The Christian Right’s “Defense of Marriage:” Democratic Rhetoric, Antidemocratic Politics

About R. Claire Snyder


The United States was founded as a “liberal democracy,” in which a secular government acts to protect the civil rights and liberties of individuals rather than imposing a particular vision of the “good life” on its citizens. Equality before the law constitutes one of the most fundamental principles of liberal democracy, as does freedom from State-imposed religion. These principles, enshrined in our founding documents, have become an almost universally accepted norm in U.S. society today.2 Nevertheless, the Christian Right is currently mobilizing its supporters across the country to undermine these basic principles, appealing to popular prejudice against an unpopular minority, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people.3 Moreover, in a change from their previously virulent homophobic language, right-wing forces are increasingly masking their antidemocratic and un-American agenda using democratic rhetoric. While populist appeals constitute a mainstay of the Right,4 conservative thinkers have recently entered into ongoing conversations about “civil society”—the realm in which citizens act together to achieve common goals—generated by both “democratic theorists” within academia and ordinary citizens concerned about civic life, pushing that agenda far to the right. While the Christian Right claims to speak for the “moral majority” of U.S. citizens, they actually support policies that most Americans oppose. While conservative Americans are free to practice their beliefs and live their personal lives however they choose, the government of the United States cannot legitimately let those beliefs violate the human rights of others in society. Similarly, it cannot generate public policy supporting a particular religious worldview or deny legal equality to certain groups of citizens.

Liberal Democracy or Christian Nation?

Liberal political theory constitutes the most important founding tradition of American democracy.5 Both social welfare Democrats and neoliberal Republicans6 (see sidebar page 4) endorse its basic principles— individual freedom, religious liberty, equal rights, constitutional government and impartial laws—although they interpret these concepts in different ways.7 According to the liberal founding myth of “social contract,” self-interested individuals left the state of nature in order to better secure their natural rights and liberties. Consequently, they established a constitutional government of impartial laws that would protect all citizens equally.8 The Declaration of Independence states the basic values of liberal political theory—“all men are created equal and . . . are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”— while the U.S. Constitution created a secular government that would not discriminate against those who do not practice the dominant religion or who espouse unpopular beliefs.

Despite the First Amendment’s prohibition against the establishment of religion by government, Christian conservatives and their supporters often insist that America is really a “Christian nation.” They argue that the American founders believed that democratic political institutions would only work if grounded in religious mores within civil society, emphasizing a comment made by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”9 William Bennett has contributed greatly to this right-wing project of revisionist historiography with the publication of Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders, a volume that catalogues stories, letters, poems, and speeches that emphasize the religious beliefs that animated many in the founding generation (among other things).10 The Christian Right hopes that once the religious beliefs of the American Founders are established, a theory of constitutional interpretation that privileges “original intent” will authorize the imposition of Christian moral precepts on U.S. society at large.11

While the relationship between religion and democracy in the U.S. context is a complicated one, the fact remains that the Founding generation intentionally took the radical and far-reaching step of constructing a secular government, constitutionally required to remain neutral toward religion. As Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore rightly stress, “God is nowhere to be found in the Constitution, which also has nothing to say about the social value of Christian belief or about the importance of religion for a moral public life.”12 Indeed the fact that the U.S. constitution institutionalized a secular State was quite controversial at the same time as it was revolutionary. While conservatives are certainly correct in pointing out that the Bill of Rights protected states’ rights not individual rights, leaving the states free to establish religion, in fact only five states actually permitted the establishment of religion.13 Thus, the conservative attempt to redefine America as a Christian nation completely ignores the fact that this country was remarkable precisely for its intentionally secular Constitution.

Lesbian/Gay Civil Rights and the Logic of Liberalism

In principle, the Bill of Rights has protected individual rights from the tyranny of state governments and majoritarianism ever since ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment after the Civil War. This important amendment extended the liberal principle of legal equality by mandating “equal protection” of the laws for all U.S. citizens. While never fully actualized in practice, the principle of legal equality has been successfully used to justify progressive change. African Americans utilized this principle during the Civil Rights Movement in their struggle to end segregation. While the Right violently opposed legal equality at the time, contemporary conservatives have largely accepted the principle of colorblind law. However, colorblindness in law underscores the New Right’s “new racism,” wherein dejure legal equality is used to challenge affirmative action and other remedial measures that seek to address institutional racism.14

While the relationship between religion and democracy in the U.S. context is a complicated one, the fact remains that the Founding generation intentionally took the radical and far-reaching step of constructing a secular government, constitutionally required to remain neutral toward religion.

The struggle for genderblind law has also been largely successful. Although feminists lost the battle for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) during the 1970s, since that time the principle of legal equality for women has been largely implemented through the Courts,15 which are charged with following the logic of liberalism as they apply the principles of the Constitution to new areas. While historical custom and reactionary political agendas have resulted in some unfortunate constitutional rulings, overall the level of legal equality within U.S. society has increased over time.

