2014 Diane Knippers Memorial Lecture by Robert George on Marriage & Religious Liberty

on October 18, 2014

Professor Robert George, an IRD emeritus board member, holds Princeton University’s McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence and is the founding director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He is vice chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Dr. George delivered the fourth annual Diane Knippers Lecture on October 16 in Washington, DC, honoring IRD’s late revered president.

I regard it as a great honor to be giving this lecture in honor of the late Diane Knippers. Not only was Diane one of my dear friends, she was also one of my heroes. She dedicated herself sacrificially to the fight to defend moral sanity and Christian orthodoxy. She was a warrior princess for the sanctity of human life, the dignity of marriage, and religious freedom and other basic human rights. She had all the right friends and all the right enemies. In fact, her friends and her enemies were alike a tribute to her. She did not seek conflict, but she never shrank from a fight when the principles she believed in were under assault. She could not be bought, nor could she be bullied into acquiescence or silence. She feared God, not men. And so she served Him faithfully and well, all the days of her life. She was taken from us too soon—far too soon—and yet her spirit lives on in the work of the IRD, and we draw daily inspiration form the example of Christian discipleship she set for us.

It was only yesterday, was it not, that we were being assured that the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex partnerships would have no impact on persons and institutions that hold to the traditional view of marriage as a conjugal union? Such persons and institutions would simply be untouched by the change. It won’t affect your marriage or your life, we were told, if the law recognizes Henry and Herman or Sally and Sheila as “married.” It’s all just a matter of “live and let live.”

Those offering these assurances were also claiming that the redefinition of marriage would have no impact on the public understanding of marriage as a monogamous and sexually exclusive partnership. No one, they insisted, wanted to alter those traditional marital norms. On the contrary, the redefinition of marriage would promote and spread those norms more broadly. No one was seeking to re-define marriage, we were assured; the goal was merely to broaden the pool of people eligible to participate in the institution.

When some of us warned that all of this was nonsense, and pointed out the myriad ways that Catholics, Evangelicals, Mormons, Eastern Orthodox Christians, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, and others would be affected, and their opportunities and liberties restricted by the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships (and, relatedly, by the insertion of the concept of “sexual orientation” into anti-discrimination statutes and ordinances), our liberal friends accused us of “scaremongering.” When we observed that reducing marriage to a form of sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership (which is what happens when sexual-reproductive complementarity is banished from the definition) removes any principled ground for understanding marriage as a sexually exclusive and faithful union of two persons, and not an “open” partnership or a relationship of three or more persons in a polyamorous sexual ensemble, we were charged with invalid slippery-slope reasoning. Remember?

No one, they assured us, would require Christian foster care and adoption services to place children in same-sex headed households. No one, they said, would require religiously affiliated schools and social-service agencies to treat same-sex partners as spouses, or impose penalties or disabilities on those that dissent. No one would be fired from his or her job (or suffer employment discrimination) for voicing support for conjugal marriage or criticizing same-sex sexual conduct and relationships. No business owner would be required to provide services for same-sex ceremonies that were contrary to his or her moral beliefs, or punished if he or she declined to provide them. And no one was proposing to recognize polyamorous relationships or normalize “open marriages,” nor would redefinition undermine the norms of sexual exclusivity and monogamy in theory or practice.

That was then; this is now.

I must say, though, that I still can’t fathom why anybody believed any of it—even then. The whole argument was and is that the idea of marriage as the union of husband and wife lacks a rational basis and amounts to nothing more than “bigotry.” Therefore, no reasonable person of goodwill can dissent from the liberal position on sex and marriage, any more than a reasonable person of goodwill could support racial segregation and subordination. And this, because marriage, according to the re-definers, consists principally of companionship of people committed to mutual affection and care. Any distinctions beyond this one they condemn as baseless.

Since most liberals and even some conservatives, it seems, apparently have no understanding at all of the idea of marriage as a conjugal relationship—a one-flesh union—not even enough of a grasp to consciously consider and reject it—they uncritically conceive marriage precisely as sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership, and they can’t fathom how anyone could possibly understand it in any other way. This is despite the fact that the idea of marriage as conjugal has historically been embodied in our matrimonial laws, and explains their content (not just the requirement of spousal sexual complementarity, but also rules concerning legal consummation and annulability, norms of monogamy and sexual exclusivity, and the pledge permanence of commitment) in ways that the sexual-romantic domestic partnership conception simply cannot.

