Rumor has it that the culture wars are over. If gay rights were the only battle, those rumors could be true. The pace of change on this issue is nothing short of breathtaking. State after state is either approving same-sex marriage or being forced to accept the arrangement by judicial declaration. Gay-rights supporters are rejoicing.
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But a little perspective here. One interesting development is the backlash against gay-rights zealots in the press. Even some gay-rights sympathizers are beginning to wonder if the same-sex marriage movement is guilty of the same kind of bigotry they’ve long criticized in their opponents. It’s as if opponents of gay marriage suddenly have the moral credibility of Holocaust-deniers. Their voice is simply not to be heard. The sheer velocity of this change has resulted in a new kind of intolerance for debate or disagreement, and some — even some who favor gay marriage — are finding this new atmosphere toxic.
A little more perspective: The struggle over gay marriage is the most public battle in the culture war, but that has never been the only battle for culture warriors, and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen a spectacular setback for conservative values. The late Sixties and early Seventies saw similar changes with regards to abortion rights, culminating in the astonishing 1973 Roe decision which overturned abortion laws all over the country in one day. Pro-life forces were devastated.
Predictably, abortion rates shot up over the next ten years, zooming from 16.3 abortions per 1000 women in the year of Roe to a high of 29.3 the early 1980s. But pro-life forces didn’t give up, maintaining an active and persistent presence not just in the streets but in legislative chambers and, more importantly, in communities.
Unfortunately, most of the public perception of the pro-life effort has focused on its battles in the streets, where pro-life forces have been most vocal and generated the most publicity. Thanks to a few zealots, still fewer oxymoronic pro-life assassins (think Eric Rudolph), and a mainstream press that was mostly unfriendly to the pro-life perspective (usually termed “anti-abortion”), the public got a negative impression of an activist movement that was largely prayerful and peaceful. But perception is, as they say, reality. And the movement as a whole suffered from that negative portrayal in the pre-Fox press.
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In the political arena, state legislatures have continued to pass restrictions on abortion, and notwithstanding rigorous challenges from abortion-rights advocates, many of those restrictions have become part of the legal landscape. Nary a week goes by without another news story about another state passing new pro-life legislation. Thanks to the untiring work of conservative legislators, the beat goes on.
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In the cultural arena, crisis pregnancy centers have cropped up in communities all over the country, offering women viable and attractive alternatives to abortion, and countless babies have been saved. The compassion and care received by women and families in crisis has been the velvet glove in the pro-life movement, a gentler counterpoint to the activist and political initiatives.
The net effect of all this pro-life activity has been astonishing in its own way. The abortion rate has fallen from its high of 29.3 to 16.9 abortions per thousand women (as of 2011). Abortion clinics are closing at record rates all over the country. And according to Gallup, the number of those who consider themselves “pro-choice” is diminishing over all demographic groups (age, educational level, and region), all except for one group: “no religion.”
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What’s the takeaway for all this? It’s all about perspective, and persistence. There was a time when the Roe decision and rapidly shifting public opinion made ultimate defeat for the pro-life cause in America seem inevitable, but it only seemed that way. Values voters and pro-life supporters refused to give up, and we are beginning to see the fruits of their tireless commitment.
The current gay-rights surge is just that, a surge. It will leave its mark, and it will change American culture just as surely as Roe did. But we are already beginning to see thought-leaders questioning the hard-core orthodoxy of the gay-rights movement, and we may see a more civil discussion take the place of the rabid exchange of vitriol that marks the current debate. As the nation begins to contemplate the redefinition of its most basic social institution, we will see some sober reflection on what all this means to our culture. All of us — left and right — have to contemplate the implications of this emerging new normal.
For our part, conservatives must answer several questions as we move forward in this brave new world:
1. What is going to be our best strategy? It’s clear that this is not a battle that can be won in the streets. Just think of the headlines: “Anti-gay activists storm….” Wait … what institution would even be the target? With the pro-life campaign, the local abortion clinic was always the institutional symbol of the opposing view. There is no actual counterpart in the battle over gay rights. Where would you mount the protest? City hall? The church down the street that conducts same-sex weddings? Get real. So activism isn’t a viable option. The battle is already fully engaged in the legal and political arena, where conservatives are losing ground pretty dramatically. So what is the parallel to the compassion demonstrated in the crisis pregnancy center movement? The LGBT community thinks we hate them. If we actually do hate them, there’s no point in trying to portray compassion. If our view is driven by compassion, how do we express that compassion? Which brings us to the second question….
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2. What exactly is our message with regards to gay rights? With abortion, the pro-life position could be argued in terms of a civil rights issue: “pro-choice” means an ethic of strength over weakness. The weak and vulnerable unborn child is the victim. That can be a compelling message. With gay rights, who is the victim? Sure, we’re seeing our culture cast aside two thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition, but that’s not the kind of image that arouses sympathy in a post-modern society. The left has effectively portrayed opposition to gay rights as the contemporary counterpart to Southern racists. This will call for some soul-searching: to what extent is our opposition to gay rights driven (as our opponents say) by mere prejudice? Exactly why do we oppose gay marriage? Exactly why do we believe that gay marriage is contrary not just to our sensibilities but also to the greater good? We must settle that question internally before we try to defend our view to the public.
[RELATED on OCR: “Four Same-Sex Marriage Questions Americans Must Answer”]
3. How will we navigate the new legal landscape with regards to religious freedom? This question is turning into the crux of the legal battle, not just with regards to gay marriage but also with regards to the HHS mandate. We hear horror stories of pastors being censured for views expressed in the pulpit, but that is a worst-case scenario. More to the point is the question of how conservative religious organizations and citizens will be expected to function in this new normal. The courts are currently defining the boundaries of those expectations. How will conservatives of all stripes (Christian as well as Muslim, Jewish, and other groups) respond? If the State mandates that we all accept versions of marriage that aren’t really marriage by the dictates of our conscience, how will conservatives who own businesses operate in this new legal environment? Should churches simply opt out of the civil marriage business altogether, as some have suggested, and delete the words “by the powers vested in me by the state…” from our church weddings? No one knows how far the courts will extend the rights of LGBTs in this legal balancing act, so it’s hard to predict how difficult our choices will be.
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These are times that call for perseverance. Pro-lifers didn’t despair in their discouraging situation forty years ago. Instead, they were tireless and persevering. They kept up the pressure in the streets and in the political arena.
But they were not just persistent; they were also creative. There was a time when crisis pregnancy centers were a new concept, but they have proven to be one of the most effective strategies in the pro-life campaign. Thousands of workers in hundreds of centers reached out in compassion not just to save babies but to help women.
When the ground is shifting beneath your feet, it’s hard to keep your balance. It would be easy for conservatives to fall into either utter despair or knee-jerk belligerence. Neither response would be helpful or wise. Instead, we need to think deeply and carefully about where we place our next step.
Paul William Pyle has taught high school for 36 years and serves as an elder in a Dayton-area church. He studied English and music at Evangel University and holds the M.A. in Biblical Studies from Dallas Theological Seminary. He and his wife have four children, ages 18-33. His blog, “Noticing,” can be found at paulwpyle.blogspot.com.
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