Marital Defense

An Interview with Ryan T. Anderson

In June the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell v. Hodges that same-sex couples be allowed to "marry" nationwide, making so-called same-sex marriage a constitutional right. In his dissenting opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that "people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today."

Ryan T. Anderson is the co-author (with Robert P. George and Sherif Girgis) of What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, a book cited twice by Justice Samuel Alito in his dissent. As a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, Anderson has focused on the constitutional questions surrounding the issue of same-sex marriage, and is the author of the newly released book, The Future of Marriage and Religious Liberty, a response to the Supreme Court's landmark decision. He spoke with us about the ramifications of the ruling, how Christians should respond, and whether good can come from it.

What are your biggest concerns for Christians and other people of faith who don't believe same-sex marriage is legitimate?

The three biggest concerns are, number one: What will this do to the marriage culture? Number two is: What will this do to civil harmony and peaceful coexistence? And number three: What will this do to religious liberty? I think those three things are distinct. The first question is: How does redefining marriage change marriage? How does it change marriage for future generations? What will children and grandchildren be taught marriage is, and how will they think about marriage? Second is: How will the culture treat people who don't accept the redefinition of marriage? Will your neighbors view you as irrational or a bigot? And number three: What will the government do? Will the government be revoking non-profit tax status? Will the government be shutting down adoption agencies? Will the baker, the florist, the photographer be coerced and penalized by the state? Those are my three biggest concerns right now.

Do you believe churches and other religious organizations losing their tax-exempt status is a real possibility?

Well, it's certainly a possibility. We know that, because President Obama's top lawyer [SolicitorGeneral Donald Verrilli] told us that during oral arguments. Justice Alito said that after interracial marriage laws were struck down, Bob Jones University was stripped of its non-profit tax status. He asked if that would be a possibility for Orthodox Jews, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals, Latter-Day Saints, and other such institutions [should the Court affirm same-sex marriage]. I'll paraphrase the response: "That's going to be an issue. I don't deny it, Justice Alito. I don't deny it. It's going to be an issue." Twice he said it's going to be an issue. And then we saw New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer writing an essay for Time magazine—so these aren't fringe voices—saying that now is the time to revoke the non-profit tax status of religious institutions.

So I don't think it's simply conservatives being overly cautious here. I think it's a matter of taking liberals at their word. We know what the left's playbook is here because they've been saying it for a while. They've been saying that anyone who doesn't accept same-sex marriage is the functional equivalent of a racist who doesn't accept interracial marriage—and that the government should treat them as the functional equivalent. What we have to do is to explain why that argument doesn't work, why believing marriage is the union of a man and a woman is radically different from racism, and why the government should respect people who hold that view.

Do you hold out hope for either a constitutional amendment or for the First Amendment Defense Act?

The First Amendment Defense Act is the way to go. It's the most practical; it's also the most essential. It's very similar to the Church Amendment and the Hyde Amendment. The Church Amendment was passed in the wake of Roe v. Wade to protect the conscience rights of pro-life health professionals, pro-life citizens. We're going to need something similar to that. And what the First Amendment Defense Act says is that the federal government can never discriminate against any individual or organization because they believe marriage is the union of a man and a woman. So it's very simple. It says if we have accreditation, licensing, tax-exempt status, government grants and contracts—those things should all continue without any penalties because you believe marriage is the union of a man and a woman. To my mind, that's the most important and the most practical of the options people have been discussing.

And do you believe it would pass?

Oh, I think it has a very good chance of passing Congress right now. If you look at the composition of both the House and the Senate, this is something that anyone who believes in liberty, anyone who believes in tolerance, anyone who believes in pluralism should be able to support. It takes nothing away from anyone. It simply protects a pluralistic public square.

Not knowing when that bill might pass, are you concerned that things will become difficult for people of faith? That things will get difficult before they get better?

That's possible. A lot depends on how vindictive activists on the left want to be. We know that some want to say that anyone who disagrees with same-sex marriage should be driven out of polite society. Other people say no, we believe in the right to dissent, we believe in pluralism. People like Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan have said things like that, and if those are the voices that win on the left, that would be a very good thing.

But there are other, countervailing voices on the left. So then it becomes a question of what voices on the right do. If voices on the right just go silent, and if they say we're going to talk about cutting the tax rate, or free trade, or anything else besides this, then we can be guaranteed to lose. Because something will defeat nothing.