A consistent application of the philosophical principles of liberalism justifies same-sex marriage: A secular State committed to legal equality cannot legitimately deny civil marriage with all its benefits to particular citizens on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. To do so would be to violate the basic principles of the United States as a liberal democracy. While I would argue that the Christian Right is losing its battle to prevent the extension of civil rights to lesbians and gay men, there is no guarantee that politically-appointed judges will rule in a principled way. Societal attitudes are changing. Fifty-eight percent of first year college students now “think gay and lesbian couples should have the right to ‘equal marital status,’ i.e., civil marriage”— including “half ” who identify as “middle-of-the-road” or “conservative”16— and the Courts are slowly beginning to recognize the underlying logic of liberalism as well.17

The Right-wing Attack on Liberal Democracy

Despite the compelling logic of philosophical liberalism, the U.S. Right has actively opposed the extension of legal equality in every instance. The Old Right was explicitly racist and violently fought to stop the extension of civil rights to African Americans. By 1965, however, Gallup polls “showed that 52 percent of Americans identified civil rights as the ‘most important problem’ confronting the nation, and an astonishing 75 percent of respondents favored federal voting rights legislation.”18 With explicit racism on the decline, right-wing leaders began developing a more marketable message, “mainstreaming the ideological positions of the Old Right and developing winnable policies” that “highlighted a protest theme” against a wide range of cultural changes inaugurated by the new social movements of the 1960s.19 This “New Right” successfully created a coalition between cultural conservatives, including Christian fundamentalists, and antigovernment, fiscal conservatives (aka neoliberals).

Opposition to women’s equality was one of the causes the New Right needed to consolidate its base. Anti-feminism “provided a link with fundamentalist churches,” focused “the reaction against the changes in child rearing, sexual behavior, divorce, and the use of drugs that had taken place in the 1960s and 1970s,” and “mobilized a group, traditional homemakers, that had lost status over the two previous decades and was feeling the psychological effects of the loss.”20 The conservative mobilization against feminism helped solidify the New Right during the 1970s and played a “very important” role in its success, the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the rightward shift in U.S. politics.21

Feminism and the lesbian/gay civil rights movement are linked theoretically through the political philosophy of liberalism and politically through common struggle. While unprincipled liberals sometimes try to deny this connection out of political expediency, the Right quickly recognized the logic of liberalism that provided the potential for unity between women and LGBT individuals, and used it to their advantage. For example, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum argued, “militant homosexuals from all over America have made the ERA issue a hot priority. Why? To be able finally to get homosexual marriage licenses, to adopt children and raise them to emulate their homosexual ‘parents,’ and to obtain pension and medical benefits for odd-couple ‘spouses.’. . . Vote NO on 6! The Pro-Gay E.R.A.”22 In its rise to power, the New Right successfully manipulated homophobia to increase opposition to gender equality as well as explicitly condemning all attempts to accord lesbians and gay men the equal protection of the law.

Religious Particularism and the Attack on the First Amendment

Christian Right organizations claim to be speaking for the American people when they oppose legal equality for lesbians and gay men, but they are actually trying to impose their own particular religious worldview on U.S. society in direct violation of the separation of Church and State. Despite their use of democratic rhetoric, the opposition of right-wing Christians to same-sex marriage is contingent upon their particular religious worldview, which defines marriage as a sacred religious institution and homosexuality as a sin. According to the Family Research Council (FRC) marriage is “the work of heaven and every major religion and culture throughout world history.”23 Concerned Women for America (CWA) proclaims marriage “a covenant established by God wherein one man and one woman, united for life, are licensed by the state for the purpose of founding and maintaining a family.”24 For Focus on the Family (FOF), “marriage is a sacred union, ordained by God to be a life-long, sexually exclusive relationship between one man and one woman.”25 Indeed because of this religious worldview, all three groups have made opposition to same-sex marriage a centerpiece of their political agenda.26

The Christian Right’s vision of heterosexual marriage directly relates to its understanding of gender difference, which it bases on its particular interpretation of the Bible. To justify male dominance, the Christian Right privileges the second version of the creation story in Genesis, in which God created Eve out of Adam’s rib to be his “helper” and declared that the man and his wife would become “one flesh” (Genesis 2: 18-24), rather than on the original story in which “God created man in His image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:26-27, emphasis added).27 Additionally, instead of reading the original version as establishing gender equality at the source, the Christian Right interprets it to mean “God’s purpose for man was that there should be two sexes, male and female. Every person is either a ‘he’ or a ‘she.’ God did not divide mankind into three or four or five sexes.”28 Right-wing Christians bolster their selective reading of the “Old Testament” with a smattering of “New Testament” verses, such as “man was not made from woman, but woman from man” (1 Cor. 11:8), woman is the “weaker vessel” (1 Peter 3:7), the “husband is the head of the wife” (1Cor. 11:4; Eph. 5:23), and man is “joined to his wife, and the two become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31-32).29

Feminism and the lesbian/gay civil rights movement are linked theoretically through the political philosophy of liberalism and politically through common struggle. While unprincipled liberals sometimes try to deny this connection out of political expediency, the Right quickly recognized the logic of liberalism that provided the potential for unity between women and LGBT individuals, and used it to their advantage.

The Christian Right’s selectively literalist interpretation of the Bible not only emphasizes the subordination of women to men but also condemns homosexuality as a sin. They interpret God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16 – 19:29) as punishment for homosexuality. Other religious scholars argue that the city was destroyed for the sin of inhospitality.30 Right-wing Christians stress the sentences in Leviticus that proclaim “do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence” (Leviticus 18:22) and “if a man lies with a male as one lies with a woman, the two of them have done an abhorrent thing; they shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:13), completely ignoring the fact that the Ten Commandments did not include a prohibition on homosexuality.

