Is the “Good War” Against Abortion, and the “Bad War” Against Gay Marriage?

Is the “Good War” Against Abortion, and the “Bad War” Against Gay Marriage? November 29, 2011

The great Fred Barnes at The Weekly Standard recently wrote:

Foes of gay rights are now seen by the press as fighting the bad war, roughly analogous to Vietnam. Pro-lifers are waging the good war, like World War II. “You get much less grief fighting against abortion than you do fighting to preserve traditional marriage,” says Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List.

If only the media knew. They have missed the most important breakthrough in the struggle over abortion in years: the resurgence of the pro-life crusade. The press elite was beaten on the story by publications such as Christianity Today (“The New Pro-Life Surge”) and Baptist Press (“5 Reasons the Pro-Life Movement is Winning”).

I have a personal investment in the good war / bad war analogy, since I shared that analogy with Mr Barnes over the phone.  He had read my recent pieces (“The Canary in the Mineshaft” and “Turning the Tide in the Abortion Struggle“) reconsidering the pro-life movement.  I’m happy he found the analogy helpful, and it was shared openly with no sense of ownership.  (Although I’d correct one point: the “5 Reasons” article from Trevin Wax was published first at Patheos, and only reprinted at Baptist Press.)

Last week I received a note from Ruth Moon at Christianity Today, who is putting together some quick-hit thoughts, based on Mr Barnes’ article, on the question: “Has the fight over gay marriage made it easier to advocate for pro-life causes since there’s now a more salient ‘bad guy’ in the public eye (in the form of people opposed to gay marriage)?” Since she will (of course) only post a portion of my response, here were my thoughts in full:

The pro-choice camp once contended that pro-lifers opposed abortion because they hate women. It was plainly untrue, and they lost that part of the argument. Pro-choicers now depict pro-lifers as wrong on the facts and too eager to impose their religious values on others, but they rarely depict us as hateful anymore. Yet the gay marriage movement still depicts the opponents of same-sex marriage as hateful toward gays — and they appear to be winning the argument.

The pro-life movement has a kind of romance and idealism that the pro-traditional-marriage movement does not. Pro-lifers are defending the most innocent of all creatures. That’s appealing. But it’s harder to explain whom the opponents of gay marriage are protecting – and so the supporters of gay marriage imagine the worst of motives. If we cannot explain, or they cannot perceive, rational and loving motives for our position on marriage, then those who passionately disagree with us will assume that irrational and unloving motives compel us instead.

Note, however, that this all has to do with the ways in which Christians are depicted. If we have the courage of our convictions, and care more for the approval of God than the approval of men, then we will do what is right regardless of how it shapes our public perception. But there’s no question that the social cost of opposing same-sex marriage is now significantly higher than the social cost of opposing abortion.

In World War 2, “the good war,” the allies fought on behalf of innocents and on behalf of civilization.  The urgency and import of our intervention was clear.  In Vietnam, we fought to arrest the expansion of communism into Southeast Asia, and it proved increasingly difficult to establish a clear connection between our actions and saved lives.  Wherever communism went, it brought hardships, systematic suppression of human rights, and often mass slaughter of counter-revolutionaries.  A strong case could be made for our actions there, but that case lacked the moral clarity of WW2.

Now take a look at this video touting the growing momentum in the pro-life movement amongst the young.

The idealism of the movement is striking.  At one point in the video David French, a Patheos blogger, tells the students at a massive pro-life gathering: “You are a defender of the defenseless.  You want the unwanted.  This is who you are.  This is what you do.”  That’s a tremendously powerful — and appealing — message.  There’s no assault upon the motives of the abortive mother.  There’s no denigration of women and their freedom.  There’s a crystal-clear focus on the protection of the innocent and the vulnerable, along with a belief that protecting innocent life trumps all other concerns.  Moreover, a powerful pro-life argument can be made with no reference whatsoever to the Judeo-Christian scriptures.  With reference to genetics, biology and ethics, the case is just as lucid for the unbeliever as for the believer.

Contrast that with the gay marriage debate.  It’s tough to construct an argument against gay marriage without appealing for justification to scripture.  It’s not impossible.  One can appeal to natural law, but few who are not already committed to natural law will find this persuasive.  And one can make the argument that the legal sanctioning of same-sex marriage (1) further deteriorates the institution of marriage and (2) harms the children whom marriage protects, but the first part is abstract and theoretical and the second part is difficult to demonstrate conclusively.  Both sides can cite studies.  So gay marriage appears to be “victimless.”  To be clear, I’m not saying these arguments fail from a logical point of view.  I think these arguments are correct.  I’m saying instead that they fail to persuade the majority, since the case is complex, the water is muddied, and there are strong countervailing cultural winds.  Unless you are convinced on religious grounds that same-sex relationships are sinful and therefore inherently destructive — for the gay couple, for children they might raise, and for a society built on the marital unit — you’re unlikely to oppose same-sex marriage.

There are other factors as well.  (a) There have been, in movies and television in particular, relentless efforts to stigmatize anyone who disapproves of homosexual relationships.  (b) The issue of responsibility is more complex in the case of same-sex marriage as well.  A credible argument has been made that gay people are “born that way.”  But no one is born pregnant with an inclination toward abortion.  We can ask women and men who are leaning toward abortion to choose otherwise; many people believe we cannot really ask a gay person to choose otherwise.  Also, (c) the gay rights lobby has very successfully made the argument that equal treatment in matters of marriage is a matter of basic human rights, in line with the Civil Rights struggle.  If true, this would justify treating the opponents of same-sex marriage not just as holders of a different opinion, but as human rights violators.  Finally, (d) there’s a sense that the pro-life movement is winning ground while the pro-traditional-marriage movement is losing ground.  No one wants to fight on a losing side.

Consider this little bit of anecdotal information.  As an editor and director for a large religion website now, I can tell you: It’s substantially easier to find Christians and evangelicals to write on the abortion issue than it is to find ones who will write on same-sex marriage.  Academics in particular are terrified that anything critical of homosexuality or same-sex marriage will come up before hiring or tenure committees.  One of the first subjects we addressed in our “Public Square” at Patheos was the same-sex marriage debate, and nearly every person I approached to write on the topic had to ask himself or herself: “Am I willing to give up the next job, the next promotion, the next award, because of my views on this topic?”

In academic circles, you can question the morality of abortion and still be tolerated.  But if you question the morality of homosexuality, you are an oppressor and an opponent of human rights.  They’re perfectly justified in rejecting you, since your opinion is not only factually wrong but morally wrong, reprehensible and oppressive.  By rejecting you, they’re not being prejudicial or intolerant; they’re protecting the rights of gay faculty and students.

This is not to say that the defenders of the unborn and the defenders of traditional marriage have been working at odds with one another.  In fact, I think the latter can take heart from how the terms — and the momentum — have changed in the abortion debate.

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