Same-sex marriage: Now that the battle over marriage equality is ending, what will we fight about next?

The Battle Over Same-Sex Marriage Is Ending. What’s the Next Big Culture War?

The Battle Over Same-Sex Marriage Is Ending. What’s the Next Big Culture War?

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
Oct. 10 2014 2:51 PM

The Next Culture War

The battle over same-sex marriage is drawing to a close. What will we fight about now?

A wedding cake with statuettes of two women is seen during the demonstration in West Hollywood, California, May 15, 2008.
We’ll have to find something new to fight about.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images

The battle for same-sex civil marriage in the United States isn’t quite over, but this week may be remembered as the turning point. The Supreme Court has yet to definitively rule that it is unconstitutional for state governments to refuse to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, yet its decision to allow various lower-court rulings to stand is a big deal. It is no longer so difficult to imagine that in the next few years, the Supreme Court will find that there is a constitutional right to same-sex civil marriage that applies as much in Alabama as it does in Massachusetts.

The stunning collapse of mainstream opposition to same-sex marriage represents the end of what has proved to be a short chapter of the culture war—after all, we’re only 11 years from the Goodridge decision that allowed same-sex civil marriage in Massachusetts. So what will self-styled progressives and self-styled traditionalists battle over next?

Even if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, we’re not about to stop debating it. Gary Bauer, the former Republican presidential candidate, points in a recent Washington Examiner op-ed to the fact that at least one survey, from the Pew Research Center, finds that support for same-sex marriage may have peaked, having fallen 5 percentage points since February to 49 percent. This could be a blip, or it could be the start of a backlash. Moreover, it remains unclear if the success of the marriage equality movement will have some larger effect on how Americans think about marriage. David Blankenhorn of the Institute for American Values famously reversed his opposition to same-sex marriage on the grounds that we should be encouraging everyone to enter into long-term, sustainable relationships. Instead of devoting time and effort to keeping same-sex couples out of the institution, he wanted to rally them to the cause of reviving marriage for all Americans, particularly the poor and working-class Americans who are far less likely to be in stable marriages than their affluent and educated counterparts.

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Some conservative critics, like Ryan Anderson of the Heritage Foundation, argue that the rise of same-sex marriage represents the triumph of the misguided belief that consenting adults should be free to form any kind of relationship they choose. Anderson and his allies instead defend what they call the “conjugal view” of marriage, in which marriage is understood as permanent, exclusive, and rooted in the ways women and men are distinct and complementary. If marriage is redefined as an emotional union first and foremost, Anderson warns, there is no principled basis on which to oppose future redefinitions of the institution. Last year in Slate, for example, Jillian Keenan made the case for legalizing polyamory. You could also imagine the rise of advocates for temporary marriage, or other variations on the institution. There could be some cleavage, then, in the big tent of same-sex marriage supporters, with some joining Blankenhorn in making the case for monogamous marriage and others calling for moving beyond its strictures.

A closely related possibility, widely feared among social conservatives, is that the winning side in the same-sex marriage debate won’t prove magnanimous in victory. As the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans continues to grow, a new, more explicitly anti-religious strain of progressivism will emerge. America has never had an anti-clerical politics as such, as the United States has never had an established church of the kind found in Europe. Even as religious observance has declined, the American consensus in favor of the accommodation of religious belief has for the most part endured. Now, however, there are indications that appeals to religious liberty are losing their resonance for secular liberals.

Many on the left see conscience exemptions from the contraception mandate for religiously affiliated employers as an outrageous infringement on sexual freedom. Catholic adoption agencies that refuse to work with same-sex couples are under pressure, as are higher education institutions like Gordon College that forbid “homosexual practice.” If momentum continues to build for legislation, like the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, to forbid employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, many religious employers will seek carve-outs. There is no guarantee that they’ll get them, particularly if those who back the legislation come to see exemption-seekers as unrepentant bigots. The next culture war could pit devout secularists against a shrinking religious minority determined to live in accordance with their beliefs.