They also disregard the wide array of other practices prohibited in Leviticus, such as eating pork, touching a football made of pigskin (Lev. 11:7-8), wearing cotton/poly blends (Lev. 19:19), and trimming the hair on the side of the face (Lev. 19:27).31 For example, “exgay” Stephen Bennett stresses the use of the term “abomination” in Leviticus 18:22.32 He asks:

What does God think about homosexuality? The verse says, “It is an abomination!” This means that it is detestable, loathsome, repulsive and heinous. It is one of the strongest words to describe God’s hatred of something. It is a stench in God’s nostrils like the smell of vomit! It is something that is disgusting, nauseating, revolting and sickening to God. The reason it is an abomination is that it is so contrary to what God has designed and established for the good of mankind.33

What Bennett fails to mention is that the Bible also refers to eating shellfish as an “abomination” (Lev. 11:10).34

Not all religious people share the Christian Right’s controversial interpretations of the above passages or its definition of marriage. For example, Reform Judaism not only supports civil marriage for gays and lesbians but also allows for religious unions.35 For some Muslims and orthodox Mormons polygamy is within the norms of marriage. Even within Christianity, no consensus exists on the question of samesex marriage. In fact, many denominations are currently divided. The Episcopal Church has recently addressed their own division by voting “to allow local churches to make their own determination about whether to offer services to sanctify gay and lesbian marriages, partnerships, or unions.”36

Nevertheless, despite the diversity of beliefs within a religiously pluralistic society such as the United States, the Christian Right group Alliance for Marriage has introduced a Federal Marriage Amendment that declares, “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.”37 Clearly this Amendment asks the federal government to establish one particular religious definition of marriage as the law of the land, thus violating the separation of Church and State.38 In a liberal society, conservative Christian churches certainly have the religious liberty to define marriage for their parishioners in any way they see fit. However, when the Christian Right asks the U.S. government and the governments of the states to restrict the right to civil marriage because of their particular interpretation of revealed religion, they violate the separation of Church and State mandated by the First Amendment.

Same-Sex Marriage: An Attack on Women?

The Christian Right seeks to reconsolidate male dominance and reestablish the patriarchal family as the dominant family form in the United States. When they make the obviously illogical claim that allowing lesbians and gays to marry would “undermine marriage” and destroy the family,39 they really mean that same-sex marriage would undermine the traditional patriarchal institution of marriage and family that they want to impose on the American people. Because no evidence exists that same-sex couples are less functional than heterosexual ones, or that their children suffer any negative consequences, allowing same-sex couples to marry and have children would clearly undermine the myth that the patriarchal heterosexual family is the superior family form.4 Consequently, Christian Right activists repeatedly assert that children need both a traditionally masculine father and a traditionally feminine mother in order to develop properly. As James Dobson puts it, “any uncertainty, any ambiguity in [sex-role] assignment must be seen as damaging not only to our sons and daughters but also to the long-term stability of society itself.”41 Thus, conservatives must reject the “unisex” idea advocated by “the feminists and homosexual activists.”42 In this perspective, the mother cannot adequately fulfill the role of the father (or vice versa), and so same-sex parenting cannot work successfully.

Christian Right “movement propaganda often portrayed gay men, like feminists, as a wealthy, privileged elite misusing their power to impose their immoral agenda on society.” Even though “contrary to myth, gay men actually earned between 10 and 26 percent less income than did heterosexual men.” And lesbians and other sexual minorities often earn far less as a group.

While Dobson and the burgeoning “fatherhood movement” stress the harm the feminist and the lesbian/gay movements have supposedly done to men and boys, the Right also insists that these movements for gender equality harm women as well.43 CWA, which claims to be the largest women’s group in the country, blames feminism—in particular its support for legal equality, reproductive freedom, sexual liberation, and no-fault divorce—for eroding the “protections” supposedly provided women by traditional marriage and family law, making it easier for men to renounce their familial responsibilities, and causing the feminization of poverty. In their view the LGBT Movement continues these allegedly destructive trends by further undermining traditional gender roles, advocating diverse family forms, and reinforcing the disconnection between sexual pleasure and reproduction.

With the important role played by women in the traditional family already undermined by feminism, the Right sees the specter of same-sex marriage as threatening to render women completely useless. According to Alliance for Marriage supporter William Mattox and his wife— who “sympathize with homosexuals” and “are not ‘gay-bashers’”—“in the same way that polygamy teaches that women are inferior to men, [male] ‘gay marriage’ implicitly teaches that women are superfluous to men, that women make no unique and irreplaceable contribution to family life. Indeed, [male] ‘gay marriage’ teaches that the most basic unit of human society—marriage—does not need a woman to be complete.”44

In fact, conservatives often seem to fear that if given the option, men might choose not to engage in heterosexuality at all. According to antigay activist Dr. Paul Cameron, “the evidence is that men do a better job on men, and women on women, if all you are looking for is orgasm.” If you want “the most satisfying orgasm you can get,” he tells people, “then homosexuality seems too powerful to resist. . . . It’s pure sexuality. It’s almost like pure heroin. It’s such a rush.” In opposition, “marital sex tends toward the boring” and generally “doesn’t deliver the kind of sheer sexual pleasure that homosexual sex does.”45 Although the American Psychological Association expelled Cameron for ethics violations in 1983, he is still touted as an “expert” on homosexuality by the Right.46 In light of comments such as Cameron’s, it would be understandable if right-wing women feel anxious about their position in this male-dominated society.

