Driving a Wedge into the ‘Evangelical Center’ on Gay Marriage

By Angelo Matera

Posted 4/3/08 at 6:42 PM


Why is it taboo within the cultural left to “privilege” marriage in any way?

Several years ago I came across a snarky little news item in New York Magazine titled: “The Smug Marrieds Head Underground: Pro-marriage propaganda to invade subway.” What sort of propaganda was this? They were subway billboards produced by an abstinence advocacy group called Campaign for Our Children. The ads featured happy-faced couples and headlines like “‘Marriage works.” “Married people earn more money.” “Kids of married parents do better in school.” “Married people live longer.” I had to admit that the appeal was a lttle crass—it wasn’t exactly the nuptial poetry of the Song of Solomon—but anti-smoking and AIDS prevention ads can be just as heavy-handed. And with the number of fatherless households at an all-time high, what’s wrong with encouraging marriage? 

Well, for people caught up in gay and feminist identity politics, there’s plenty wrong. I was reminded of that today when I received an email newsletter from the Alliance for Marriage (AFM). In it, founder Matt Daniels was blasting an article in the liberal American Prospect that had accused a pair of black and latino evangelical leaders affiliated with the AFM of spreading “hatred” against gays.

The article’s author, Sarah Posner, claimed that the two leaders—Niger Innis, head of the Congress of Racial Equality, and the Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference—by “urging the Republican Party to retain its platform language favoring a constitutional amendment to define legal marriage as heterosexual, and urging the Democratic Party to adopt the same” were trying “to scapegoat gay people, something the ‘new evangelical center’ claims to eschew.”

I’ll address the “evangelical center” later, but anyone who’s been paying attention—and Posner clearly hasn’t—knows that more than almost anyone else in the pro-family movement Matt Daniels has deliberately avoided stigmatizing gays by putting the case for traditional marriage—a union between a man and a woman—in purely positive terms. He’s combined the intellectual rigor and the human touch of pro-marriage writers and think-tankers like Maggie Gallagher and David Blankenhorn with an innovative and hard-nosed approach to political coalition building that’s rare in American politics. The AFM—the main sponsor of the proposed federal marriage amendment—is a multi-racial, multi-ethnic working-class coalition that makes the case for marriage in terms of both traditional values and social justice (read John Romanowsky’s GodSpy profile of Daniels here).

I don’t see the AFM newsletter on their website, so here’s Daniels’ critique of Posner’s article:

“In this piece, you see the lazy thinking of our critics on full display.  First, the author complains that we’re trying to repeat the Republican victory of 2004—despite the fact that our coalition leaders are reaching out simultaneously to both parties on behalf of our cause.  Second, the author—a self-styled expert on religion—is too intellectually lazy to avoid lumping all the leaders of our coalition (including Catholic Cardinals, Jewish leaders and others) under one dismissive label designed to narrow the perceived scope of our movement and its support among the a wide cross-section of the American people.  No wonder our opponents continue to be shocked at the depth of support for our cause in America.  In spite of years of efforts to change public opinion through the media and the educational system, the percentage of Americans who want our laws to send a positive message to kids about marriage and family has remained solid at around 70%. This support crosses all racial, cultural and religious boundary lines—and is even higher than the national average among the communities that Sam and Niger represent. So much for ‘Liberal Intelligence.’

Daniels’ unconventional, eclectic approach to politics flows from his personal experience, recounted by Franklin Foer in a 2004 profile in The Atlantic:

“He was born in 1963, the only child of Irish parents living in Spanish Harlem. His father, Guy, was a published poet and had translated the works of the Russian authors Vladimir Mayakovsky and Andrei Sakharov. He was also a fickle husband, bolting from one marriage to the next. Guy left the family when Matt was three. Matt’s mother worked as a secretary and provided a stable home. But during the 1970s the neighborhood became a morass of crime and drugs. ‘I was mugged probably twenty times by the time I got to college,’ Daniels told me when we spoke recently. One evening in 1971, his mother was attacked by four men, who left her with a broken back. Unable to work, she grew dependent on welfare, and on alcohol. The family’s prospects for a better life dwindled.

