Fragile Foundation of Marriage Equality, Part 1

At the present moment it appears that “marriage equality” is virtually unstoppable, but is it?

But what appears to be an unstoppable movement or a step forward in human history could be anything but. How many times in history has there been excitement about a new idea or some form of “progress” and the whole matter became either a footnote or an embarrassment of history? Plenty. Below are just a few: The Bay of Pigs, Prohibition, and RMS Titanic.

 

At the present moment it appears that “marriage equality”[1] is virtually unstoppable. The acronym “LGBT” (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) is joining everyday conversation. Recently, some have expanded to “LGBTQ” (“Q” for queer). Efforts to affirm LGBT sexuality as a normal part of society are gaining ground on virtually every front. Whether it is making same-sex marriage legal, undermining any attempt to change sexual orientation, or public opinion, the movement of “marriage equality” or “LGBT rights” is in full swing.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 26, 2013 in the case of United States v. Windsor has proven to be a politically defining moment. About half the states in the union have had judges strike down mostly voter-approved marriage laws. State referendums have fallen like dominoes.

Now, just two years later, we are looking at a nationwide ruling on same-sex marriage in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. Given the prevailing winds of the day and the mounting pressure to be accepting of what was unacceptable not long ago, it seems the marriage equality proponents will have their way.

History Gone Wrong

But what appears to be an unstoppable movement or a step forward in human history could be anything but. How many times in history has there been excitement about a new idea or some form of “progress” and the whole matter became either a footnote or an embarrassment of history?

Plenty. Below are just a few: The Bay of Pigs, Prohibition, and RMS Titanic.

The Bay of Pigs invasion was a terrible disaster from a group-dynamic that expects conformity and suppresses any dissenting ideas. The United States has been doomed by its own arrogance plenty of times. President John F. Kennedy and his advisors had a plan to stop the growing communism in Cuba led by Fidel Castro. Kennedy and his group of experts went ahead with a plan from the CIA. On April 17, 1961, around 1,200 Cuban exiles, financed and trained by the CIA, armed with American weapons and using American landing craft, waded ashore at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba. The idea was to provoke a Cuba-wide uprising to overthrow Castro’s regime, but it was a total disaster. The invasion was quickly put down and the USA-issued equipment enabled Castro to gain more approval among his people for stopping the United States aggression. The whole operation was a national embarrassment and it left Kennedy wondering aloud, “How could we have been so stupid?” Kennedy’s advisory group certainly had plenty of experts. The problem was they fell into the human error called “groupthink,” where the assumption of being on the right side of history, a stereotyped view of the opponent, pressure to conform, and an illusion of unanimity creates an atmosphere where objections and dissenting views are not welcome. Therefore, crucial information is never raised and important questions are not asked.

Prohibition was the popular movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s to prohibit alcoholic beverages. It sounded like a great idea to many people for many years. Saloons were places where men would go drink away their paychecks, get into brawls and avoid responsibilities of home. Wives and children would be left to fend for themselves. The problem was so extensive that women began to band together against their men who were behaving like boys. The alcoholism of the 1800s gave rise to the movement giving women the right to vote, and the abolition of slavery soon joined the anti-booze crusade. Both were considered liberal movements in their day. However, many Bible-thumping Christian ministers and churches actively supported the Prohibition Movement. In particular Baptists, Methodists, middle class and rural groups were behind the temperance movement. Prohibitionist signs read “strengthen families lose the booze” and “banning alcohol = less crime.” Sales of other goods and entertainment were supposed to rise as the sale of alcohol decreased.

The changes came fast. States began passing their own anti-liquor laws. By 1916, nineteen states prohibited manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages, and 23 of the total 48 states had some sort of anti-saloon laws. Politicians were branded by their stance on alcohol. “Wet” candidates approved alcohol and the “dry” were for prohibiting its manufacture and sale. In the 1916 election, the drys won two-thirds majority seats in the U.S. Congress. A nationwide Constitutional Amendment was approved by Congress and submitted to the states on December 18, 1917. Three quarters of the states had to ratify the amendment in order for it to be added to the U.S. Constitution. It took less than a month to reach the necessary 36 states. On January 16, 1919, it was illegal nationwide to produce or sell alcoholic beverages. But Prohibition only lasted 13 years. By 1933, states were scrambling to legalize beer and liquor again. The Prohibition law backfired. It created a huge underground market for beer and liquor. The government lost a huge chunk or revenue from alcohol tax that now went to those breaking the laws. It was at this time that organized crime arose as a new problem. The saloons were closed but secret speakeasies took their place. Public officials became easy targets for corruption. Go against the mob, putting your job, your reputation, and even your safety at risk, or look the other way and give your kids a nice Christmas! “In almost every respect imaginable, Prohibition was a failure.” [2] The unintended consequences soon overcame all the supposed benefits, and a powerful movement backfired. To this day, Prohibition is the only Constitutional amendment to have been repealed.

