“Absolutely nothing new here.”
“Ryan T. Anderson’s Checklist of Failed Arguments”
“Nothing new. Not challenging. Not entertaining. Not enlightening.”
“Pointless debate of a settled issue”
“A Tired read full of dog whistles to Anti-Gay bigotry”
“read it if you already agree with the author and just want to read something supporting your view.”
These are all negative reviews of Ryan T. Anderson’s new book, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, as found on Amazon. Anderson, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, has become one of the leading voices in the movement to oppose marriage equality and LGBT rights generally, and he marketed this new book to address what comes after Obergefell, the Supreme Court’s ruling bringing marriage equality to the country. Heritage has been concerned about all the negative reviews the book has received from what it dismissed as dishonest “activists and ideologues,” but the reality is that the reviews are right: the book has nothing new to offer, nor is it particularly convincing.
Though Anderson’s arguments are already familiar, what is interesting about Truth Overruled is what happens when all of those arguments are juxtaposed so closely. The clear contradictions between them become so much more apparent that in many ways, they debunk themselves. They also reveal the systemic rejection of gay, lesbian, and bi people that persists — however sugarcoated — among social conservatives.
Rather than being an effective manifesto of all the arguments against recognizing same-sex relationships as marriages, it serves as a guide for just how weak this already-lost case is, and why continued fights — including the ongoing struggle over using “religious liberty” to justify anti-gay discrimination — will likely not prevail either.
Getting “Twisted Up In Knots”
Early in the book, Anderson quotes Evan Wolfson, the architect of the marriage equality movement, as having said back in April, “It’s so clear that there are no good arguments against marriage equality.” Anderson counters that this statement “is as manifestly self-serving as it is absurd. Reasonable people can acknowledge that there are good arguments on both sides of this debate.” He is essentially disparaging any reader who disagrees with his book as unreasonable, but it doesn’t take much reason to reject his arguments.
Rehashing and building off of some of the arguments from his previous book, What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense, coauthored by his former Princeton professor and National Organization for Marriage founder Robert T. George along with classmate Sherif Girgis, Anderson constructs an artificial concept of what marriage is. Instead of the familiar religious and civil definitions of marriage, he develops his own hypothetical ideal of “marriage,” an abstract, philosophical notion that supposedly borrows from both the civil and religious definitions. Under the pretense of “natural law,” Anderson assumes that the traits he lays out in his ideal will be so common-sense as to be irrefutable. He makes a point of claiming he is not relying solely on religious tenets, but he simultaneously ignores much of how marriage is actually practiced in culture and the many different ways it is important to people and the government that recognizes it. He conveniently selects concepts that serve his purpose of rejecting same-sex marriage without explicitly sounding anti-gay, but in doing so presents a vision of marriage unrecognizable to just about anybody, and the anti-gay dog whistles prevalent throughout demonstrate just how conservatives constructed it.
Wolfson provides helpful understanding for Anderson’s artificial framework for marriage. In an interview with NPR’s Fresh Air earlier this month, he pointed out how drastically marriage equality opponents had to change their tone — to cover up their homophobia — after the Supreme Court overturned sodomy laws in 2003. “Since 2003,” Wolfson explained, “with the ruling in the Lawrence v. Texas case, that moral objection or moral disapproval of gay people because of who they are is not a basis for making laws to disadvantage people.” States could no longer say of gay people, “they’re icky,” “they’re scary,” “we don’t like them,” or “we don’t approve of them.”
Instead, “They actually had to come up with a neutral-sounding rationale for why states were denying marriage. And that got them twisted up in knots about, well, it’s heterosexual people who can procreate by accident, and that’s actually the whole purpose of marriage. And that just made no sense to anyone who, of course, thinks about marriage about as about love and commitment.” The contrast was evident in the 2013 Windsor case, when opponents of marriage equality were forced to reconcile the “moral disapproval of homosexuality” lawmakers cited as their reasoning for passing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in 1996.
Anderson slyly makes Wolfson’s point, writing, “In the decade or so before the Obergefell decision, when Americans were debating the definition of marriage, no one was suggesting that gays and lesbians be barred from forming intimate unions.” Lawrence just happened to be a “decade or so before the Obergefell decision.” He actually concedes and acknowledges that a lot of people believe this narrative about marriage as a relationship, but he hopes to convince the reader that it really shouldn’t be about love and commitment. He calls it a “distorted view” to “put adult desire before the needs of children.”
