This may sound odd, but I don’t think you can fully understand evangelicals’ opposition to marriage equality without also understanding their antifeminism.
Evangelicals believe that women are inherently more nurturing while men are inherently more aggressive. They believe that God intended the wife to be the heart of the family and home life and the husband to be the protector, provider, and the family’s interface with the public sphere. And of course, evangelicals belief that fathers and mothers are innately wired to parent differently—and that both types of parenting are needed for children’s success. As Focus on the Family puts it: “Validation from Dad, plus nurturing from Mom, equals ‘mission accomplished’ as parents.”
Those of us who believe in marriage equality have been saying over and over again for some time now that what children need is parents who invest in them and love them, and that the gender of those parents is not important. But this only makes sense if we also accept gender equality and the fruits of the feminist movement—the idea that mothers can be protectors and providers too, and that men can be just as nurturing to children as women can. And as long as evangelical leaders continue to emphasize gender differences—to argue that men are from Mars and women are from Venus—evangelicals will continue to insist that children really do need a mother and a father.
Let me offer an analogy.
Imagine a man and a woman in a rowboat. Each has an oar, and together they are moving the boat forward. One side of the boat is nurturing side, and the other side is the providing side. Now imagine that there are two women in this boat, rather than a man and a woman. Feminism would allow those women to choose which side to row on, and even to grab hands and row together on both sides. But evangelical leaders will not accept this. They argue that women can only row on the nurturing side and men can only row on the providing side. In the view of these evangelicals, a boat rowed by two women must of necessity go in circles—and so, too, must a boat rowed by two men.
(Feminism not only allows two women or two men to row the boat—It also allows greater flexibility for heterosexual couples, allowing them to switch sides if they choose, to take turns, or to row both sides together. And let’s not forget single parents: a boat with only one person—man or woman—can move forward as well, though that person may find rowing alone more tiring and difficult than rowing with a partner.)
Evangelicals insistence that each child needs a mother and a father, rather than simply loving parents, is rooted in evangelicals’ strong gender essentialism and serves to tie the fate of the causes of feminism and LGTBQ rights together in evangelical minds. The more that feminism breaks down gender essentialism and challenges conventional gender roles, the fainter the constricting heteronormative binary that threatens LGBTQ individuals with erasure will become—and the more LGBTQ individuals refuse to be bound by that constricting heteronormantive binary, the greater the challenge to essentialism and conventional gender roles will become.
In the end, I honestly don’t think evangelicals can come to accept marriage equality until they deal with their antifeminism problem. After all, until they can make peace with feminism their belief that women are wired to change diapers while men are wired to leave for work will keep them arguing that gays and lesbians should not be allowed to marry because children need a mother and a father.