Wednesday, February 24, 2010

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Fighting the arguments of NOM

The Bi-College News Online » Blog Archive » How They Argue Against Gay Marriage

How They Argue Against Gay Marriage
By Alex Lopatin
Staff Writer

It is not entirely unfounded to claim that the past year has been a humiliation for those who had previously been confident about the inevitable forward march of gay rights, particularly same-sex marriage. California’s Proposition 8, widely expected to fail, was inscribed in the state constitution in November 2008. Then came Maine; a legislative victory for gay marriage was followed by a resounding “people’s veto” of the newly signed law. The New York Senate, wary, perhaps, of endorsing a position rejected by the voters of another solidly Democratic state, voted overwhelmingly against same-sex marriage. Finally, a bill to legalize gay marriage in New Jersey failed by a wide margin in the State Senate.

If this recent string of events has chastened and humiliated gay rights advocates, it has brought recognition and prestige to the National Organization for Marriage (NOM). Claiming as its mission “protect[ing] marriage and the faith communities that sustain it,” NOM has undoubtedly emerged as the leading organization opposing same-sex marriage. This invites the question: to what does NOM owe its rapid and powerful rise?

Many gay rights supporters acknowledge that part of the reason behind NOM’s success may be the organization’s conscious decision to limit its mission to opposing marriage for gay and lesbian people and to avoid the bombastic, far-reaching, and overtly religious rhetoric of such Christian conservatives as James Dobson and the late Jerry Falwell. These same gay-rights supporters are quick to point out that the mere absence of egregiously homophobic material in NOM’s campaigns does not mean that the organization or its core membership is in any way opposed to or removed from the virulent and religiously motivated anti-gay sentiment that characterizes so much of the Christian right. Gay rights leaders are correct on both these counts; unfortunately, they have, by and large, failed to identify, articulate, and expose the system that has enabled NOM to exercise its current degree of influence over ordinary Americans.

This system, or some variant of it, is common to many Christian conservative policy campaigns in this country. It involves, briefly, the use of seemingly secular social and “scientific” arguments to advance a position whose origin is purely religious. Evangelicals opposed to the teaching of evolutionary theory — because it contradicts, in their view, the biblical account of Creation — deploy buzz phrases like “teach the controversy” and seemingly rational “critiques” of evolution that, upon deeper inspection, have no scientific merit.

Christian conservatives opposed to allowing gay and lesbian citizens to serve openly in the armed forces — because of their religious opposition to homosexuality — use the standard refrain of “unit cohesion” to suggest that LGBT service members would effectively dissolve military discipline. This argument is belied by the successful integration of gays into the active militaries of such nations as the United Kingdom and Israel. Similarly, those who oppose gay marriage — because gay relationships, in their religious worldview, are intrinsically sinful — make use of social, historical, and political arguments that, they hope, will be more palatable to the general public than a direct appeal to the Word of God.

NOM is not alone among Christian-dominated groups in using a secular veneer for religious goal. What distinguishes the organization of Maggie Gallagher, Brian Brown and Robert P. George is the success it has had in crafting pseudo-sociological and deceptive political talking points, and in convincing the general public that this veneer is, in fact, the substantive core of their ideology. To effectively counter NOM, gay rights advocates must relentlessly and publicly refute and expose its trademark arguments.

First among these arguments is the assertion that marriage is, by “definition,” a union of a man and a woman and that this “definition” is older than, and indeed transcends, legal and civil tradition. But to define a concept in a way that prohibits rational inquiry is merely to make a statement of pure faith, immune from both corroboration and refutation. By stating that marriage “transcends” legal understanding, gay marriage opponents are merely attempting to place the institution beyond the realm of judicial and legislative examination; beyond the scope of Constitutional principles of justice, equality; and beyond the necessity of a rational, compelling state interest in order to justify denying certain citizens the right to form contractual relationships with individuals of their choice. Brian Brown, NOM’s Executive Director, makes a pithy summation of this method of shielding marriage law from scrutiny when he says that “government did not make marriage, God did.” Despite their pontification about the need for civil, vibrant debate over the issue of marriage, Mr. Brown and his organization don’t really believe that any debate is possible — they’ve defined their opposition out of existence. This is sophistry as much as it is religion.

Then there is the question of the “definition of marriage” itself. As anyone who has made the most cursory examination of human social history knows, however marriage has historically been “defined,” it has most certainly not been a relationship between two equal partners who chose to love and value one another for life in absolute fidelity. Polygamy, the social acceptability and even institutionalization of concubinage and extramarital affairs, the once universal phenomenon of arranged marriages and, most strikingly, the subjected status of women, all betray the lie that the twenty-first century, Western institution of marriage is the unchanging definition of marriage. In fact, it was precisely the redefinition of marriage to mean the union of two equals who love and cherish one another that makes the concept of gay marriage so much less foreign to modern civilization than it would have been in other times. Leading figures in NOM, members of Congress, and other prominent Christian conservatives love to sternly admonish those “redefining” marriage, but given the history of radical marriage redefinition, their argument is easily identifiable as nothing more than a fig leaf for religious objection to state recognition of gay relationships.

In addition to pseudo-social arguments, NOM employs a pseudo-political argument to conceal its religious motivations. This is the infamous “let the people decide” refrain, whereby Ms. Gallagher, Mr. Brown, and others purport to be champions of simple democracy and popular empowerment by fighting for direct referenda on gay marriage. A NOM press release trumpeted, “the people of D.C…have a God-given right to vote for marriage.” Such an approach, though vulnerable to criticism for placing individual rights of a disfavored minority in the hands of the majority, would at least be authentic if NOM actually believed that the people should have the right to decide whether or not to allow same-sex marriage. But NOM has made clear that it does not consider any form of legalization of gay marriage, even through a popular vote, to be legitimate. When the Maine legislature passed a bill allowing persons of the same sex to marry, Ms. Gallagher opined, “politicians can pass a bill saying a chicken is a duck and that doesn’t make it true. Truth matters.” Ms. Gallagher is here reverting to the super-rational “definition” system. The problem is, not only does this put the achievement of gay marriage beyond the reach of politicians, but of the people as well. Again, Mr. Brown betrays the fact that his organization only respects the “will of the people” when it is in accordance with his own religious convictions. He refers specifically to a “God-given right to vote for (heterosexual-only) marriage,” implicitly denying the right to vote for gay-inclusive marriage. In other words, the people have the right to vote, provided they vote in accordance with the Christian conservative interpretation of the Eternal, Immutable Word of God. That is not democracy; it is theocracy.

NOM has proven itself a dangerous foe to the movement that seeks to fully enfranchise gay and lesbian citizens of the United States. Its appropriation of tautological and specious messages has earned it a level of success that should shatter the complacency of gay rights supporters. But NOM, like every other anti-gay organization of the Christian right, cannot fully conceal its religious motivations — nor does it always attempt to, as Mr. Brown’s quote above demonstrates. If supporters of marriage equality can expose the reality that this is not, in the final sense, a debate about gay marriage so much as a debate about whether our country will be governed by secular or religious law, then we can be assured that the American people will choose the right path.

Lopatin, a junior classic major, can be reached at

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