The mighty RMS Titanic, a symbol of progress, tragically sank on its first voyage. The 882-foot-long, 46,000-ton luxury liner was the largest and also the most luxurious ship ever built. Riding the wave of technological progress with subways, automobiles and transcontinental airplane flights, the Titanic was set to become the latest and greatest human achievement. The massive boat was considered “unsinkable,” designed to withstand damages that had sunk all ships prior. The massive hull had doubly reinforced steel that extended the full length of the vessel. It also had many water-tight compartments that could be sealed at a moment’s notice. So even if the hull were somehow punctured, the damage could easily be contained. At the helm was Captain E. J. Smith, a veteran of the North Atlantic and recently promoted to Admiral of the White Star Line fleet. Steaming full-throttle toward New York at 22 knots, the notion of sinking this boat was laughable. Alerts of icebergs in their location were transmitted and forwarded from Titanic’s own wireless operator. Speed was not adjusted. No extra lookouts were posted. After all, this was an unsinkable boat, helmed by the most experienced captain. Why should a little ice get in the way? Titanic entered the reported ice field around 11pm during a black, moonless night with only the stars dotting the sky. It was about forty minutes before its fateful encounter. The crow’s nest was able to call the bridge in time to turn Titanic to port and actually avoid a head-on collision with the iceberg. What it didn’t avoid, however, was the ice beneath the surface of the water. The hull was punctured by a protruding point of ice cutting a 300-foot slice across one too many of its water-tight compartments. The doors immediately shut as the water poured in, but it mattered little. Disbelief and denial were the initial reactions of everyone. When the call was issued to put on life vests, many passengers joked about whether they were fashionable. The atmosphere was casual and most everyone treated the call as a momentary precaution, more a nuisance than anything else. Getting people on lifeboats was difficult because few knew the extent of the danger. Many boats were launched with empty seats. It took 2 hours and 40 minutes before the world’s largest ship disappeared into the ocean. London went to sleep that evening with newspapers printing that Titanic had hit an iceberg but that all were safe and the ship was not lost. Editorials were printed with praise of human technology, the triumph of wireless communication. The White Star Line office in New York City had refused to issue any statements of alarm despite receiving messages that only a fraction had been saved. They continued to be “optimistic in the extreme,” reassuring distressed friends and family of passengers that the ship was unsinkable and would probably still reach port under her own steam. It wasn’t until 8:20pm that they admitted the grim news. “I thought her unsinkable,” said P.A.S. Franklin, Vice President and General Manager. “I based by [sic] opinion on the best expert advice. I do not understand it.”[3]

A Fragile Foundation

I am not a sociologist or prophet attempting to predict the future. I am a minister in the Christian Reformed Church in North America who majored in philosophy and psychology. History is only a hobby of mine. All I will attempt to do is call attention to what I am seeing and reading about the accelerating movement of marriage equality or LGBT rights. This movement could evolve and solidify into our society. But the weaknesses are still abundant and there is no reason to panic as if the sky were falling. In Jesus Christ we have nothing to fear even if the whole world caved in (Psalm 46). But it is yet to be seen whether or not LGBT rights is actually on the right side of history.

It must be noted here that LGBT persons are a diverse group of people. They are not the incarnation of America’s downfall or the reason people are distancing themselves from church. Many are not looking for a fight. The fighters are the ones making the news and being quoted, but many LGBT-identifying people want to live their lifestyle quietly and to fit into society as best as possible without causing commotion. These people are not constantly waving rainbow flags, losing their temper or threatening lawsuits. They want a regular life and are looking to be friendly neighbors who volunteer at their children’s school and would rather not talk about their sex life. In fact, more than a few times I have heard Christians say they have seen more grace and kindness from the LGBT people they know than the church-going Christian people they know. (Such a scenario is reminiscent of the tax collectors and sinners who flocked to Jesus while the Bible scholars and most devout Pharisees were more interested in winning arguments and their ritual observance of religious rules.) At the other end of the LGBT spectrum are those who not only engage in gay sex but are aggressively and even recklessly pushing for their lifestyle to be universally accepted. While the former group is responsible for winning increasing acceptance of LGBT lifestyles among Americans, the latter group is posed to be the undoing of “marriage equality,” if present trends continue.

Many questions are unanswered. As Prohibition shows, the speed of a movement developing says nothing about its staying power. In fact, the speed can easily be a liability more than an asset. Historically, how many U.S. Supreme Court decisions have backfired, causing tremendous backlash and eventually reversal? Also, why is it that advocates for tolerance and acceptance can show so much intolerance and pressure to conform? Public opinion has shifted in every demographic, but why is it moving so much slower among certain kinds of people? If being LGBT is like race, why are racial majorities more accepting than minorities?  Moreover, what other polls and studies showing among of society that are occurring at the same time? If someone is born with certain desires and disposition, does that dictate moral rights to act on those desires? Like the RMS Titanic, what potential hazards are we headed for at such a tremendous speed? Why is it that we assume the marriage equality ship is on the right side of history when we are charging into uncharted territory in history?

Rev. Aaron Vriesman is Pastor at North Blendon Christian Reformed Church (CRC) in Hudsonville, Mich.

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[1] “Marriage equality” will be the primary term for the movement also called the “gay agenda,” because the latter is simply a loaded word and unhelpful for getting a serious message across to those who disagree. “Marriage equality” was recommended as a more neutral word by one of my more liberal friends.

[2] Informational banner concluding the Prohibition exhibit, “American Spirits: The Rise And Fall Of Prohibition.” Original exhibit from October 19, 2012 to April 28, 2013 at the National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St, Philadelphia, PA 19106. Overview: http://constitutioncenter.org/media/files/prohibition-overview.pdf (retrieved July 10, 2014)

[3] The New York Times, Tuesday, April 16, 1912, pg.2.