Even as public opinion swings on same-sex marriage, it doesn’t appear to have shifted much on abortion. There are many theories as to why this is the case, the most intriguing of which was recently advanced by Northwestern University sociologists J. Alex Kevern and Jeremy Freese. Their basic idea is that because pro-life individuals tend to have more children than pro-choice individuals, and because abortion attitudes are to at least some degree informed by the attitudes of one’s parents, younger Americans are more pro-life than you’d expect given the leftward drift of their views on a wide range of other social issues.

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It is also true, however, that as the prospects for overturning Roe v. Wade outright have dimmed, the abortion debate has shifted. In the 1990s, pro-life Republicans focused their attention on partial-birth abortion bans, an approach that proved fairly popular. More recently, pro-choice Democrats have sought to highlight the opposition of some pro-life conservatives to abortion in cases of rape, a profoundly unpopular position. Ramesh Ponnuru, author of The Party of Death, has called on Republicans to instead campaign for banning abortions after 20 weeks, an idea with much wider support.   

At the state level, pro-life groups like Americans United for Life have taken a more incremental approach. In particular, they’ve been demanding that abortion providers have admitting privileges at local hospitals and that their clinics adhere to hospital building codes. The case for these measures rests on the health and safety of women seeking abortions, yet they also dramatically raise the costs of operating the standalone abortion clinics that have long provided the vast majority of non-emergency abortions in the United States. Among pro-lifers, this strategy of pushing back against standalone clinics has been controversial, as some believe that moving abortions into hospitals will entrench the practice, while others think it will tend to reduce the number of elective abortions. Pro-choice advocates, meanwhile, find themselves charged with making a new economic model for abortion providers’ work.

These battles are subtler and more complicated than the abortion fights of the past, which relied more heavily on straightforward moralistic language, and they are likely to create new battle lines. Rand Paul, the libertarian Republican senator from Kentucky, has angered some on the pro-life right by insisting that the emergency contraceptive Plan B does not cause embryos to die. What does and does not count as a medical abortion matters a great deal to committed pro-lifers, and conservatives are finding themselves on different sides of the issue. Then there is the divide between anti-abortion activists who see long-acting reversible contraception as a valuable tool for reducing abortions, particularly for younger women, and those who see it as an enabler of irresponsible sexual behavior.

Going even further into the future, we can expect new reproductive technologies to create new cultural divides. Will artificial wombs bring us to the promised land of gender equality, or will they alienate us from our offspring? Will the genomics revolution allow parents to build better babies? Our children and grandchildren, designer or otherwise, will be duking it out over precisely these questions.

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Of course, it’s not necessarily true that the next culture war will center on marriage, sex, and abortion. We might instead see a fight that’s rooted in the fusion of culture and class as a rising Latino population, much of it consisting of lower-income families, claims a larger share of political power. This year, Latinos are surpassing whites as the largest ethnic group in California, and the same thing is likely to happen in Texas in a few years’ time. As demographer William Frey has observed, the mere fact of a large Latino population hasn’t always translated into substantial Latino political power, as members of fast-growing minority populations are often either too young to vote or have yet to attain citizenship.

Over time, however, Latinos will represent a larger share of the electorate, and other groups will have to adapt to diminished influence. And given that the Latino population is poorer than the population at large, we can expect that its members will press for a larger share of public resources at a time when the white and black populations will be aging rapidly. It is not at all obvious that non-Latinos will embrace this prospect.

A team of psychologists at UCLA recently conducted a study in which white Americans drawn from across the country were divided into two groups. In one, they were told that whites would lose their majority status by 2050. In the other, they were told that whites would retain their majority status for some years beyond 2050. Not surprisingly, perhaps, the group that was told that white majority status was about to become a thing of the past was less inclined to support diversity. One wonders what would have happened had the researchers also surveyed black Californians, a group that has been surpassed in numbers by Latinos and Asians, and which has reason to fear political marginalization. It could be that as white and black Americans find their power waning, they will gain a new appreciation of all that they have in common.

The next culture war will look very different from the old one. But whether it is about religious liberty or marriage and the family or who gets to define American identity, we can be sure of one thing: It will be fiercely fought.