“Government promotes marriage to make men and women responsible to each other and to any children they might have,” he writes, clarifying that the stability of the spousal relationship is only important for the sake of the children’s well-being. He later explicitly admits that the state’s “only reason for its recognition of marriage” is “the responsible procreation and care of children.” In sum, “Marriage is based on the anthropological truth that men and women are complementary, the biological fact that reproduction depends on a man and a woman, and the social reality that children deserve a mother and a father.”
Anderson thus tasks himself with convincing the reader that the traditional wedding vows — “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death do us part,” as Roman Catholics like Anderson recite — get marriage wrong. These vows espouse a distinct and familiar vision of marriage that encompasses sexual intimacy (“to have and to hold”), perpetuity (“from this day forward,” “until death do us part”), mutual financial obligation (“for richer, for poorer”), and an obligation to serve as caregivers for one another (“in sickness and in health”). He rejects this vision because it doesn’t mention caring for children, which is the only purpose of marriage in his framework. It is in making that case that he indeed gets “twisted up in knots,” and the contradictions — and rejections of same-sex couples — become apparent.
Fallacies And Falsehoods Galore
The Anderson-Girgis-George definition of what marriage should be dictates monogamy, exclusivity, and permanence, but at no point does Anderson explain how same-sex couples are less likely to achieve all three, except to assert, “Those norms are based on sexual complementarity.” He makes the point that same-sex relationships have been found to be less stable in some studies, but ignores the context that society is just beginning to recover from a history of anti-gay stigma, plus the fact that it only just lifted the ban on the very institution that he says promotes that stability.
Instead, Anderson relies on slippery slope warnings about polyamory, “monogamish” and open relationships, and short-termed “wedlease” marriages to show the deterioration of his marriage ideal. Of course, none of those are uniquely relevant to the issue of same-sex marriage. They may indeed be growing in popularity, and there may even be legal questions to consider in the future concerning these other kinds of relationships, but they are entirely different issues not informed by sexual orientation.
Anderson hopes readers will buy into that slippery slope, though, as evidence of the marriage destruction already wrought by the sexual revolution, dating back to the introduction of no-fault divorce. He provides what he thinks is evidence that legalizing same-sex marriage has already hurt marriage rates. After the Netherlands legalized same-sex marriage, he warns, “marriage rates for young women dropped an additional 5 percent over the rate at which they were already declining.” He fails to mention that Dutch researchers have clarified, “Neither the legalization of same-sex marriage nor the introduction of registered partnership have had significant negative effects on the Dutch different-sex marriage rate in the aggregate.” He makes the same claim about marriage rates dipping in early marriage equality states like Iowa, Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire, but leaves out the part about how those states’ marriage rates were declining at virtually the exact same rates before marriage equality arrived as after. Marriage equality actually had no effect.
Anderson’s case against same-sex parenting, core to his child-centered vision of marriage, is particularly weak. He opens by relying on “fatherless” studies, research that included zero data on children raised by same-sex couples but instead focused on families with an absent or missing father. This includes, for example, the work of David Popenoe, whose research only examined the consequences of divorce, single parents, and stepfamilies. Anderson finds it necessary to offer a quote from a 2002 Child Trends study twice, one that emphasizes that it is “the presence of two biological parents that seems to [best] support children’s development.” He fails to mention that the researchers of that study have publicly chastised marriage equality opponents like him for citing it, explaining, “No conclusions can be drawn from this research about the well-being of children raised by same-sex parents.”
Parenting arguments also expose one of Anderson’s most obvious contradictions. When discussing the impact of divorce, he highlights research that shows that divorce does damage to children that no other experience — not even committed stepparents — can fully remedy. “It’s not just about two incomes or the attention of two people,” he explains. “As a general rule, divorce and remarriage provides a setting that is little better for children than divorce alone. Even when you get a second income and second parent back in the family through remarriage, children tend to be no better off than if the divorced parent had not remarried.” With that context in mind, Anderson proceeds to completely ignore the role divorce played in all of the studies and narratives he uses to claim negative outcomes for the children of same-sex couples.