Still, having adopted the sexual-romantic domestic partnership idea, and seeing no alternative possible conception of marriage, they assume—and it is just that, an assumption, and a gratuitous one—that no actual reason exists for regarding sexual-reproductive complementarity as integral to marriage. After all, two men or two women can have a romantic interest in each other, live together in a sexual partnership, care for each other, and so forth. So why can’t they be married? Those who think otherwise, having no rational basis for their view; they discriminate invidiously. By the same token, if two men or two women can be married, why can’t three or more people, irrespective of sex, in polyamorous “triads,” “quadrads,” etc.? Since no reason supports the idea of marriage as a male-female union or a partnership of two persons and not three or more, the motive of those insisting on these other “traditional” norms must also be a dark and irrational one.

My point that redefining “marriage” as sexual-romantic companionship or domestic partnership to accommodate same-sex relationships erodes the basis for permanence and exclusivity in any relationship is increasingly confirmed by the rhetoric and arguments of advocates of this view themselves, and by the policies that they are increasingly led to embrace.
University of Arizona philosophy professor Elizabeth Brake, for example, supports what she calls “minimal marriage,” in which “individuals can have legal marital relationships with more than one person, reciprocally or asymmetrically, themselves determining the sex and number of parties, the type of relationship involved, and which rights and responsibilities to exchange with each.”

Judith Stacey—a prominent New York University professor who is in no way regarded as a fringe figure, in testifying before Congress against the Defense of Marriage Act—expressed hope that the redefinition of marriage would give marriage “varied, creative, and adaptive contours . . . [leading some to] question the dyadic limitations of Western marriage and seek . . . small group marriages.”

In their statement “Beyond Same-Sex Marriage,” more than three hundred “LGBT and allied” scholars and advocates, including such prominent and influential figures as Gloria Steinem, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Kenji Yoshino, call for legally recognizing as marriages or the equivalent sexual relationships involving more than two partners. Nor are such relationships unheard of: Newsweek reports that there are more than five hundred thousand in the United States alone. In Brazil, a public notary has recognized a trio of people as a civil union. Mexico City has considered expressly temporary marriage licenses. The Toronto District School Board treats polyamorous sexual partnerships as among the many valid forms of family structure in its curricular materials.

And what about the connection to family life? Writer E. J. Graff celebrates the fact that recognizing same-sex unions would change the “institution’s message” so that it would “ever after stand for sexual choice, for cutting the link between sex and diapers.” Enacting same-sex marriage “does more than just fit; it announces that marriage has changed shape.”

What about sexual exclusivity? Andrew Sullivan, a self-styled proponent of the “conservative” case for same-sex marriage, has gone so far as to extol the “spirituality” of “anonymous sex,” and welcome the fact that the “openness” of same-sex unions might erode sexual exclusivity among those in opposite-sex marriages.

Similarly, in a New York Times Magazine profile, same-sex marriage activist Dan Savage encourages spouses to adopt “a more flexible attitude” about sex outside their marriage. A piece in The Advocate, a gay-interest newsmagazine, supports our point still more candidly:

“Anti-equality right-wingers have long insisted that allowing gays to marry will destroy the sanctity of ‘traditional marriage,’ and, of course, the logical, liberal party-line response has long been ‘No, it won’t.’ But what if—for once—the sanctimonious crazies are right? Could the gay male tradition of open relationships actually alter marriage as we know it? And would that be such a bad thing?”

Other advocates of redefining marriage have also embraced the goal of weakening the institution in these very terms. “[Former President George W.] Bush is correct,” says Victoria Brownworth, “. . . when he states that allowing same-sex couples to marry will weaken the institution of marriage. . . . It most certainly will do so, and that will make marriage a far better concept than it previously has been.” Michelangelo Signorile, another prominent advocate of redefining marriage, urges people in same-sex relationships to “demand the right to marry not as a way of adhering to society’s moral codes but rather to debunk a myth and radically alter an archaic institution.” They should “fight for same-sex marriage and its benefits and then, once granted, redefine the institution of marriage completely, because the most subversive action lesbians and gay men can undertake . . . is to transform the notion of ‘family’ entirely.”