Intent on escape by his own means, Daniels won a scholarship to Dartmouth. But after graduation he found himself back in his old environment: his mother was dying of congestive heart failure, and he returned home to care for her. During this time he began searching for a spiritual mooring. He worked in a homeless shelter and in three soup kitchens, all run by black churches. The ministers welcomed him into their congregations, and it gradually dawned on Daniels that he had been born again. ‘That became a foundation for the rest of my life,’ he says.

Daniels had found not only religion but also a professional calling: helping the urban poor. In 1993 he entered the University of Pennsylvania law school on a scholarship conditional on his commitment to a public-interest career. For most people the public-interest path leads to liberal organizations. But Daniels grew increasingly averse to the liberal values of his professors…”

Foer goes on to explain how Daniels’ later research into the harmful effects of family breakdown on children led to his public interest work on behalf of strengthening marriage laws.

Reading about Daniels’ background, you realize how absurd it was for Sarah Posner to lump the AFM with the “Christian Right.” In her article, she riffs about how the Christian right was built on “other-izing” people. Yet, what is Posner doing but “other-izing’ people who value traditional marriage for its own sake, not out of hatred for “the other.” The letters sent by Innis and Rodriguez (read them here) contain nothing negative about gays. They say family breakdown is the leading cause of social ills such as youth crime and dropout rates, but they don’t say that homosexuality or gay marriage causes family breakdown. All that Innis and Rodriguez ask is that “the legal status of marriage as a union between man and woman” be defended. Yet Posner insists on labeling them as scapegoaters. Who’s other-izing who? .

I would also ask: who is more embracing of “the other?” Matt Daniels, who went back to his poor East Harlem neighborhood after graduating from Dartmouth and committed himself to protecting the values of the grassroots Christians who were his lifelong neighbors? Or the upper-middle-class, left-liberal religion journalism arrivistes who write books mocking the values of traditional Christians with whom they have little in common?
Like so many others on the left, Posner can’t get her mind around the idea that there might be a connection between traditional values and social justice. Posner writes a regular column in the American Prospect chronicling the misdeeds of the Christian Right, called The FundamentaList. Reading it, you get the sense she’s become a mirror of what she hates. Nowhere is Posner’s straight-jacked thinking more evident than in her statement about Mike Huckabee, who, she says, “has managed with Zelig-like panache to at once embrace the religious right and reject it.” In other words, when Huckabee—a pro-lifer— challenges his fellow pro-lifers to extend their concern to human life beyond the womb, he’s being schizophrenic. Go figure.

Is it any wonder then that she can’t figure out the AFM? Like Mike Huckabee, who was criticized from the right for violating Republican orthodoxy, Matt Daniels’s organization defies categories. For instance, unlike the Christian Right, the AFM routinely reaches out to Democrats, if only because the blacks, Hispanics, Chinese, and other ethnic groups in its coalition operate mostly in the Democratice party. You’ll also find the AFM advocating for typically Democratic concerns, like giving workers more control over their lives with flexi-time and family leave.

Daniels has done such a good job of steering the AFM between left and right (it doesn’t oppose civil unions, for instance, which means its position is identical—at least on paper—with that of Barack Obama), he’s incurred the wrath of right-wing anti-gay activists. Franklin Foer’s article, for example, was subtitled: “Matt Daniels believes he’s found the solution to the political problem of gay marriage. So why do his fellow conservatives want to divorce him.”

That both Conservatives and Left-liberals have a problem with Daniels’ group suggests there might be a subconscious conspiracy between them to discredit any “third way” position that might break the red vs. blue state deadlock about marriage. A truce based on “third way” principles—recognizing the human dignity of men and women who identify as gay by allowing legislative compromises such as civil unions and anti-discrimiantion laws, while constitutionally protecting the traditional definition of marriage—wouldn’t satisfy the extremists, but it would satisfy the millions of Americans who hold a balanced view on this issue (not to mention the millions who would like nothing better than to make this issue go away).

It will be interesting to see whether, in this election, the leaders of the much-ballyhooed “evangelical center” that Posner referred to do the right thing, and join with groups such as the AFM, and the Catholic bishops, who embrace this third way, “both/and” approach, affirming both the common good and the dignity of the human person, or—and there are, unfortunately, some signs of this—they stick to the left-right, either/or script and move uncritically from the right straight to the left, thanks to the mesmerizing effect of Barack Obama.