He lauds, for example, the research of Mark Regnerus, Douglas Allen, and Donald Paul Sullins, all of whom produced studies purporting negative outcomes of same-sex parenting, outcomes only derived by conflating the experiences of children whose parents’ divorced or by not controlling for family structure in the first place. He dismisses most of the studies that actually address committed same-sex families as being too small and rejects four studies that meet his standard, accusing them of having coding and interpretative errors. Incidentally, all four contradicted his narrative against same-sex parenting.
Anderson also props up the stories of Robert Oscar Lopez, Katy Faust, and the other now-adult “poster children” who claim to have had negative experiences with same-sex parenting, even though divorce was a part of every single one of their narratives. It is the only time he acknowledges the children of same-sex couples, ignoring the hundreds of thousands of children that are having completely typical and loving upbringings. As far as Anderson is concerned, the experience of children raised by same-sex couples can only be described by data and anecdotes about children impacted by divorce, because, of course, that’s the only way he can portray their experiences as negative.
The Anti-Gay Dog Whistles
Like Wolfson said, conservatives have had to find a way to talk about the issue of same-sex marriage without saying much about homosexuality. Try as he might not to, Anderson reveals several assumptions he holds about the inferiority of same-sex relationships — assumptions that might not be apparent at first glance but that are essential to his case against marriage equality.
Inherent in his definition of marriage is a concept Anderson refers to at times as the “comprehensive act,” his euphemism for when a man inserts his penis into a woman’s vagina and releases sperm to fertilize her egg. “Marital sexual intercourse is a union of hearts, minds, and bodies,” he explains, and in this biological function, “you are radically incomplete” without the complementarity of the opposite sex. Borrowing from the Bible, he refers to how “a man and a woman truly become two in one flesh.” They “cooperate toward a single biological end — procreation.” He never explicitly claims that same-sex couples can’t achieve a “one flesh” connection, but he insinuates as much by asserting that the sex only counts if there’s a chance a sperm might connect with an egg. This suggests Anderson knows very little about sex, why anybody has it, how anybody has it, or just how deep, intimate, and meaningful it can be for any couple regardless of their chance of fertilizing an egg and regardless of their gender pairing.
Countless caveats are also required for Anderson to make this argument work. As for infertile couples, he claims, “It is the procreative nature of marriage” — whatever that means — “rather than the actual procreative results of individual marriages that explains government policy in this area.” He laughs off the idea of fertility tests for couples wishing to marry while inherently imposing the same test on same-sex couples. Gently referencing the easily mocked arguments that marriage is designed solely to protect children that result from accidental pregnancies and to prevent accidental pregnancies outside the marriage, Anderson assures, “The fifty-year-old husband whose wife has gone through menopause will never beget children with another woman if he’s faithful to his marriage vows.” Without explanation, he then insists that even if penis-vagina intercourse doesn’t result in fertilization, the “one-flesh marital act” is “still oriented toward family life.”
Anderson inadvertently demonstrates how his “comprehensive view” is anti-gay through a thou-doth-protest-too-much attempt to explain the opposite. It’s not animus, he claims, because “cultures that had no concept of ‘sexual orientation’ and cultures that took homoeroticism for granted have understood that the union of husband and wife is a distinct and uniquely important relationship.” One of the primary reasons marriage equality won public support is not desensitization to “homoeroticism” — whatever diminutive notion of same-sex sexuality that word is meant to represent — but because society has more information about the nature of sexual orientation than at any prior point in history. It was only a generation ago, in 1973, that psychiatrists concluded that homosexuality is not a mental illness, and as Wolfson reminds, it’s only been a dozen years since being gay was even legal in all 50 states.
The consensus of the past, he argues, “cannot be dismissed as a relic of irrational animus against men and women attracted to members of their own sex.” He’s right. The consensus of the past can be dismissed because it was uninformed about the lives of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people as psychology and sociology — and more importantly, society and culture in general — now understand them. The opposition to marriage equality in the present, however — embodied by this book and persistent in spite of the open lived experience of millions of same-sex couples — can very easily be categorized by that irrational animus.
Anderson is not particularly effective at hiding his irrational animus either. He dedicates a whole chapter to “why sexual orientation is not like race.” Taking existing racial and religious discrimination protections for granted, he decries adding sexual orientation and gender identity protections — what he calls “special privileges” — because he believes they will undermine the freedoms of speech and religion for those who oppose LGBT equality. He essentially believes that religious people, which apparently only includes conservatives who share his position and none of the people motivated by faith to support LGBT rights, should have a hecklers’ veto that overrides LGBT people’s basic right to not be fired, evicted, or denied service for who they are. He’s pointing that “special privileges” accusation in the wrong direction.
