within the next few years, this argument will lose its punch entirely.
For the marital-equality camp, the strategic landscape is changing, as well. While the option of simply waiting a generation or two in the hopes that current attitudinal trends will continue remains open, some changes in present-day tactics and strategy seem likely
- To date, arguments for same-sex marriage have tended toward either highly abstract ideological claims or toward concrete claims that specific same-sex couples are hurt by present policies. Recent developments make available the pragmatic middle ground that Americans seem to prefer: the argument can be made that same-sex marriage works in the places in the country where it has been implemented. This is almost certainly a net strategic gain, as this kind of argument is particularly appealing to the less ideological citizens who constitute the persuadable middle.
- The fact of a large number of real-world marriages brings inherent negatives for same-sex marriage advocates. Same-sex marriage on a large scale means that there will also be same-sex divorces, same-sex spousal abuse cases, same-sex court battles over alimony, and so forth. These ugly aspects of contemporary marriage will inevitably complicate debates, as the current stereotypical happy image of the two grooms atop a wedding cake becomes muddled with stories of compromise, antagonism, and sometimes violence. Some voices in the traditional-marriage movement will probably play these incidents up. Both sides will need to develop strategies for addressing the probably-inevitable fact that same-sex marriage will sometimes have the same less-than-storybook endings that traditional marriage has.
Of course, both sides will continue to assert their fundamental moral claims. The religious core of traditional-marriage advocates can quite clearly continue to emphasize the view that homosexuality is wrong because of God’s law, regardless of empirics. Same-sex marriage advocates can still press their claim that social equality requires state-recognized marriage. These claims play best to the base; they speak strongly to those who are already mobilized into the movement, but much more weakly to those who are persuadable. Messages that will reach the persuadable middle are increasingly available to same-sex marriage advocates, but are becoming relatively scarce for traditional-marriage advocates. I expect to see a great deal of creative thinking, most of it unsuccessful, as intellectuals and activists search for new, persuasive messages. (One such effort is Hudson’s relatively recent Square Two article, an innovative if ultimately failed attempt to build a feminist argument against expanding definitions of marriage. A detailed and serious deconstruction of Hudson’s argument by TT at Faith-Promoting Rumor is here. My feeling is that Hudson’s argument simply shipwrecks on the empirics: the societies that have the most extensive experience with same-sex marriage are also among the societies that — according to virtually any empirical indicator — have the highest levels of gender equality on the planet.)
As a final note, I very much wonder how the LDS church’s official response to same-sex marriage will evolve in the coming years. The strategy to date has been substantially oriented toward short-term electoral victories to, as it were, plug holes in the dam. There may now be too many holes in the U.S. to plug. Will we see a move away from legal and electoral manuevering and toward a more directly cultural effort at mass persuasion? Some allege, based on murky but not absolutely implausible conspiracy theorizing, that the recent “Gathering Storm” commercials represent a first movement in that direction. Whether or not that video represents an initial, inept move by the church toward cultural persuasion and away from a more narrowly legal and electoral strategy, such a general change in direction seems a sensible strategic reaction to the suddenly changed environment of marriage norms and laws in the United States.