Jennifer Roback Morse (at Crisis Magazine) offers the best advice I’ve yet encountered for people opposed, on religious grounds, to same-sex marriage. In her article "Why Religious Liberty Arguments Aren't Working,"1 Ms. Morse identifies herself as “a very committed, very public advocate of marriage as a gender-based institution”; she then goes on to say, more in sorrow than in anger, that “The uproar over the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act demonstrates that religious liberty arguments don’t work anymore. I take no pleasure in saying this. But religious liberty arguments are not compelling enough to induce our fellow citizens to sacrifice something they value, namely, sexual liberty.”
Why do “religious liberty” arguments fail? Ms. Morse suggests three reasons. First, “An increasing number of our fellow citizens do not believe in any god,” which of course makes them absolutely immune to arguments about God’s will or God’s commands regarding marriage or sexuality. Ms. Morse reminds us that the modern concept of “freedom of religion” was designed primarily to avoid sectarian squabbles and to keep government from favoring one church over another; but now the squabbling is between believers and non-believers, and it plays out very differently.
Second, “the controversies over religious liberty are not about transubstantiation or the Trinity or predestination. We are arguing about sex: abortion, contraception, homosexuality and similar topics. Our fellow citizens have absorbed and are committed to a particular view about the meaning of human sexuality and its place in our lives. Millions of people have ordered their lives around these beliefs. They are not going to give up those views, in the absence of an attractive alternative.” Ms. Morse isn’t endorsing the contemporary view of sexuality, of course; she’s merely acknowledging it and acknowledging its importance to those who hold it.
The third reason, according to Ms. Morse, that “religious liberty” is no longer an effective trump card is—and this one all but floored me—“when we talk about religious liberty, we are putting the emphasis on ourselves. We don’t like the HHS mandate because it will harm our religious institutions. We don’t like gay marriage because it goes against our beliefs. Reason #3 why religious liberty arguments aren’t working: we sound like we are whining about ourselves. No one finds whining appealing.” It’s as if Morse has been reading Rod Dreher and his ongoing plaints of Christian victimization! If nothing else, Ms. Morse is to be commended for this unsparing self-assessment.
Ms. Morse continues:
“I honestly think further appeals to religious liberty are not helping our cause. These arguments are not helping the immediate particular cause, such as defending man/woman marriage. Nor are religious liberty arguments helping the general cause of the church itself. Appeals to religious liberty once made sense, but no longer.”
Is Jennifer Roback Morse saying that traditionalists like her should just surrender? No, she is assuredly not, and this is where her article gets even more interesting; she wants to change the terms of the cultural battle and extend the ground on which it’s fought:
We need a different strategy: argue against the Sexual Revolution because it has hurt people.
And I do mean the whole Sexual Revolution. We are tacitly giving a pass to the earlier phases of the Sexual Revolution, by saying so little about them. The only serious exception to this generalization is abortion: the Catholic Church, and more recently, other Christians, have put up a noble fight against the Big Abortion Machine. But other aspects of the Sexual Revolution? Divorce? Contraception? Taxpayer-funded Sexual Miseducation in the schools? Not so much.
It is as if we are saying, “We like the Sexual Revolution just fine: we just don’t like the Gay Parts.” That simply will not do. It is not fair to individuals who are same sex attracted. And, it is intellectually incoherent, since the acceptance of genderless marriage actually depends upon our acceptance of those earlier phases of the Sexual Revolution.
You may or may not agree with Ms. Morse’s premise that the Sexual Revolution has been harmful, but you should admire her willingness to engage that larger issue rather than focusing on, as she says, “the Gay Parts”. Here is her indictment of the Sexual Revolution:
The truth is that the Sexual Revolution has harmed millions of people: Children of divorce, whose families were broken up and who never really felt like part of a real family again. Reluctantly divorced people, who wanted to stay married but whose spouse pulled the plug. Heartbroken middle-aged professional women, who “had it all,” except for the children they are now too old to bear. Refugees from the hook-up culture, jaded, cynical, and old before their time. I could mention many other groups of people. They need our help connecting the dots between the lies of the Sexual Revolution and the misery they are experiencing.2
Like any good strategist, Ms. Morse is careful not to antagonize potential allies:
I mean no disrespect to anyone. Many advocates of religious liberty have also spoken out against these evils. My point is that bringing up religious liberty no longer strengthens our case: it weakens our case.
Instead of whining, Morse strikes a confident tone (are you listening, Mr. Dreher?):
Christianity has a viable, humane, intellectually coherent alternative to the Sexual Revolution. Sex makes babies.3 Children need their own parents. Men and women are different. These are facts: trying to build an entire society around their opposites is inhuman and impossible.
And she concludes by dismissing as irrelevant the whole “religious liberty” debate:
Our society desperately needs to hear this message. Demanding our First Amendment Rights is a distraction. If we religious believers won’t proclaim these truths, who will?
What a wonderfully and refreshingly quixotic agenda—reversing the Sexual Revolution! Again, I am not saying I agree with Ms. Morse’s evaluation of that revolution or with her endorsement of Christianity’s “viable, humane, intellectually coherent alternative”. I do, however, agree with her premise that this is the larger issue that needs to be discussed, and that both sides should be willing to straightforwardly state their views. Naturally, being a secular liberal, I think that the side of modern liberated sexuality will win (though I’m not quite so sure that it should win); but the discussion will be worth having.
We are, depending on how you date such things, anywhere from sixty to a hundred years into the Sexual Revolution: you could start from the FDA's approval of the Pill for contraceptive use in 1960, or perhaps go all the way back to Virginia Woolf’s declaration that “On or about December 1910 human character changed”. In any case, before we get much further down the road, perhaps we should take stock of where this revolution has taken us and where it seems to be heading.
2 The strongest part of the traditionalists’ case against the Sexual Revolution is that, like all revolutions, it has produced casualties. What has to be judged is whether the cost of “liberation” has been worth it and whether the gains outweigh the losses. At the same time, it’s important to remember that traditional sexual mores came at a price as well, while producing a different set of victims; there is no unproblematic solution to this issue. Finally, whatever the strength of her arguments, Ms. Morse and those who agree with her will still have to contend with the simple fact that genies can’t easily be put back in bottles, toothpaste can't go back in the tube, and Pandora’s Box, once opened, can’t be closed again; all of which is to say, social and cultural revolutions are very hard to undo.
3 The deceptively straightforward statement that “Sex makes babies” is the weakest part of Ms. Morse’s (and the traditionalists’) case. It’s blindingly obvious that one particular kind of sex (heterosexual vaginal intercourse) sometimes leads to babies being made—the question is, is baby-making the whole purpose (or the “proper” purpose) of human sexuality? Contrary to Ms. Morse’s implication, most human sexual activity (even most heterosexual intercourse) does not make babies, and it never did, even before the advent of reliable birth control. Regardless of where you stand on the argument, you need to begin by stating the facts correctly.