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Marriage Trads, Learn From Pro-Lifers

The Evangelical writer Matthew Lee Anderson has a remarkable essay on Mere Orthodoxy, arguing that defenders of traditional marriage should rethink our strategy, to learn from the success of the pro-life movement. Excerpts:

Perhaps more importantly, though, from a political and social standpoint the central difference between the two is that the pro-life case has gone forward within a progressive social temperament while evangelicals have largely framed their support of marriage in terms of “defense” and “conservatism”—which Jon Shields points out in his excellent bookThe Democratic Virtues of the Christian Right. The pro-life movement is not attempting to protect an institution so much as subvert and replace one. They have developed networks of care and support for pregnant mothers to provide alternative means of support for those in danger of choosing abortion. And as Shields notes, many of their most effective grassroots efforts to persuade others have emphasized tone and presentation beside the effectiveness of their arguments.  Even the energy around the legal strategy has had a progressive bent:  the sense of disenfranchisement created by Roe versus Wade motivated activists to overturn the fundamental injustices within our legal code, rather than more deeply inscribing the status quo.[1]

On marriage, though, evangelicals have mostly thought in conservative and defensive terms.  When the marriage movement started, the immediate cause was undermining the no-fault divorce regime. The first book I read on marriage policy, Maggie Gallagher and Linda Waite’s influential The Case for Marriagebarely mentioned gay marriage. But when that question came to the forefront, the marriage movement seemed to lose its progressive edge.  Rather than replacing unjust laws, marriage advocates instead focused on further entrenching in American law the traditional definition of marriage while expanding the social benefits that go along with it. The law may be a tutor, but it is not strong enough to stitch back together a fraying social fabric.

Unless the pro-marriage movement takes on a progressive mentality and orients itself around pursuing social and legal changes rather than reinscribing and holding on to a particular order, then the pro-life parallel simply will not hold. It is difficult these days to win support for a position simply on grounds that it is trueThe truth must be made urgent and, it seems, made clear over and against a sense of fundamental injustices.


Marriage needs no defense—if we will but live well within it than its reasons will be clear enough on their own. But it does need advancement, cultivation and care. Weeds that grow up from within must be rooted out.  The failure of evangelicals to do this in the past has hollowed out any “defense” we might give now. That much is well known.

Still, defense is the wrong mindset.  And it was always the wrong mindset. In the middle of a vibrant marriage culture, the fundamental principles, goods, and practices of marriage are handed down and inculcated through transmission. We can only have traditional marriage if marriages are properly traditioned, and the failure to form and educate the young with respect to the importance of a traditional Christian sexual ethic left them on their own when it came to navigating their relationships with the opposite sex.  Is it any wonder that those who had pseudo-marriages they called “relationships,” who chronically dated, and who had to find their own path through the courting phase are now in favor of inscribing such a preference-based mentality into the law?

The latest turn in our public discussion has been to focus on which arguments will be successful when presented in public (if any).  That is an important question, of course. We need more and better arguments for marriage, with all due respect to those who have come up with some already. Let a thousand rhetorical and argumentative flowers bloom, I say.  But we should also look to the pro-life movement for guidance on this point, as their arguments have been situated within an emphasis on building alternative institutions.  Their stance has been one of advancing a culture of life, not defending an existing order. And that means that the arguments have institutional backing (which makes them more powerful) and are always aimed at persuasion rather than demonstration. Insurgency and not defense, in other words, as Michael Brendan Dougherty once put it to me.  Marriage may have been a given once in our culture, a fundamental axiom which we were able to start from. But it is no longer, which means the change in rules means we have to change in tactics.  Because one crucial lesson of the pro-life movement is that social change begins when people are moved out of their complacency and when they have something to change.

You really need to read the whole thing. This is the best things I’ve read yet about where marriage traditionalists go from our rolling defeat in the culture and in the courts.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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