Nevertheless, despite rhetoric to the contrary, same-sex marriage does not undermine the position of women. In fact, according to records in Vermont, two thirds of the applicants for civil unions were women.47 Rather than undermining rightwing arguments, however, this empirical counter-evidence simply fuels hyperbolic claims that men are becoming irrelevant.48

Right-wing Populism

Assuming a populist pose, the Christian Right claims to speak for the interests of ordinary people who are supposedly being attacked by an elite “homosexual lobby.” This rhetorical strategy worked well during the 1970s when opponents of the ERA portrayed feminism as advancing the interests of elite career women at the expense of housewives and working-class women.49 That is to say, as opposed to feminist women who wanted the right to compete equally with men, many antifeminist women did not have the educational level or job skills that would allow them to pursue satisfying careers if forced to work outside the home.50 Today, the Right attempts to condemn the LGBT Movement for civil rights as elitist. As Chip Berlet and Matthew Lyons have argued, Christian Right “movement propaganda often portrayed gay men, like feminists, as a wealthy, privileged elite misusing their power to impose their immoral agenda on society.” Even though “contrary to myth, gay men actually earned between 10 and 26 percent less income than did heterosexual men.”51 And lesbians and other sexual minorities often earn far less as a group.

Although advancing an extremist agenda not supported by the majority of the American people, the Christian Right frames its antidemocratic opposition to legal equality in populist terms.52 For example, the Alliance for Marriage claims “the Federal Marriage Amendment is designed to protect both marriage and democracy in the United States by preserving the legal status of marriage from court redefinition. By returning the debate over marriage to the American people, the Federal Marriage Amendment will allow Americans to pass on to their children and grandchildren the legal road map for marriage and the family.”53 Likewise, Robert Bork, a vocal advocate of states’ rights, supports the Amendment to protect the people from the “liberal activist courts [that] are the real problem.” While the Amendment ensures that “no legislature may confer the name of marriage on same-sex unions,” it leaves “the question of arrangements less than marriage. . . where it should be, to the determination of the people through the democratic process.54

But while the Christian Right uses the rhetoric of “states’ rights” to justify their attack on the constitutional authority of the Courts, they stand opposed to federalism whenever it advances the “homosexual agenda.” For example, Dick Cheney has been lambasted for his consistent support for state sovereignty during the 2000 Vice Presidential debates. That is to say, when news correspondent Bernard Shaw asked him about same-sex marriage, Cheney responded as follows:

This is a tough one, Bernie. The fact of the matter is we live in a free society, and freedom means freedom for everybody. We don’t get to choose, and shouldn’t be able to choose and say, “You get to live free, but you don’t.” And I think that means that people should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into. It’s really no one else’s business in terms of trying to regulate or prohibit behavior in that regard.

The next step, then, of course, is the question you ask of whether or not there ought to be some kind of official sanction, if you will, of the relationship, or if these relationships should be treated the same way a conventional marriage is. That’s a tougher problem. That’s not a slamdunk. I think the fact of the matter, of course, is that matter is regulated by the states. I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that’s appropriate. I don’t think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area.

While Cheney clearly reasoned from the philosophical principles that underlie the neoliberal wing of the Republican Party, Christian Right extremists portray Cheney’s response as unprincipled. For example, CWA spokesmen argue “Cheney’s answer troubled family advocates, but drew little opposition from Republicans, who were desperate to end Democratic control of the White House and feared exposing Cheney’s softness on the homosexual issue.”55 More ludicrously, they claim his answer reveals that the Bush Administration is really advancing a prohomosexual agenda!56 When in fact, allowing the states to individually determine such laws, as Cheney suggests, is more likely to result in discrimination against LGBT people.

The Christian Right spokespeople emphasize the sovereignty of state legislatures only when it serves their interests. Otherwise they oppose the decisions of the people’s elected representatives—often in the name of the people. For example, Dobson argues that:

the California Legislature has been captured, almost without opposition, by those who hold a gay and lesbian philosophy and by a governor— Gray Davis—who has signed into law a host of pro-homosexual bills revolutionizing that state . . . The result is a tsunami, a tidal wave, of anti-family and immoral legislation that is rapidly forcing the citizens of California to accept and live by an alien system of values that would never be approved if put to the voters.57

Despite the pseudo-democratic rhetoric, the American people do not actually support the extremist antiliberal agenda of the Christian Right. In fact, a June 2002 national study showed that, “a clear majority of Americans surveyed . . . expressed support for basic partnership rights for same-sex couples, including joint property rights [60%], estate inheritance laws [59%], emergency health care authority [66%] and hospital visitation rights [71%].”58 In addition, “a plurality of individuals surveyed (48%) also supports Social Security survivor benefits for same-sex couples, with 34% opposed and 18% undecided.”59

“Seedbeds of Virtue”: The Role of the Family in Renewing America

Most insidiously of all, Christian Right sympathizers have recently joined the wide array of voices from across the political spectrum calling for the renewal of American democracy. Claiming to speak for ordinary people, Don Eberly, a founder of the National Fatherhood Initiative, insists that what U.S. citizens want differs markedly from what scholars in the civic renewal movement say they want. That is, while academics like Benjamin R. Barber advocate civic renewal, what ordinary people really want, according to Eberly, is moral renewal, as articulated by conservative politicians like William Bennett.60 As Eberly argues,

