There are many reasons why America seems to be moving inexorably toward legalizing same-sex marriage. The Sexual Revolution that has swept American society since the 1960s is probably the main explanation. There’s plenty of evidence that Americans, especially Americans below a certain age, accept the Sexual Revolution’s basic premise that sex is a harmless pleasure without much moral content, at least when it does not involve coercion or, sometimes, adultery. Divorce, once seen as a traumatic, though perhaps necessary, last resort for very troubled marriages is no longer regarded as an exceptional event. People speak without irony of “starter marriages;” fewer and fewer people marry at all. And these cultural changes are not limited to the Secular Left. An Evangelical pundit got in trouble recently because, he said, he didn’t realize that being engaged to one woman while simultaneously being married to another was frowned upon in Christian circles.
Given their views about sexuality and marriage, SSM seems to many Americans a non-issue. But there is something else at work, too. Much of the success of the campaign for SSM has to do with supporters’ adoption of the language of civil rights. In our national discourse, the phrase “civil rights issue of our time” immediately suggests SSM; last week’s NYT editorial is a good example. As a rhetorical device – and I don’t mean to suggest that SSM advocates are being insincere – this is a brilliant strategy. In American politics, a group that can successfully appropriate the language of civil rights is bound to win.
That’s why I was struck recently when I saw that Rick Warren, perhaps the most influential Evangelical pastor in America today, has adopted this language on behalf of conservative Christians. In an interview about the ACA’s Contraception Mandate, Warren called religious liberty “the civil rights issue of the next decade.” He was echoing, among others, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has also emphasized the civil rights aspect of resistance to the mandate. This is a very shrewd rhetorical move – and, again, I don’t mean to suggest anyone is being insincere. If religious conservatives are going to prevail on issues like the Contraception Mandate, they can’t hope to persuade people on the merits of traditional sexual morality, much of which the American public now finds incomprehensible. They will have to persuade people that they represent the advance of civil rights.