Thus, many advocates of redefinition, sensing that they have now won and there is no turning back, are increasingly open in saying that they do not see these disputes about sex and marriage as honest disagreements among reasonable people of goodwill. They are, rather, battles between the forces of reason, enlightenment, and equality—those who would “expand the circle of inclusion”—on one side, and those of ignorance, bigotry, and discrimination—those who would exclude people out of “hatred” or “animus”—on the other. The “excluders” are to be treated just as racists are treated—since they are the equivalent of racists. Of course, we (in the United States, at least) don’t put racists in jail for expressing their opinions—we respect the First Amendment; but we don’t hesitate to stigmatize them and impose various forms of social and even civil disability upon them and their institutions. In the name of “marriage equality” and “non-discrimination,” liberty—especially religious liberty and the liberty of conscience—and genuine equality are undermined.

As I have said so often in the past, the fundamental error made by some supporters of conjugal marriage was and is, I believe, to imagine that a grand bargain could be struck with their opponents: “We will accept the legal redefinition of marriage; you will respect our right to act on our consciences without penalty, discrimination, or civil disabilities of any type. Same-sex partners will get marriage licenses, but no one will be forced for any reason to recognize those marriages or suffer discrimination or disabilities in employment, licensing, accreditation, government contracting, or any other area for declining to recognize them or become complicit in facilitating them.” There was never any hope of such a bargain being accepted. Perhaps parts of such a bargain would be accepted by liberal forces temporarily for strategic or tactical reasons, as part of the political project of getting marriage redefined; but guarantees of religious liberty and non-discrimination for people who cannot in conscience accept same-sex marriage could then be eroded and eventually removed. After all, “full equality” requires that no quarter be given to the “bigots” who want to engage in “discrimination” (people with a “separate but equal” mindset) in the name of their retrograde religious beliefs. “Dignitarian” harm must be opposed as resolutely as more palpable forms of harm.

There is a reason for this: Liberal secularism never was and never will be what the late John Rawls depicted it as being and hoped it would be, namely, a purely political doctrine, as opposed to what he called a comprehensive view—a view of human nature, meaning, dignity, and destiny—that competes with other comprehensive views. Nowhere is the reality of contemporary liberalism as a comprehensive doctrine—a secularist religion—more plainly on display than in the moral-cultural struggle over marriage and sexual morality. Liberal secularism will tolerate other comprehensive views so long as they present no challenge or serious threat to its own most cherished values. But when they do, they must be smashed—in the name, for example, of “equality” or preventing “dignitarian harm”—and their faithful must be reduced to a dhimmi-like status in respect of opportunities (in employment, contracting, and other areas) that, from the point of view of liberal secularist doctrine, cannot be made available to them if they refuse to conform themselves to the demands of liberal ideology.

Of course, there will be some within the liberal community—Rawlsians and others—who will try to make some room for meaningful dissent, even in practice and not just in thought and speech. And they will make various arguments—principled and practical—for why what might be described as the church of liberal secularism should avoid being too draconian in its treatment of heretics and dissenters. But they will lose the battle. The very success of the movement to which they have given their allegiance will reinforce the belief among their compatriots that the movement’s victories were victories of righteousness over evildoers, and expressions of dissent, even small ones, will increasingly be perceived not only as deeply wicked, but as presenting a grave and intolerable danger to the order of goodness that was, after a long struggle and at great cost, achieved.