Civil society intellectuals . . . frequently go overboard in attempting to narrow the boundaries of debate around civic issues. I recently shared a platform with Benjamin Barber, a noted scholar from this camp, who stated emphatically, “What we don’t need is moral character, but civic character. Our aim is democratic citizens; not the moral man.” Barber added, “A society does not need moral truths; we need to live together.”61

Notice that he sought to equate moral truths with an implied threat of intolerance or moral majoritarianism. Barber’s remarks are something of a bellwether of the philosophical impoverishment that still guides this debate in many quarters. . . . What is sufficient for a democracy, they say, is civic character, or, in other words, a quickness to join. This is essentially civic secularism, and it largely misses the point.

According to Eberly, “if the public today has any preference for the basis of a reevaluation of American society, it points decidedly in the direction of moral values.”62

To justify this claim, Eberly draws on a study by Daniel Yankelovich (a member of the conservative Council on Civil Society) that reports that 87% of the public believes that “something is fundamentally wrong with America’s moral condition,” 67% think that America is undergoing a longterm moral decline, and 59% (versus 27%) believe that “lack of morality” is a bigger problem than “lack of economic opportunity.” Eberly adds that “at no point has a national poll identified deep public worries over a phenomenon one might term ‘civic disengagement.’” Again sounding the populist note, he then tells an anecdote about “plain people” and “local folks” like him who would “hoot at the thought that we Americans lack civic commitment. What really leaves them speechless is the sense of powerlessness they feel as they watch the bottom fall out of our nation’s moral life”— which Eberly repeatedly illustrates with references to “unmarried mothers” and “family collapse.”63

If moral renewal is the problem, then religion is the solution. According to Eberly, religion needs to play a key role in civil society as “both a legitimate wellspring of personal values and as perhaps the richest source of renewed social capital [social trust] in communities.”64 While some like to blame “governmental malfeasance and feckless politicians” for the decline of social trust, Eberly believes that “a more likely source of our cynicism is the rupture of our primary relationships within the family, or our marriages, and our fellowship with our fathers.”65 Appealing to the same narrow stereotypes about gender invoked by the Christian Right, Eberly claims that “it is fathers who cultivate a spirit of reasonableness and compromise, a capacity to trust and be trustworthy, a willingness to be helpful and empathetic, and a capacity to act with self-restraint and respect toward others.”66 Mothers merely play a “biologically determined role.”67 “Fathering, unlike mothering, . . . is heavily influenced by the wider culture.”68 Thus, he concludes, “there can be no healthy democracy without dads.”69 Here his argument for civil society dovetails with his advocacy of neopatriarchy within the fatherhood movement.70

Clearly supportive of the New Right coalition, Eberly links his version of civil society not only to male dominance, but also to the neoliberal opposition to government. That is, Eberly sees moral renewal within civil society as a panacea that will eliminate the need for government:“Most will rejoice to know that a vast majority of Americans now acknowledge that government, and especially the central government, may never again be embraced as the engine that drives American progress.”71 While there may be a role for the State in the area of “crime and safety,” the government cannot do anything positive to “eliminate poverty, reduce unemployment, [or] achieve racial justice.”72 Thus, unlike progressive advocates of civil society, Eberly hopes that “civic recovery” will not “temper the public’s recent repudiation of government activism by splicing in an emphasis on civic localism.”73

The Christian Right spokespeople emphasize the sovereignty of state legislatures only when it serves their interests. Otherwise they oppose the decisions of the people’s elected representatives—often in the name of the people.

Eberly’s argument finds support in a growing groundswell of conservative scholarly voices emphasizing the importance of the family as a “seedbed of virtue” within liberal democracy. In the introduction to Seedbeds of Virtue: Sources of Competence, Character, and Citizenship in American Society,74 Harvard University law professor Mary Ann Glendon argues that U.S. democracy

requires (as the authors of The Federalist Papers put it) a higher degree of virtue in its citizens than any other form of government. . . . The American version of the democratic experiment leaves it primarily up to families, local governments, schools, religious and workplace associations, and a host of other voluntary groups to teach and transmit republican virtues and skills from one generation to the next.

Like others on the Christian Right, Glendon sees the family as the most important institution in society: “First and foremost among these ‘seedbeds of virtue’ is the family. Thus, impairment of the family’s capacity to develop in its members the qualities of self-restraint, respect for others, and sturdy independence of mind cannot help but impair the prospects for a regime of ordered liberty.”75 Thus, democratic self-government depends upon a stable family.

But if stable families play such an important role in democratic society, one has to wonder why Glendon and her collaborators vehemently oppose same-sex marriage, which some conservatives advocate precisely because it would act as a stabilizing influence on gay men.76 While she does not mention the issue in Seedbeds of Virtue, the fact of the matter is that Glendon so strongly opposes same-sex unions that she worked with Robert Bork to draft the Federal Marriage Amendment, which would make it constitutional to violate the principle of legal equality and discriminate against an unpopular minority.77 How can someone who invokes the importance of civic virtues, such as “deliberation, compromise, consensus-building, civility, reason- giving” and “tolerance” justify this?78 Why does democracy require only heterosexual families?