The other problem is that if people on the right don't speak for themselves, the Westboro Baptist Church will. The Westboro Baptist Church doesn't represent anyone that I know. I imagine there are an infinitesimally small number of people who agree with what the Westboro Baptist Church believes. But if the Westboro Baptist Church is the only one speaking, if they're the ones who get all the media attention, you can't blame secular liberals for thinking that's what all Christians believe. So I think it's up to Christians—and Jews and Mormons and Muslims and all sorts of other people—to speak for themselves, and to speak the truth in charity. Because if we don't speak for ourselves, others will. And they might not do it in a particularly gracious way.

People often wonder why Christians care whether their neighbors are a gay married couple, and what possible difference it could make in their own lives. How would you answer them?

My position on this has been that we should have a live-and-let-live social policy, in the sense that if two men or two women want to live with each other and love each other and join a house of worship that will celebrate a wedding for them, it's not my business and they have a right in America to do that. What is a concern is whether or not the government will be redefining what marriage is, and teaching future generations that men and women are interchangeable, and therefore that mothers and fathers are replaceable.

What we know right now is that 40 percent of all American babies, 50 percent of Hispanic ones, and over 70 percent of African American ones are born to single moms. What redefining marriage does is say that marriage is primarily about consenting adult romance. It's not really about the needs or the rights of children. And so it sends the signal that fathers are ultimately optional. So how do we insist that fathers are essential—especially when 40, 50, 70 percent of American children are growing up without their fathers—if the law is now teaching that fathers are optional? That's the concern.

What advice would you give individuals who want to further the cause of natural marriage? What can they do?

Here are the top three items. One is to condemn the decision for what it is—judicial activism. All of the things I'm going to mention have parallels in the pro-life movement. The pro-life movement never accepted Roe v. Wade as the truth about life. Roe told a lie about the unborn child. Roe told a lie about the Constitution. The same thing is true in this case. It tells a lie about marriage. It tells a lie about the Constitution. And just as every January 22nd people come to Washington to say we don't accept that Roe v. Wade is the last word, we need to say that we don't accept this as the last word. So that's number one. There needs to be a movement that says it's not over.

The second step is, we have to protect our rights. The pro-life movement protected its religious liberty rights. We have to do the same. What the Hyde Amendment and the Church Amendment did—pro-lifers don't have to pay for abortions or perform abortions—this is what the First Amendment Defense Act could do on the marriage issue.

And the last thing is that we have to commit ourselves now to bearing witness to the truth about marriage for the long haul. It's going to be inter-generational. It's not going to be won in the next vote in Congress. It's not going to be won in the next election. It's not going to be won anytime in the near future.

It's been 42 years on the abortion issue, and we're still engaging. But we are winning. We are changing hearts and minds. Millennials are more pro-life than their parents. The abortion rate is declining. More pro-life laws are being passed at the state and local levels. We need to do all those things [with respect to marriage].

And the overarching thing is that we need to have a response to the sexual revolution. Gays and lesbians didn't break down the marriage culture. Redefining marriage is a consequence of fifty years of heterosexuals not living out the truth about marriage. Redefining marriage to exclude the norm of sexual complementarity only makes sense after fifty years of non-marital childbearing and no-fault divorce. So we now need to have not just a response to same-sex marriage, but a holistic response to the sexual revolution. How do we embody the truth about human nature, the truth about the family, the truth about marriage in a way that's appealing and attractive and exciting in our society?

Do you think that good can come from all this, and if so, what sort of good could that be?

I think the good that's going to come from this is the same good that came from other challenges to the truth. Let's think about the history of the Church itself. Saints Augustine and Cyril and Athanasius and various early Church thinkers were engaged in debates about the nature of God. And because of those debates, we got a very rich Trinitarian theology and Christology. In the Middle Ages and then in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation we had debates about the nature of salvation and the nature of the Church. So we got a rich soteriology and ecclesiology. Today's debates are about the nature of the human person. Whether it's biotechnology, abortion, stem cells, cloning, marriage, transgender issues—all of today's debates are about the nature of the person.

Previous challenges to central truths yielded better fruit in the long run. We will get richer and deeper reflections about the nature of the human person. And while right now, when we're in the middle of these debates, it looks chaotic, one hundred, two hundred, three hundred years from now we'll look back and say, yes, there was controversy and people responded. There will be St. Augustines of the -twenty-first century who give us a better theology and a better philosophy of marriage and of human sexuality and a better anthropology.

So truth will win?

In the long run it always does.

is the author of the newly-released book, Don’t Let the Culture Raise Your Kids, published by Our Sunday Visitor.  She has been covering family issues for twenty-five years, as a producer for CBS News, a contributor to National Catholic Register, and a Senior Editor for Salvo magazine.  She has written for, First Things, WORLD magazine, and Touchstone.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #34, Fall 2015 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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