Editor's Note: This piece is published as a part of a symposium hosted by Patheos' Catholic Portal and Evangelical Portal, entitled, "For Life and Family: Faith and the Future of Social Conservatism."
Tags: Catholic, Roman Catholicism, Christianity, John Paul II, Richard John Neuhaus, abortion, same sex marriage, culture, social conservatism, politics, history
The struggle against gay marriage is not a lost cause, but social conservatives who say it is run the risk of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Voters have defeated same-sex marriage every time it has been put up for a vote. But doomsayers note the decreasing majorities of those victories and point to pro-gay marriage trends in our culture and courts. The doomsayers are right when they say we are fighting an uphill battle. Pessimism is one possible reaction to the situation they describe.
Here's another: Hopefulness.
Think of it in these terms. Yes, the trends are against us. Most of our self-appointed betters and would-be robed masters inform us we are bigots, the battle is over, that we should give up.
And it is amazing that we don't give up.
Despite enormous hostility from those who occupy the commanding heights of culture, time and again when the traditional definition of marriage is threatened, ordinary people stand up and defend it—and win.
There is an element of American exceptionalism in those wins. It takes a certain kind of people, rooted in centuries of self-government, to stand in the face of overwhelming pressure and say: "Thank you anyway, but we will decide for ourselves what marriage means. We will not have it dictated to us."
Self-governing people have a healthy suspicion of their supposed powerlessness before "inevitable trends." They will recall that when the California Supreme Court imposed gay marriage in May 2008, the media told them that successful referenda against gay marriage was "so 2004," that polls showed people are now focused on the economy and no longer care about fighting gay marriage.
Given that this particular spin has been repeatedly disproven in the years since, why should we assume the permanence of any trend against us? We have shown that the future is the result of the efforts of the present, not of armchair commentators who assume that whatever trends they currently observe will simply continue ad infinitum.
Now, all that said, there is one trend that does concern me. It has to do with our Catholic intelligentsia in general and the death of First Things founder Father Richard John Neuhaus in particular. Almost everyone agrees that, whatever the future holds for marriage, we are making significant progress in the fight to protect unborn human life. But this was not always the case. How we reached this point stands as a roadmap in the marriage battle—and a warning to pessimists.
Consider where the pro-life cause stood on the 20th anniversary of Roe v. Wade: January 22, 1993. After a dozen years of pro-life presidential administrations, the U.S. Supreme Court—in an opinion written by Reagan and Bush appointees—had upheld the right to abortion. The nation's first-ever pro-abortion president had just been elected and, on this very day, overturned every pro-life executive order issued by his two predecessors.
On that day it looked as if the pro-life movement had almost nothing to show for twenty years of work—that it was over; the cause was doomed. Abortion then, like gay marriage today, had become sacrosanct to many, the one issue above all others where disagreement with the Left was forbidden.
Pro-lifers could have responded by saying, "Fighting abortion is a lost cause" and given up. But we didn't. We rallied, fought back and, eighteen years later, it is now the pro-abortion movement that wonders aloud if their cause is doomed.
Why? What is the difference between abortion in 1993 and gay marriage in 2011?
One major difference, I believe, is the state of our Catholic intelligentsia. There was always a split not just between the dissenters and the orthodox but, within the orthodox, a split between the upbeat and the gloomy. Today, however, they are almost all gloomy.
Ideas have consequences. So do temperaments.
I was 23 years old in 1993. That was the year I discovered First Things and started reading its editor-in-chief, Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. Social conservatives had good reason to be gloomy that year. Fr. Neuhaus would not allow it.