And so, as Dean Robert Vischer of the University of St. Thomas Law School has observed, “The tension between religious liberty and gay rights is a thorny problem that will continue to crop up in our policy debates for the foreseeable future. Dismissing religious liberty concerns as the progeny of a ‘separate but equal’ mindset does not bode well for the future course of those debates.” That, in my opinion, is to put it mildly. But there is, in my opinion, no chance—no chance—of persuading champions of sexual liberation (and it should be clear by now that this is the cause they serve), that they should respect, or permit the law to respect, the conscience rights of those with whom they disagree. Look at it from their point of view: Why should we permit “full equality” to be trumped by bigotry? Why should we recognize a “right to discriminate”? Why should we respect religions and religious institutions that are “incubators of homophobia”? Bigotry, religiously based or not, must be eradicated. The law should certainly not give it recognition or lend it any standing or dignity. Why should those who hold bigoted views be permitted to hold faculty positions at colleges, universities, or in law schools? Why should they even be permitted to speak or be heard on campuses? Why should they be tolerated in print or broadcast media, whether news or entertainment, in law firms, or in the corporate world? Of course, people who hold conservative views on moral issues have long experienced discrimination in all these areas. But until recently, the discriminators felt it necessary to pretend that they did not practice discrimination. “Why are there no moral conservatives on your faculty?” “Oh, it must be because they aren’t bright or accomplished enough.” Or: “They love money more than ideas, so they gravitate towards business, not academic life.” Or: “Gosh, I don’t know. It’s just a mystery.” “Why are there so few people in Hollywood who hold, or reveal that they hold, conservative views on moral questions?” “Oh, well, that’s another one of those impenetrable mysteries. Really just beats me. I mean, it’s not as if there is a black list or anything like that?” But increasingly it will be unnecessary to dissemble or maintain these pretenses. The answer will simply be, “we don’t tolerate bigots around here.”

The lesson, it seems to me, for those of us who believe that the conjugal conception of marriage is true and good, and who wish to protect the rights of our faithful and of our institutions to honor that belief in carrying out their vocations and missions, is that there is no alternative to winning the battle in the public square over the legal definition of marriage—however dark and even hopeless the cause looks, and even if the time horizon is fifty or a hundred years. The “grand bargain” is an illusion we should dismiss from our minds. And even if we won’t, it will soon be blasted out of our minds by the harsh realities that will now descend upon dissenters from the new liberal orthodoxy. There will be more Brendan Eichs, more people who are made examples of so that others, fearful of the consequences for their livelihoods and relationships, won’t even consider expressing dissent. Indeed, the ultimate goal of punishing the public dissenters is to marginalize and stigmatize dissent itself to the point that people will be deterred even from entertaining it in the privacy of their own minds.

Of course, with sexual liberalism now so powerfully entrenched in the established institutions of the elite sector of our culture (and fully embraced by the President of the United States and the Democratic Party and funded by innumerable hedge fund billionaires and corporate titans), some view the defense of marriage as a lost cause. That is particularly true in the wake of the recent shameful decision of the Supreme Court to let the lower federal courts impose same-sex “marriage” throughout the country without our robed masters in the Marble Temple taking responsibility for the preposterous claim that Americans actually redefined marriage in 1868 when they ratified the 14th Amendment—without so much as the slightest awareness that they were or even might be doing it.

Anyway, I think that defeatism, though understandable in our current grim condition, is another mistake—one that sexual liberals have every reason to encourage their opponents to make, and ample resources to promote. We’ve all heard the argument (or taunt): “The acceptance of same-sex marriage on a national scale is inevitable. It’s a done deal. You had better get on the right side of history, lest you be remembered in the company of Orville Faubus.”

Of course, this is what we were told about the so-called “woman’s right to abortion” in the mid-70s. And many demoralized pro-life people initially believed it. But it didn’t turn out that way. A greater percentage of Americans are pro-life today than in the 1970s, and young people are more pro-life than people of their parents’ generation. The idea promoted by the abortion lobby when their cause seemed to be a juggernaut—that “the American people will inevitably accept abortion as a matter of women’s rights and social hygiene”—proved spectacularly false.

Or, speaking of “social hygiene,” let us think back to the 1920s and 30s when eugenics was embraced by the elite institutions of American society—from the wealthy philanthropic foundations, to the mainline Protestant denominations, to the Supreme Court of the United States. Affluent, sophisticated, “right-minded” people were all on board with the eugenics program. It, too, seemed like a juggernaut. “Three generations of imbeciles [was] enough.” Only those retrograde Catholics, joined by some other backward religious folk—the IRD-types of the day, resisted; and the thought was that the back of their resistance would soon be broken by the sheer rationality of the eugenics idea. The eugenicists were certain that their adversaries were on “the wrong side of history.” The full acceptance of eugenics was “inevitable.” But, of course, things didn’t quite turn out that way.

