WASHINGTON — They hear that their cause is lost, that demographics and the march of history have doomed their campaign to keep marriage only between a man and a woman. But the young conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage — unlike most of their generation — remain undaunted.
They identify themselves as part of the “pro-marriage movement” and see themselves at the beginning of a long political struggle, much like the battle over abortion. If they can begin shifting the terms of the debate away from gay rights and toward the meaning of marriage, they say, they have a chance to survive short-term defeats.
“The primary challenge that our side faces right now is the intense social pressure,” said Joseph Backholm, 34, executive director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington. “To the extent that the other side is able to frame this as a vote for gay people to be happy, it will be challenging for us.”
To put it another way, opponents of same-sex marriage say they must argue in favor of traditional marriage, not against gay people or gay rights. “It's really a broader defense of marriage and a stronger marriage culture,” said Will Haun, 26, a lawyer and member of the Federalist Society.
Still, the fight is shaping up to be a difficult one, with public opinion increasingly seeming to shift in favor of same-sex marriage. Polling shows that a majority of Americans supports same-sex marriage, with even young Republicans moving in that direction. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted last month, 45 percent of Republicans between 18 and 44 years old said they thought same-sex couples should be able to marry — a contrast with Republicans 45 and older, only 20 percent of whom agreed.
After repeated defeats at the ballot box in recent years, same-sex marriage went four-for-four in statewide votes in November.
“Proponents of same-sex marriage have done a fantastic job of telling the story of same-sex marriage through music and television and film,” said Eric Teetsel, 29, executive director of the Manhattan Declaration, which describes itself as a movement of Christians for life, marriage and religious freedom. “I think it's really a case where, once they hear the other side of the issue and really think about it deeply, we're going to win a lot of those folks back.”
And the other side of the issue — the case for what proponents call traditional marriage — is simple, they say.
“In redefining marriage to include same-sex couples, what you're doing is you're excluding the norm of sexual complementarity,” said Ryan Anderson, a Heritage Foundation fellow. “Once you exclude that norm, the three other norms — which are monogamy, sexual exclusivity and permanency — become optional as well.”
The result, proponents of traditional marriage say, would be further rises in divorce rates and out-of-wedlock births.
“When you de-link marriage from childbearing, you then have to increase the complexity of that relationship,” said Caitlin Seery, 25, director of programs for the Love and Fidelity Network, which works with college groups to advocate traditional marriage.
Proponents of gay marriage respond that no evidence links it to social ills and that, in fact, divorce rates are often lower in states more accepting of it.
Opponents of same-sex marriage say they realize they may lose the current fight, but they optimistically take the long view, pointing to Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case that legalized abortion. At the time, they say, opponents of abortion were told their cause was lost, but that fight continues 40 years later.