Brian Brown, the president of the National Organisation for Marriage, based in Washington DC, lived up to his billing. I had been forewarned: If Helen Alvare’s arguments were difficult to follow, the NOM’s would be even more so.
In fact, they were so difficult to follow, the one-hour session was almost enjoyable. There were huge opportunities to read between the lines.
The NOM is on the frontlines of the US culture war which, unlike the war being fought over in Singapore, is not about whether homosexuality is “natural” or “unnatural” and its criminalisation, but over whether same-sex couples should have the right to get married.
The issue is reaching a new climax with civil suits expected to reach the Supreme Court next year.
What are the arguments we can expect from the pro-traditional marriage side? Who better to hear it from than the president of NOM.
The first surprise was that NOM had not one objective but two. “Our main mission is the protection of marriage and the protection of religious liberty,” announced Brown as he began speaking. One might be mystified how one objective related to the other, but the twinning only served to signal that all the arguments to follow would essentially be based on religious conviction, even if not explicitly so stated.
As to how this might be consistent with the fact that the US Constitution insists on the separation of Church and State, it was not explained.
“Marriage is a public good,” stressed Brown. “It is the best institution within which to raise children.” This line of argument echoed what Helen Alvare had said, except that Brown added a twist: “It is not about rights and privileges.”
On the face of it, it does not make any sense – after all, the law undeniably invests rights and privileges in a marriage licence – but he was probably trying to say that no one else should claim access to marriage as a matter of right unless he or she is able to raise children, thereby performing a public good.
I’m sure I don’t have to spell out to readers all the contradictions that sprout in the wake of such a statement. What about opposite-sex couples who have no desire to have children? What about one senior citizen marrying another? And what about same-sex couples who quite clearly are already raising children?
He went on at some length about this angle (“It’s a beautiful thing, the union of a man and a woman”), but shed no additional light on the logic being applied.
It wasn’t long before another key thread surfaced. Repeatedly, Brown spoke of the fight as one between the “elite” and the “people”.
“The better way to understand this fight,” he helpfully explained, “is to see it as one between the elite and the people. For example, during Proposition 8, no major newspaper supported Proposition 8. The other side got their publicity for free. We had to pay for our side.”
NOM has about 50,000 donors, said Brown, including churches. This reminded me of the huge role played by the Mormon Church in funding the Yes on Prop 8 campaign.
He did not seem to accept that perhaps journalists and intellectuals rejected Prop 8 simply because it was discriminatory and made for bad law.
Proposition 8 was the proposal in 2008 to amend the California constitution to ban same-sex marriage. It passed (52%) but was subsequently overruled by a federal court. It is now headed to the US Supreme Court.
“It is even more critical now that the Supreme Court has justices who uphold the law, not interpret the law.”
He doesn’t understand the US constitution very well. The role of the Supreme Court is primarily that – to interpret the law. It’s for the police and lower courts to uphold the law.
He thinks NOM will prevail. “The elites in this country – academics, journalists and so on – say this is a losing battle. But Obama is likely to be a one-term president.”
On this, his confidence rested on the fact that the states Obama has to carry to win reelection are precisely those that voted against same-sex marriage. Checking off the states that have amended their constitutions to ban same-sex marriage, he said: “Ohio, more than 60 percent; North Carolina 60 percent; Florida, more than 60 percent. In November, the voters are going to come out [and vote against Obama].”
“Everything that Obama has done has seemed to support same-sex marriage.”
Several times, Brown repeated that “marriage has never lost a public vote.” This is a risky claim, because all it takes is one lost vote and the whole basis of this argument is demolished forever. For the same reason, no airline ever advertises itself as never having suffered a crash.
As for the recent Gallup opinion polls that indicate support for same-sex marriage in the US has now crossed the 50-percent mark, Brown dismissed their accuracy. “Polls understate pro-marriage views by 6 percent,” he said, without citing any research.
Where NOM’s second mission, that of defending religious liberty, came into the picture was when he spoke about how NOM and like-minded people have been “demonised” for their stand. “It’s not right for donors to our Prop 8 campaign to be attacked; for supporters of traditional marriage to be attacked,” he said, invoking freedom of religion.
Additionally, he railed against attempts to make laws that classify anti-same-sex marriage speech as hate speech. “We should not stifle the religious freedom to say so.”
This may be a red herring, because I don’t know of any such attempts. Where the debate is is over how to treat anti-gay speech. There is a strong case for treating it in the same manner as racist speech, as highly suspect, and beyond a certain point of vehemence (e.g. urging discrimination or promoting violence) to be classified as hate speech.
So, what is NOM’s position on homosexuality? “We don’t have a corporate position on homosexuality,” said Brown. “Our focus is on marriage.”
This ready answer showed up another aspect of NOM’s public communications. They are well-rehearsed, carefully packaged; one might say, slick. If one is coming to the issue and encountering their arguments for the first time, they may sound persuasive. It takes familiarity with the subject matter and opposing arguments and some degree of intellectual interrogation to see the flaws.
Listen for example to his stand on civil union. He’s against them, saying, “Civil unions are a gateway to marriage,” meaning that after civil unions have been legalised, same-sex couples remain dissatisfied (is that so wrong?) they have the temerity to ask for more. In courts, the very fact that civil unions have been legalised, he pointed out with a hint of exasperation, has been used as an argument for full marriage rights.
He is right there, except that he did not truly represent the nuances of court rulings. The starting point was that opponents of same-sex marriage (evidently now not including NOM) have argued that if gay people want partnership rights, civil unions should be good enough, without going all the way to marriage. Courts however have found that places with civil unions for same-sex couples, and all the rights they bring with them, amply demonstrate no negative social effects. That being the case, why stop at civil unions? Why not accord gays and lesbians full marriage rights?
The hour with Brian Brown paid off in this sense: I got a better understanding of where NOM stands. They’re now in a No Compromise position, fearing that the slightest concession would further weaken their case.
But retreating into a No Compromise stand is a sign of weakness. It indicates a position that is really a house of cards; all it takes is to knock off one prop, and the whole thing comes crumbling down.