Note that my point here is not to say or imply that redefining marriage is morally just like abortion or eugenics. There are obvious and important differences. My point is about the claim by progressives and some others in each case that the triumph of the cause was “inevitable,” and that those who declined to go along were “against progress” and had placed themselves on the “wrong side of history.”

Does that mean that the reverse is true, that the conjugal conception of marriage, and the understanding of sexual morality and integrity of which it is part, will eventually prevail in law and culture? No. There is nothing inevitable in this domain. As the left-wing—but anti-Hegelian—Brazilian legal theorist Roberto Unger used to preach to us in courses at Harvard Law School, the future will be the fruit of human deliberation, judgment, and choice; it is not subject to fixed laws of history and forces of social determinism. As the Marxists learned the hard way, the reality of human freedom is the permanent foiler of “inevitability” theses. Same-sex marriage and the assaults on liberty and equality that follow in its wake are “inevitable” only if defenders of marriage make their adversaries’ prophecies self-fulfilling ones, by buying into them.

So my call to supporters of marriage and religious liberty this evening is to stand up, speak out, fight back, resist! Do not be demoralized. Refuse to be intimidated. Speak moral truth to cultural, political, and economic power. Openly love what is good and defy and resist whatever opposes and threatens it. Be prepared, if it comes to it, to pay the cost of discipleship. Stand together with anyone of any faith—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Mormon, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Jain—who will stand with you to uphold marriage and defend freedom. Be gentle as doves, to be sure, but cunning as serpents. Be relentless in your determination to defend what is right in the courts and in the streets, on the blogs and in the legislative chambers.

Pray ceaselessly. Work to elect champions of life, marriage, and religious liberty. Fight to keep the Republican Party faithful to the moral principles that have drawn so many former Democrats into it over the past three decades. Remember that our adversaries, having now won a complete lock on the Democratic Party, will now devote their attention and formidable resources to making inroads among Republicans. We must defeat those efforts, making clear to the Republican establishment that our loyalty to the Party is conditional on the Party’s fidelity to its principles.

Let us remind Republicans that their party was founded as a party of moral conviction—pledged to fight the twin relics of barbarism, slavery and polygamy. Standing for what is right and against what is wrong is in the GOP’s DNA. Slavery was wicked because it denied the basic humanity and dignity of an entire class of human beings, just as the abortion license does today. Polygamy was unacceptable because it undermined the principle of marriage as a truly conjugal relationship—a permanent and exclusive one-flesh union of husband and wife. You see, the relics have not disappeared. They have simply taken on new forms. And we must stand against them today with Lincolnian conviction and determination to prevail—no matter the cost, no matter how long it takes. It will not be easy. And, to worldly eyes, the horizon looks bleak. But “mine eyes have seen the glory, of the coming of the Lord.”

  1. Comment by smack41 on October 19, 2014 at 7:04 pm

    You lost me here: “Of course, this is what we were told about the so-called “woman’s right to abortion” in the mid-70s. And many demoralized pro-life people initially believed it. But it didn’t turn out that way. A greater percentage of Americans are pro-life today than in the 1970s, and young people are more pro-life than people of their parents’ generation. The idea promoted by the abortion lobby when their cause seemed to be a juggernaut—that “the American people will inevitably accept abortion as a matter of women’s rights and social hygiene”—proved spectacularly false”. Calling oneself “pro life” and actually behaving in a manner consistent with the sanctity of life are two different things…abortions have stabilized at about 1 million a year, they might decline a bit more since teens are getting more IUDs. What’s more concerning is that 1 out of every 5 abortions is performed on evangelical Protestant women and the number among Catholics is 29% higher than that. The Christian church in the United States wants to regulate the moral behavior of the public without first cleaning up its own house. I think that’s hypocritical – no? If the church continues on this trajectory a bit of real persecution might do it some good, otherwise we will most likely soon see our clergy soliciting for volunteers for the upcoming PRIDE parade. Oh wait – that’s already happening…the soliciting at PRIDE parades by clergy, I mean. Bottom line: We will change our society when we are changed ourselves. The Christian Church is so politicized we’ve forgotten to what kingdom and to whom we owe our primary allegiance. I would suggest Christians engage in a bit less fundraising for the Republicon party and participate in a bit more authentic discipleship.

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