March 7, 2013

Searching for Common Ground in the “Marriage Culture Wars”

(Photo Credit: Gay Family Web)

(Photo Credit: Gay Family Web)

Kristin Rudolph (@kristin_rudolph)

Recently the Institute for American Values launched a “New Conversation on Marriage,” including the possibility that same-sex marriage (SSM) advocates could bolster help bolster the institution. The “conversation” was launched in February this year, and follows IAV president, David Blankenhorn’s announcement last June that he now approves of SSM. On March 5th, IAV held the first of a nine part series of discussions about marriage with a variety of leaders from different fields. This first “conversation” featured Jonathan Haidt, a NYU professor and author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion discussing “Can We Get Beyond the Marriage Culture Wars?

Blankenhorn and Haidt began by discussing a major premise of Haidt’s book, that to understand those you disagree with, you must know what they hold “sacred.” Haidt explained how in reaction to the sexual revolution, conservatives emphasized the importance of the family, and “marriage, gender roles … became the front line in the Culture Wars.” These became sacred issues for conservatives, while the opposite was true for liberals. Because marriage was viewed as oppressive and patriarchal toward women by liberals, whose “sacred value was inclusiveness,” conservative emphasis on marriage was offensive.

They addressed what factors have lead to potential points of unity between conservatives and liberals regarding marriage. Haidt suggested a major shift happened for liberals last July following a New York Times article titled “Two Classes in America Divided by ‘I Do,’” which explored the link between marriage and socioeconomic inequality. Blankenhorn said marriage could now be seen as “a social justice issue,” so liberals might promote it for reasons besides traditional morality.

Addressing the changed attitudes among conservatives and the broader population toward homosexuality, Haidt pointed to the growing appeals to our intuition and emotions through positive portrayals by the media, and the increased numbers of those who have “come out,” so now “everyone knows someone who is gay.” According to his research in moral psychology, arguments used in debates about SSM, or virtually any other issue are considered “strategic reasoning,” which “comes second” after our intuitive response. Appealing to a person’s values and experiences, especially through relationships, rather than debate and argumentation, is the way to truly convince him. Blankenhorn agreed, describing how personal relationships were instrumental in shifting his view on SSM.

Further, Haidt said to persuade someone, “you have to know what their fears are” and assuage them. But the point is not to homogenize the population, he continued. “Liberals and conservatives can be complementary” to each other. Haidt pointed to academics, where “thinking suffers [and] science suffers” because the field has been “exclusively liberal” for the past few decades. He once considered himself staunchly liberal, but as he studied conservative thought and became a parent, he recognized that humans need “tight moral orders” to flourish. Life in the “unconstrained” vision of social liberals does not lead to flourishing, but to chaos, Haidt discovered through his historical anthropological research.

Now, Haidt said, “everyone thinks we should do what is right for children,” and he explained liberals hold three pursuits sacred: securing gay marriage, diminishing inequality, and solving global warming. Many will now accept that marriage addresses inequality, so it could be easier now for liberals and conservatives to join forces in strengthening marriage, according to Haidt. By finding common ground and appealing to conservatives’ intuition, this “new conversation” attempts to put aside the contentious matter of SSM to focus on the broader issue of strengthening marriage for the good of children and society.

But this “common ground” might not be stable enough for the significant changes SSM brings. As Maggie Gallagher, co-founder of the National Organization for Marriage has pointed out, this “new conversation” pursues “genderless sex and family norms.” Further,“With gay marriage, marriage is no longer a vehicle for stabilizing a certain kind of family structure, rooted in deep and enduring human realities, but a kind of instrumental vehicle for expressing adults’ and society’s longing for important goods like commitment, stability and love.”

She contrasts the language of the “old” conversation: “Marriage is a universal human institution, the way in which every known society conspires to obtain for each child the love, attention and resources of a mother and father” —  with that of the “new:” “Because marriage is the main institution governing the link between the spousal association and the parent-child association, marriage is society’s most pro-child institution.”

The shift to “genderless” marriage is an effort to change the very nature of what marriage, parenting, and being a man or woman mean. The IAV acknowledges this “conversation” does not necessarily mean traditionalists have to change their mind on SSM, but simply change the focus from “Should gays marry?” to “Who among us, gay or straight, wants to strengthen marriage?” Except the “old question” wasn’t even “Should gays marry?” but rather, “can the union of two people of the same sex be considered ‘marriage?’” It is a definitional question, and the answer has serious implications, most importantly for children, who are necessarily separated from at least one biological parent in every alternative family arrangement.
Although these discussions often become contentious, and it is natural to seek “common ground,” these realities are significant and should not be diminished.

2 Responses to Searching for Common Ground in the “Marriage Culture Wars”

  1. This is fascinating to watch: the same liberals advocating same-sex marriage have told us for decades that marriage is an outdated social institution. Have they suddenly found new use for the institution of marriage? Apparently so, but perhaps, as the article suggests, it is merely a means to an amorphous end involving ever-changing understandings of “equality.”

    Once the uniqueness of heterosexual marriage is no longer culturally/religiously/scientifically appreciated then marriage, as an institution, will lose meaning and other relationships will come under its umbrella as part of the never-ending, ill-defined fight for “justice.”

    Ironically, it is actually the leftist assault on marriage since the 60’s that has enabled it to now stand at the forefront of marriage redefinition. This is due largely to dysfunctional young adults who can neither think deeply about marriage nor positively reflect on it from their own childhoods.

  2. […] Maggie’s recent newsletter on the gender divide and the “new conversation on marriage” has started a real debate on the web. First, The Atlantic conceded her point on changing definitions of marriage and now Juicy Ecumenism (the blog for the Institute on Religion and Democracy) is exploring the same theme. See the excerpt below or go here to read the full article. […]

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