To make his point, he again relies on tradition, juxtaposing the “insidious ideology” of racist policies like the bans on interracial marriage with the “nearly universal” beliefs against same-sex marriage. “Any law that would establish special privileges based on a given trait has a high bar to clear,” he remarks, and anybody who thinks sexual orientation and gender identity meet this high bar “are mistaken.” These laws would burden small-business owners, he claims, based “not on objective traits but on subjective and unverifiable identities.”
That’s because Ryan (incorrectly) believes that sexual orientation and gender identity “are linked to actions, which are a proper subject matter for moral evaluation,” that they are “ambiguous, subjective, and variable traits,” and that protections on the basis of such identities “undermine the common good by weakening a marriage culture.” Basically, LGBT people are only defined by the sex they have or how they present themselves, and he has no reason to trust what they say about how they actually experience their identities throughout their daily lives. He doesn’t offer any explicit explanation of his own understandings of sexual orientation — perhaps knowing he can’t do so honestly without sounding anti-gay — but he relies on anti-LGBT researchers like Paul McHugh to fuel fear-mongering that “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” are terms that are so elastic that they could be used to protect other groups they weren’t intended to — as if that’s a bad thing.
The question is not, as Anderson sets it up, whether race is exactly the same as sexual orientation and gender identity, but whether discrimination on the basis of these identities is similarly wrong. He contends that morally, the two are too different in that regard. A helpful framework has actually already been established legally that suggests otherwise. The Supreme Court’s test for a group worthy of heightened protection under the Constitution has four criteria: a history of discrimination and stigma, an immutable trait, political powerlessness (like that of a minority), and the ability to contribute meaningfully to society without inhibition from that trait. Though the Supreme Court has not yet been applied this standard to sexual orientation, the Ninth Circuit has, and the Supreme Court could be primed to follow.
Anderson also smears same-sex parents when he claims, “There is no such thing as ‘parenting.’ There is mothering, and there is fathering, and children do best with both.” These differences, he insists, “are not the result of gender roles or sex stereotypes. They are a matter of what comes naturally to moms and dads, what moms and dads enjoy doing with their children.” But of course, he proceeds to list stereotypes. Here’s a good one: “Because dads, on average and for the most part, tend to be larger than moms and have deeper voices than moms, they tend to be better at scaring away bad boyfriends. And because dads were boys themselves, they know what the wrong sort of boy might be looking for in their daughter. As a result, dads are more likely to police whom their daughter is dating.” That only works, of course, if the daughter is straight. Unsurprisingly, Anderson has no research to offer about how same-sex couples parent their children. It could be that he believes that these gender norms are so common-sense, natural-law true that he doesn’t realize they actually are just stereotypes, but his conviction doesn’t mean that he’s right. His claim that mothers and fathers are limited by their gender in how they can parent is an insult to all parents, not just same-sex couples.
So if same-sex couples can’t marry or raise kids, what’s left for them? Anderson is all too happy to highlight the story of Douglas Mainwaring, a “gay against gay marriage,” who is married to a woman and raising kids. “Mainwaring’s courage is admirable, perhaps even heroic,” Anderson opines, “but ordinary people are capable of great virtue when they set aside selfish desire for the sake of someone else.” Apparently, falling in love with someone and wanting to commit to that person for life and build a family with them is a “selfish desire” — if you’re gay.
Anderson also thinks “a shining example of ministry” is Courage, the Catholic ministry that shames gays and lesbians into chastity because homosexuality is a sin, often employing the same strategies as ex-gay therapy. “Every community needs groups like this to help their same-sex-attracted neighbors discern the unique life of loving service to which God calls each of them and find wholeness in communion with others.”
Gays and lesbians should instead be content with “deep friendships,” which he calls “liberating.” He explains, “The same-sex attracted, like everyone else, should have strong and fulfilling relationships.” After all, “we all need community,” and he encourages religious folks to “bring those left dry by isolation into other forms of community — as friends, fellow worshipers, neighbors, comrades in a cause, de facto members of our families, big siblings to our children, and regular guests in our homes.” But of course, not sexual partners. “The virtues of chastity and lifelong marriage are enriching,” but chastity is the only option he offers to people with same-sex orientations.
