Defenders of marriage need some entrepreneurial thinking. America has been governed by no-fault divorce, illegitimacy, and disordered desires of every kind for two generations; there are fewer and fewer people around who even remember living in a world where the Christian position was the default. We need to stop imagining real marriage is like the Apple of 2013—assuming we are the dominant entity and our opponents are upstarts trying to displace us from our position at the top. We need to realize that today, real marriage is the Apple of 1984—we’re trying to break into a market completely dominated by our rivals and offer a radically different kind of product.
Successful entrepreneurs are generally defined by three core qualities. The first is a powerful desire to improve the world in some way. The second is opportunity recognition—when faced with obstacles, entrepreneurs try to think of new and different ways of doing things that open up new opportunities for success. And the third is just plain, old-fashioned guts—but you can call it “risk tolerance” and “perseverance” if you prefer. When faced with both a threat and an opportunity, most people prioritize avoiding the threat; entrepreneurs prioritize the opportunity, even if that means risk and discomfort.
Since we Christians already have the desire to improve the world, the next thing marriage advocates need is opportunity recognition. The Apple of real marriage cannot displace the IBM of disordered sexuality by following IBM’s business plan. We need to be nimble and innovative.
Our current strategies aren’t working because they describe sexuality in languages—biblical, philosophical, legal—that don’t make sense to people. Therefore, without abandoning our fidelity to Christianity, philosophy, and law, we need a new description and account of sexuality that makes sense to people who have not yet discovered those truths. This will involve new verbal language, new visual language (images), new narratives, and much more. That new language should form the core of the public case for marriage, with Christianity, philosophy, and law playing supporting roles.
Our opponents are winning because they describe sex, romance, and marriage in ways people prefer to reality. They do so in verbal, visual, and narrative forms. This includes public discourse about topical issues, but their success in making movies, TV shows, and so on has been much more important to their dominance. The false reality encompasses virtually every depiction of sex, romance, and marriage in every medium.
Their power comes from the falsehood of their descriptions. They win people’s loyalty and belief to their worldview by creating fantasy worlds that are more enjoyable (in the short term) than the real one. These include not only the overtly pornographic and selfish fantasies—although those have played a critical role, and not just with men—but the more mundane ones as well. Twisting our softer sentiments has been as important as exploiting raw lusts.
At the same time, falsehood is also their great weak point, and hence it provides our golden opportunity. The intrinsic incompatibility of their descriptions with real life prevents them from reaching people on any profound level. Public loyalty to their worldview is broad but shallow—and it will always be shallow, because there are no depths in that worldview.
Moreover, because their view is false, it is constantly being refuted by real life. You can teach people to live as though their romantic and sexual fantasies represent the way the world really works, but you cannot make the world actually work that way. A growing mountain of scandalous statistics demonstrates the failure of their worldview to provide a functional way of life. It ruthlessly destroys the poor, women, minorities, social equality, economic mobility—you name it.
Method to Displace
The falsehood of their narrative not only points to their vulnerability, but also to the method we can use to displace them. We know the truth about sexuality and can therefore describe it accurately. We can tell stories that make people say, “Yes, that’s the truth about life.” We cannot deliver the short-term comfort and pleasure they provide, but we can deliver the deep satisfaction and functional life that they cannot.
We must speak the truth about sexuality and romance in the language of sexuality and romance. This can’t be a special, private sexual language for Christians that others will need to learn. It must be a language that speaks to people in terms of their everyday experiences and doesn’t presuppose that you need to be Christian before you can have a humane understanding of sexuality.
This will require constructive efforts that describe how sex transcendently, metaphysically bonds husbands and wives in beautiful ways. (Note: it’s not marriage that supernaturally bonds a couple, it’s sex; that will be a key distinction for the new language to bring out.) It will also involve describing the monstrosity of divorce and the tragic suffering of disordered desire. And it will involve satire that exposes the conventions that maintain the fantasy world.
Hollywood already produces these kinds of narratives from time to time, and critics tend to applaud them. Consider the success of Juno a few years ago. Many advocates on our side showed their lack of cultural understanding when they interpreted Juno as a movie about abortion; it is obviously a movie about marriage and divorce. The Simpsons has mercilessly skewered divorce culture, gratuitous sex on TV, women’s magazines, porn, and much more. Deconstructive parodies of romantic comedies are legion (here’s a favorite example of mine). Constructive examples are rarer —that’s where our movement can make its most distinctive contribution—but they do happen. Consider Pixar’s UP, or Wash and Zoe on Firefly.
Here, at last, is a language our audience clearly understands. They don’t know the Bible, they don’t know philosophy, and they don’t know public policy. But boy do they ever know sexuality.
For successful entrepreneurship we also need the guts to follow opportunities instead of avoiding threats. There’s a lot to say about that point, but I think the most important thing would be to reach out to the growing body of culturally powerful and influential people who don’t fully share our view on sexuality but are waking up to the horror of easy divorce. There is a new coalition against divorce just waiting to be built. This will mean making strategic alliances with people who oppose us on other issues, which is uncomfortable but necessary. We must never compromise our consciences on gay marriage, as some have done. But making gay marriage a higher priority than divorce is a classic case of threat-avoidance thinking.
Does this mean leaving behind the Bible, philosophy, and law? God forbid! It only means we stop trying to make any of those the centerpiece and organizing theme of the movement. First, define the movement in terms of a new description of sexuality—one that does not require familiarity with the Bible, philosophy, and law to understand. Then rightly relate each of those things to the movement.
You Deserve Better
If the new description of sexuality is rightly crafted, it will be in full alignment with the Bible and Christianity. Indeed, the “inside information” we get from the Bible about how the universe works will be critical to helping us see the most effective ways to expose errors and magnify the truth. Yet people will not have to be Christians to accept our description of sexuality.
That means Christian activists can give their lives to fighting for this vision with a clean conscience in all directions. Vertically, they are doing good work that glorifies God and carries out the mandate to live in the kingdom; horizontally, they are not imposing Christianity on their neighbors. Victory for real marriage is a “win” for my carrying out my mission for God, but it is not a social or civic “win” for Christianity in violation of the religious freedom of my neighbors.
Natural law philosophy, too, will have a critical role to play. It provides the organizing intellectual framework for the assault on the imagination that I’m proposing. As we develop our new description of sexuality, what are we describing? That marriage is something and we can know what it is, a comprehensive union of a man and a woman. Just as Christianity will provide the necessary spiritual grounding and energy for most of the people doing the work of the movement, natural law philosophy will provide theoretical knowledge to keep the movement honest.
As for law and policy, that’s the simplest connection. The new description of sexuality will not directly speak to political questions, but it will give us new language to use in the political and legal sphere when we describe what we are defending. The content of our arguments about marriage policy need not change, but we can replace the bizarre and alienating language of “conjugal union” with a set of powerfully evocative descriptive terms. I believe such a change would have an immediate and dramatic effect on public support for our policy positions, without requiring a change in their propositional content.
One more thing we need. I’ve saved it for last because it’s the most painful. We need to deinstitutionalize enmity. Our fellow human beings and fellow Americans who identify themselves as gay have come to believe that their dignity and equality cannot be protected without gay marriage. I think they’re incorrect. But the conclusion is not irrational on their part, given the behavior of too many people on our side of the debate—even in recent years, to say nothing of the centuries before. We need to say to them, not begrudgingly but sincerely, that we want to find a shared way of life that affirms their dignity as human beings and their equality as American citizens. And we need to say that we have not done a good enough job of that. As Will Smith said in one of his movies a few years ago: “You deserve better. I will be better.”
Then we need to prove it.