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a well-known “democratic theorist” at the University of Chicago, concurs with Glendon’s political prescriptions. Elshtain pointedly embraces “a normative vision of the family—mothers, fathers, and children” and claims that this particular family form “is not only not at odds with democratic civil society but is in fact, now more than ever, a prerequisite for that society to function.”79 Elshtain chaired the committee that published “A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths,” which says the number one priority for American democracy should be “to increase the likelihood that more children will grow up with their two married parents.08 And since she opposes same-sex marriage, this leaves no place for lesbians or gay men within democratic society.81 Like Glendon and others, Elshtain never adequately explains why a fully functioning democracy requires heterosexual- only marriage. Indeed, these authors, like many others, simply assert the connection between traditional families and democratic self-government—and the causal relationship between “the breakdown of the family” and the decline of civil society82without actually arguing it.83

What is it about the traditional family that plays such an important role in socializing children? Is it the message of conformity communicated in a society that allows no diversity of family forms? Is it the lesson in female subordination taught by the wife’s gracious submission to her husband’s authority as the head of the household? Wade Horn, president of the National Fatherhood Initiative (and assistant secretary for family support in the Department of Health and Human Services in the George W. Bush Administration), emphasizes the importance of obedience, which, like conformity and subordination, is not usually considered a central virtue of the democratic citizen: “Well socialized children have learned to listen to and obey the directions of legitimate authority figures, such as parents and teachers; under-socialized children have not.”84

James Dobson couldn’t agree more. In The New Dare To Discipline he stresses that respect for authority must be instilled in young children in order to avoid teenage rebellion and ensure respect for traditional religious values. This message is best communicated, he believes, by spanking children with a switch or a paddle any time they show defiance or willfully disobey their parents. As he puts it, “a controlling but patient hand will eventually succeed in settling the little anarchist, but probably not until he is between three and four.”85 Dobson stresses that a spanking must be severe enough to make the child cry genuinely from pain rather than simply from anger or humiliation. While ostensibly condemning child abuse, Dobson praises the childrearing practices of his wife, who once “stung” their fifteen-month old daughter’s “little legs” with a “switch” for disobeying an “order.”86 He also notes “there are those in the Western world who will not rest until the government interferes with parent-child relationships with all the force of law. It has already happened in Sweden.”87


In their fight against legal equality for lesbians and gay men, the Christian Right increasingly deploys democratic rhetoric to mask its antidemocratic agenda. While right-wing Christians appeal to the religious assumptions, historical customs, social anxieties, and unexamined prejudices of many Americans, their overarching agenda actually undermines our democracy’s most precious political principles, including the separation of Church and State, legal equality, and personal liberty. While liberal democracy has its limitations, its virtue is that it maximizes the freedom of all by allowing individuals to organize their personal lives as they see fit. While the government may respond to the will of its citizens by providing a default set of legal entanglements that make it easier for individuals to establish families (i.e., civil marriage), it may not legitimately deny equal protection of the laws to unpopular minorities or enshrine a particular religious definition of marriage as the law of the land. Consequently, the State should ensure equal access to civil marriage and leave religious marriage where it belongs—in the synagogues, churches, and mosques.


