I’ve never been to the March for Life. It’s on my bucket list. I love looking at the pictures, because it inspires me to see all those well-bundled people, cold but smiling, feeling good despite the grimness of the occasion they have gathered to commemorate. They ought to feel good. They stand as representatives of one of the most remarkable political and social movements of the last century.
In legislative terms, the pro-life movement has of course been less successful than we might wish. Abortion is still very obtainable in this country, though there can also be little doubt that the movement has saved millions of lives. And in other ways, the achievements of the pro-life movement are enormous. Working with young people, I am regularly impressed by the number whose moral sensibilities have been formed in very large measure by the pro-life movement. Where the world too often showed them selfishness, indulgence and a callous disregard for the interests of the weak and innocent, the pro-life movement has taught our youth about self-sacrifice, honor and the immense value of a human being. The courts, the media and the academy have tried again and again to declare the movement dead. It isn’t.
That is the first lesson we can learn from the pro-life movement as we turn our attention towards the much-younger fight for marriage. It’s never over until one side decides to give up. The second lesson is that fighting the good fight isn’t necessarily futile even if the objective is achieved incompletely or not at all. Social movements have the power to change and shape whole societies. There’s a reason why they tend to be remembered long after the economic squabbles have been forgotten. They change the way we see the world. They alter us on the level of character. Social movements have the power to shine a bright light on our greatest social failings, helping to grow the conscience of a nation.
The good news is that, with respect to marriage, there is a lot of darkness left to illuminate. The pro-life movement made significant progress just by making people more aware of the biological realities of fetal development. When it comes to understanding marriage, Americans still have a lot of ground to cover. In considering the trajectory of marriage we should never lose sight of this critical fact. Some battles have been lost, but this fight is still young, and there are any number of factors that could tilt the balance in a new direction.
One of the biggest question marks relates to the progression of Millennials. Increasingly referred to as “the lost generation,” young people today have very little idea even what they suppose marriage to be. As I recently argued at Public Discourse, they themselves are surprisingly aware of their own ignorance on this topic. That they are more supportive of same-sex marriage than any previous generation is a legitimate cause for concern. Still it would be foolish to see their passion on this subject as evidence that they have reached a stable, considered position. More plausibly, they are floundering about looking for some point of apparent moral clarity that might help to illuminate the murky mystery of committed love. Unfortunately, for many, marriage equality has become that point.
The silver lining to this debacle is that social change built on such a weak foundation can hardly be irreversible. One way or another, social attitudes towards marriage will continue to evolve. It is emphatically worth our while to try to push them in a healthier direction, which of course encompasses not just sexual complimentarity but also fidelity, permanence and of course openness to life. Looking once again to the pro-life movement, we should realize that temporary defeats (like the passage of Roe v Wade) not infrequently open a space in which to articulate those truths that society most needs to hear.
The lessons of the pro-life movement are not all encouraging, however. It differs from the marriage movement in some critical respects, most importantly in its success in finding a core moral message around which to rally. The educated and the simple alike can understand why it is wrong to kill children. Advocates for legal abortion have tried time and again to smear pro-lifers by imputing unsavory motives to them, but these efforts have been, at best, only partially successful. They have never really managed to divert the public’s attention from the good of the child within. It is far more difficult to find a single fundamental message that can tie together the many moral and social concerns surrounding marriage.
A certain amount of progress was made with the message that “marriage unites one woman and one man.” Increasingly, though, this has become a way of preaching to the converted. Precisely because they don’t know what marriage is, it isn’t obvious to young Americans why marriage must be heterosexual. Marriage advocates must find something more fundamental on which to hang our central appeal.
The most promising of the currently available alternatives relate to the welfare of children. The French marriage movement succeeded in moving public opinion substantially through a campaign focused on why children need mothers and fathers. This, too, will require some defense, but more than the “man and woman” line, it does tap into something very fundamental to human psychology. If you had a mother and father, you probably have some intuitive understanding of how critical this was to your own moral development. If you lacked one or both of your parents, you probably yearned for them at some point in your childhood. Talking about maternity and paternity is a way of exploring the heterosexual nature of marriage without obviously seeming anti-LGBT.
Human society is an ever-changing beast, and although it can seem in the short term that good arguments fall on deaf ears, important truths have a way of coming back to us again in another form. Fighting culture wars requires patience and resourcefulness. A willingness to march through the cold, year in and year out and despite the jeers and contemptuous dismissals, may just be what it takes to win.