Using Abortion To Try To Reverse The “Bigotry” Narrative
“With marriage redefined,” Anderson warns, “believing what virtually every human society once believed about marriage will increasingly be deemed a malicious prejudice to be driven to the margins of culture.” The problem with this warning is that it’s too late; opposing marriage equality is bigotry. Not so, Anderson counters. “It is not bigotry but compassion and common sense to insist on laws and public policies that maximize the likelihood that children will grow up with a mom and a dad,” ignoring just how much truth he had to overrule to arrive at that conclusion.
Instead, Anderson proposes a compromise. He would prefer that opponents of marriage equality be treated a little less like racists and a little more like people who are anti-choice. “While the elites disagree with the pro-life position, most understand it. They can see why a pro-life citizen defends unborn life — so for the most part they agree that government shouldn’t coerce citizens into performing or subsidizing abortions. The same needs to be true for marriage.” The problem with this conceit is that they are two totally different questions. The question of when life begins is philosophical and may never be answerable, but the question of the nature of sexual orientation has already been answered; those who maintain anti-gay beliefs do so by rejecting the lived experience of gays and lesbians and the research that insists psychiatrists affirm them for who they are.
But Anderson is insistent that discrimination against LGBT people be allowed to continue. Just this week he railed against the new Equality Act, a comprehensive LGBT nondiscrimination bill just introduced in Congress. These protections “threaten the freedom of citizens, individually and in associations, to affirm their religious or moral convictions — convictions such as that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.”
In Truth Overruled, he walks through the litany of people who have been held to account in the public sphere for their prejudiced beliefs, including Brendan Eich of Mozilla, Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty, adoption agencies that want to discriminate while still receiving state funding, Gordon College, that photographer, that bakery, that other bakery, that florist, that wedding chapel, that other wedding chapel, that wedding venue, that homophobic firefighter, and that pizza shop. “Religious liberty claims in connection with same-sex marriage,” Anderson contends, “have never been about turning away certain persons or groups, but about not endorsing certain actions of ceremonies.” Besides, “In every publicized case of a business owner’s declining to facilitate a same-sex ceremony, the service sought by the couple was readily available from other businesses. In other words, a pluralistic civil society is policing itself; no law is needed here.” Essentially, he’s arguing that discrimination is okay up to a certain point, but when enough people in a community discriminate, then it’s not okay anymore.
He also rails against the backlashes in states like Arizona and Indiana that tried to extend “Religious Freedom Restoration Acts” (RFRAs) to enable anti-LGBT discrimination. “However the law defines marriage,” Anderson writes, “the state has no compelling interest in forcing every citizen to treat a same-sex relationship as a marriage in violation of his religious or moral convictions.” In other words, even though same-sex couples have the constitutional right to marry, religious people should still be free to ignore that legal recognition.
Anderson is adamant that respecting people based on their sexual orientation does not compare to respecting people based on their race. “Running a business in accordance with the view that marriage is a union of husband and wife is reasonable and should be lawful. Running it based on racist views is unreasonable and thus lawful.” He offers no “reasoning” to explain this distinction. “Why should government be telling bakers and florists which weddings to serve in the first place? Why should it tell charities and religious schools how to operate and which values to teach? Only a swollen sense of unaccountable government authority can explain these changes.” It couldn’t possibly be to simply guarantee that all people have equal access to basic goods and services.
The three “practical tactics” Anderson leaves readers with are as follows:
- We must call the court’s ruling in Obergefell what it is: judicial activism.
- We must protect our freedom to speak and live according to the truth about marriage.
- We must redouble our efforts to make the case for it in the public square.
But in the end, he proves that there’s nothing practical about these tactics at all. Conservatives are free to decry Obergefell as judicial activism, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s the law of the land. The supposed “truth” about marriage that Anderson lays out is not relatable, especially compared to the vision of marriage Justice Anthony Kennedy actually laid out in his decision, one rooted in individual autonomy, commitment, family, social order, and most importantly, dignity. And it’s unlikely that a case that condemns gays and lesbians to loveless, sexless lives with no families — a case with no concern for the families they are already raising — will actually convince anybody who actually knows a member of the gay community or anybody who doesn’t already hold such narrow beliefs. If anything, Anderson’s book is not a plan for the future, but a synopsis of the failed prejudiced arguments of the past.