1 Portions of this article were adapted from R. Claire Snyder, “Neo-Patriarchy and the Anti-Homosexual Agenda,” in Cynthia Burack and Jyl J. Josephson, eds., Fundamental Differences: Feminists Talk Back to Social Conservatives (Rowman & Littlefield, 2003), forthcoming.
2 Michael J. Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent: America in Search of a Public Philosophy (Cambridge: The BelknapPress of Harvard University Press, 1996).
3 See Sean Cahill and Kenneth T. Jones, Leaving Our Children Behind: Welfare Reform and the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender Community (New York: National Gayand Lesbian Task Force, 2001). See particularly sectionson marriage, fatherhood, and abstinence initiatives.
4 Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons, Right-wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort (New York: The GuilfordPress, 2000).
5 See Louis Hartz, The Liberal Tradition in America (San Diego, New York, and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Publishers, 1955).
6 Neoliberal refers to those who subscribe to the ideology of neoliberalism. See sidebar p.4.
7 See Sandel, Democracy’s Discontent, op. cit.
8 John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, ed., C.B. MacPherson (Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1990).
9 Cited in William Bennett, Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders (Nashville, TN: Broadman andHolman, 1997), p. 3.
10 Ibid.
11 See for example Robert Bork, The Tempting of America: The Political Seduction of the Law (New York: Simon &Schuster, 1990).
12 Isaac Kramnick & R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (NewYork: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1997), p. 28.
13 Ibid., p.35.
14 See Amy Ansell, New Right, New Racism(New York: New York University Press, 1997), and Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas, eds., Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings That Formed the Movement (New York: The New Press, 1995).
15 Jane Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986), p. 91.
16 According to a recent survey of first-year college students by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI), “a record high 58 percent “think gay and lesbian couples should have the right to ‘equal marital status,’ i.e., civil marriage. . . . [S]ince only 30 percent of the students say they are either ‘liberal’ (27 percent) or ‘far left’ (3 percent), that means half of the support for gay civil marriage comes from students who say they are ‘middle-of-the-road’ or even ‘conservative.’ In other words, support for gay civil marriage is becoming the ‘middle of the road’ position, perhaps even picking up some small support among ‘conservative’ students who grasp the social benefits of stabilized relationships.” Paul Varnell, “College Freshmen Support Gay Marriage,” Chicago Free Press, January 30, 2002. retrieved April 17, 2002.
17 See Baehr v. Lewin, 852 P.2d 44 (Hawaii 1993) and Stan Baker, et al. v. State of Vermont, et al., 744 A.2d 864(Vermont 1999).
18 Maurice Isserman & Michael Kazin, America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford: Oxford UniversityPress, 2000), p. 138.
19 Jean V. Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment: Conservative Resurgence From the John Birch Society to the Promise Keepers (Boston: Beacon Press, 1999), p. 38.
20 Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, op. cit., pp. 5-6.
21 Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment, op. cit., p. 72.
22 Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, op. cit., p. 137.
23 Fund-raising ad in favor of DOMA, paid for by the Family Research Council, included in FRC information packet, emphasis added.
24 Concerned Women for America, “Lawfully Wedded?” Family Voice (April 1996), emphasis added. retrieved November 14, 2000.
25 “Focus on the Family Position Statement on Same-Sex“Marriage” and Civil Unions,” Citizen Link,October 4, 2000, emphasis added. retrieved July 22, 2002.
26 Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment, op. cit., p. 98.
27 All “Old Testament” quotations are taken from TANAKH: A New Translation of The Holy Scriptures, According to the Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), currently considered the most accurate translation available. However, all quotations in this JPS translation are essentially the same as in the Revised Standard Version of the Christian Bible (unless otherwise noted).
28 Stephen Bennett, “Homosexuality and the Bible: What Does God Say?” (Stephen Bennett Ministries, Huntington, CT, n.d.), p. 3. For an alternative view see Anne Fausto-Sterling, Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality (New York: Basic Books, 2000).
29 Unless otherwise indicated, all “New Testament” quotations are from the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Christian Bible.
30 See John J. McNeill, The Church and the Homosexual (New York: Beacon Press, 1993), pp. 42-50.
31 For a very funny letter that inspired this line of argument, see J. Kent Ashcraft, “an open letter to Dr. Laura,” May 2000, originally posted on the Internet by anonymous. retrieved July 22, 2002.
32 While the RSV translation uses the term “abomination” in this passage, the JPS translation uses the term “abhorrence.” While it is beyond my expertise at this time to determine whether “abhorrence” differs significantly from “abomination,” it should be investigated.
33 Bennett, “Homosexuality and the Bible,” op. cit., pp. 14-15, emphasis in the original.
34 Both the JPS and the RSV translations use the term “abomination” in reference to shellfish.
35 Gustav Niebuhr, “Reform Rabbis Back Blessing Gay Unions,” New York Times,March 30, 2000, p. 1A.
36 Doug Ebeling, “Religions Mixed on GLBT Inclusion,” Mountain Pride Media. retrieved July 22, 2002.
37 David Crary, “Coalition Wants Marriage Amendment,” Associated Press, July 10, 2001. retrieved July 7, 2001.
38 Didi Herman argues that “anti-gay measures in the United States are, at their heart, orthodox Christian measures. Arguably, when they become legislation, the establishment clause is violated.” Didi Herman, The Antigay Agenda: Orthodox Vision and the Christian Right (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1997), p. 168.
39 CWA, “History: 1978-2001.” retrieved April 2, 2002.
40 See Judith Stacey and Timothy J. Biblarz, “(How) Does the Sexual Orientation of Parents Matter?” American Sociological Review, vol. 66, no. 2 (April 2001), pp. 159-183.
41 James Dobson, Bringing Up Boys: Practical Advice and Encouragement For Those Shaping the Next Generation of Men (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2000), pp. 16-17.
42 Ibid.
43 For my views on the fatherhood movement, see Snyder, “Neo-Patriarchy and the Anti-Homosexual Agenda,” op. cit.
44 William Mattox Jr., “Gay Marriage Devalues Women,” USA Today, August 21, 2001. retrieved July 15, 2002.
45 Quoted in Robert Dreyfuss, “The Holy War On Gays,” Rolling Stone,March 18, 1999, p. 41.
46 Hardisty, Mobilizing Resentment, op. cit., p. 102.
47 Associated Press, “Women In Vermont Form More Civil Unions,” April 7, 2002. retrieved April 7, 2002.
48 See David Blankenhorn, Fatherless America: Confronting Our Most Urgent Social Problem (New York: Basic Books,1995).
49 Phyllis Schlafly, Power of the Positive Woman (Berkeley Publishing Group, 1982).
50 Mansbridge, Why We Lost the ERA, op. cit., pp. 105–107.
51 Berlet and Lyons, Right-wing Populism, op. cit., pp. 236-237.
52 Witeck-Combs Communications/Harris Interactive® study, available at
53 Press release by Alliance for Marriage, May 15, 2002, emphasis added. Likewise, they argue that, “The Federal Marriage Amendment is a reasonable response to the crisis for our democratic society created by those who would use the courts to overcome public opinion with respect to marriage. Gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose. But they don’t have a right to redefine marriage for our entire society.” From Alliance for Marriage webpage, emphasis added. retrieved July 16, 2002.
54 Robert Bork, “Stop Courts From Imposing Gay Marriage: Why we need a constitutional amendment,” Wall Street Journal, August 7, 2001, emphasis added. retrieved August 8, 2001.
55 Quote from Robert Knight, Peter LaBarbera and Kenneth Ervin, II, “The Bush Administration’s Republican Homosexual Agenda: The First 100 Days,” May 31, 2001. retrieved July 16, 2002. See also C&F Report Staff, “Ashcroft’s Second in Command Speaks at Justice Dept. Gay Pride Celebration,” Culture & Family Report, June 19, 2002. print retrieved July 18, 2002.
56 Knight, et al., op. cit.
57 “Dr. James C. Dobson Speaks Out Against Gay Marriage Bill,” January 14, 2002. retrieved July 16, 2002.
58 Witeck-Combs Communications/Harris Interactive® press release, “National Survey Shows Growing Support for Same Sex Partner Rights,” July 11, 2002. Retrieved from on July 12, 2002.
56 Ibid.
60 Don Eberly, “Civic Renewal or Moral Renewal,” Policy Review (September-October 1998), p. 5. retrieved May 15,2001. All pages refer to online version. Eberly, served asdeputy director for the Office of Public Liaison duringthe Reagan Administration, and more recently wasnamed deputy director in George Bush’s Office of Faith.He is a proponent of a form of “civil society,” thatreduces government by turning over the social safety netto faith-based organizations, corporate and communitygroups, and philanthropists. Eberly has writtenseveral books on the subject including, America’s Promise: Civil Society and the Renewal of American Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1998).
61 Here Barber refers to “A Call to Civil Society: Why Democracy Needs Moral Truths” (New York: Institute for American Values, 1998), a report of the Council on Civil Society, chaired by Jean Bethke Elshtain.
62 Eberly, “Civic Renewal or Moral Renewal,” op. cit., pp. 3-4.
63 Ibid., pp. 4-5.
64 Ibid., p. 5.
65 Don Eberly, “Restoring Civil Society Through Fatherhood,” in Don Eberly, ed., The Faith Factor in Fatherhood (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 1999), pp. 251-263, 256.
66 Ibid., p. 255, emphasis added. For a remarkably similar, explicitly Christian Right view of fatherhood, see Dobson, Bringing Up Boys, op. cit.
67 Eberly, “Restoring Civil Society,” op. cit., p. 260.
68 Eberly, America’s Promise, op. cit., p. 55.
69 Eberly, “Restoring Civil Society,” op. cit., p. 253.
70 I discuss this in “Neo-Patriarchy and the Anti-Homosexual Agenda,” op. cit.
71 Eberly, “Civic Renewal or Moral Renewal,” op. cit., p. 7.
72 Eberly, America’s Promise, op. cit., p. 41.
73 Eberly, “Civic Renewal or Moral Renewal,” op. cit., p. 3.
74 Mary Ann Glendon and David Blankenhorn, eds., Seedbeds of Virtue: Sources of Competence, Character, and Citizenship in American Society (Lanham, MD: Madison Books, 1995).
75 Glendon, “Introduction,” in Seedbeds of Virtue, op. cit., pp. 1-2.
76 For examples, see Jonathan Rauch, “Leave Gay Marriage to the States,” Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2001 and Andrew Sullivan, “Unveiled,” The New Republic,August 13, 2001.
77 The Glendon-Bork alliance is documented in a fundraising letter authored by Pete Knight in 2002.
78 Glendon, “Introduction,” op. cit., p. 4.
79 Jean Bethke Elshtain, “The Family and Civic Life,” in David Blankenhorn, Steven Bayme, and Jean Bethke Elshtain, eds., Rebuilding the Nest: A New Commitment to the American Family (Milwaukee, WI: Family Service America, 1990), p. 122. For an in-depth discussion of Elshtain’s view on this topic, see Jill Locke, “Hiding for Whom? Obscurity, Dignity, and the Politics of Truth,” Theory &Event, vol. 3, no. 3 (Fall 1999). See
80 “A Call to Civil Society,” op. cit., p. 18, emphasis added.
81 Elshtain, “Against Gay Marriage – II: Accepting Limits,” Commonweal, vol. CXVIII, no. 20, November 22, 1991, pp. 685-86.
82 Glendon, “Introduction,” op. cit., p. 5.
83 See, for example, Elshtain, “Family and Civic Life,” op. cit. For a critique of this line of argument, see my “Neo-Patriarchy and the Anti-Homosexual Agenda,” op. cit.
84 Cited in Eberly, America’s Promise, op. cit., p. 54. Eberly praises Horn’s recognition that “the differences between the parenting styles of fathers and mothers indicate that fathers are essential to developing impulse control in the young.” p. 55.
85 James Dobson, The New Dare To Discipline (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1992), p. 27.
86 Ibid., pp. 35-36. Many studies have documented the detrimental impact of corporal punishment on children. See Phillip Greven, Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse (New York: Vintage Books, 1992), and Murray Strauss with Denise A. Donnelly, Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families (New York: Lexington Books, 1994).
87 Dobson, New Dare To Discipline, op. cit., p. 63.

R. Claire Snyder is Assistant Professor of Government & Politics in the Department of Public & International Affairs at George Mason University. Her primary area of specialization is democratic theory. She is currently working on a book manuscript, tentatively titled Same-Sex Marriage and Democracy, which is under contract with Rowman & Littlefield.