If We Want to Restore Marriage, We Have to Learn This Technique

We can take back marriage if we start framing the issues in terms that everyone knows are true.

(photo: Unsplash)

“Framing” is the political term for formulating a clear message in the best way to persuade people about issues.

Issues can be very complex, but framing helps people focus on the aspect of an issue that best corresponds with their values, attitudes and experiences. Framing is nothing new, but it is a technique not very well understood and used by defenders of marriage and the regular family. People make the mistake of explaining things in ways they understand them, rather than in ways other people who think differently can understand.

The term the opponents of the reality of marriage and the regular family use for inculturation of their ideology is “social change.” The term proponents of marriage use is “evangelization of culture,” but “social change” would work equally.

The social change we seek is the restoration of a marriage culture, justice for our future children and grandchildren, and a universal understanding of the true meaning of love and sexuality.

How people accept new ideas, or even truth (reality), depends on whether they are expressed in terms people can understand. Pope Francis has spoken about putting our witness into a context people can understand. This is nothing new. Jesus taught in parables to reveal the Kingdom and God’s love, but he spoke one way to farmers and another way to fishermen. It was the same truth in each case, but communicated in ways that were most relevant to the specific audiences.

The whole approach and strategy of organizations like the Marriage Reality Movement is to help people learn new ways of communicating the reality of marriage and love to their family members and friends in ways that they can see the beauty and goodness of God’s plan for the family.

Perhaps it would best illustrate the importance of framing by examining the change in framing that was instrumental in the effort to redefine marriage.


Lessons From Prop. 8

In a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Nat Kendall-Taylor and Sean Gibbons explained the role of “bad” framing in the passage of California Proposition 8 to protect marriage and “good” framing in the ultimate court decisions to reverse it and redefine marriage in the U.S. Supreme Court.

In California’s Prop. 8 campaign, traditional-marriage supporters did not argue against same-sex “marriage,” but instead focused on the fact that it would be taught in the schools. That argument was true, as evidenced by the radical changes in school curricula related to sexuality and gender expression that are sweeping the country. We won the campaign because our opponents blinked and started arguing that “it” would not be taught in the schools, and, besides, parents could opt out. That was our framing — and it worked.

Referring to the opponent’s loss of Prop. 8, the Stanford article stated, “During the Prop. 8 campaign, marriage equality advocates spent sizable sums of money encouraging voters to choose equality and fairness. … But their ‘rights and benefits’ frame didn’t work.”

California Prop. 8 passed in November 2008, surprisingly on the same day that Barack Obama defeated John McCain for president. “How did this happen in one of the most liberal and LGBTQ-friendly states in America?” the authors asked. “The short answer: frames.”


‘Commitment, Not Rights’

While the majority on the same-sex marriage side encouraged continuing to use the same arguments but saying them more loudly, a small group went back to the drawing board.

One of the authors, Gibbons, previously worked for Third Way, the public policy institute that was instrumental in research that led to a major shift in framing on the marriage issue in 2011. The organization defines itself as “center-left.” This Third Way shouldn’t be confused with the Catholic/Christian group that emphasized love as the “Third Way.”

The authors of the Stanford article reported: “They found the answer hiding in plain sight: traditional marriage vows and their emphasis on love and commitment. While the ‘rights and benefits’ frame was persuasive for about 39% of the voting population, it unintentionally emphasized what was different about gay and lesbian couples and suggested an effort was underway to upset the institution of marriage and American families. The ‘love and commitment’ framework, on the other hand, was familiar and compelling to many people in the moderate middle of America’s political spectrum.”

Anyone who studied this research and these recommendations could see that this was a game changer. Because of no-fault divorce, marriage had come to be seen by the majority as an adult-centric institution — merely the public recognition of loving and committed relationships for the happiness of adults. If that is all marriage is, why should it be restricted to a man and woman?

But few defenders of marriage and family seemed to realize the significance of this change in strategy. Our side kept focusing arguments on how men and women were better qualified than same-sex couples based on things like complementarity and sexual differences. But the presumption that marriage was nothing more than a loving and committed relationship for adults was never addressed.

“By 2012,” the article continued, “activists in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington state had adopted this frame (gays want to marry for the same reason as everyone else), prompting a historic shift that culminated in the Supreme Court’s affirmation of everyone’s right to marry.”

All the Supreme Court did was redefine marriage to be the institution for memorializing a committed relationship for adults and providing them benefits formerly designed to encourage men and women to marry before having children. But now, the civil institution called marriage has nothing to do with children and families.

(By the way, it is important to note that there has never been created any specific civil institution called “same-sex marriage” anywhere in the law. So those who opposed “same-sex marriage” as a new institution were opposing something that was never going to exist. That was very bad framing.)

The authors emphasized, “Framing is what we choose to say and how we choose to say it. But it’s also what we leave unsaid. It’s the values we use to build support for our cause.” That takes discipline.

To Stanford students, the authors wrote, “To effect broad and transformational change, we believe that social change leaders of all stripes must develop a deep understanding of how frames work. Framing concerns the choices we make when presenting information and how those choices affect people’s attitudes, understandings and actions.”


Learning From Opponents

I have had almost 40 years of firsthand experience in framing issues in advocacy campaigns and putting together coalitions of people from left to right. I know we can take back marriage if we start focusing on what we are for rather than against and frame the issues in terms that everyone knows are true.

With the redefinition of marriage, there is no longer any civil institution that unites children with their mother and father. That is a fact. Some may say, “Yes, but men and women can still get married.” But that is not what marriage is for anymore.

Marriage equality requires adherence to the doctrine that all families are equal, and that requires promoting the lie that having more families with children deprived of their mother and father united in marriage is a good thing. That is what has led to the changes of curriculum about love, family and sexuality that are sweeping the nation.

A campaign to evangelize the culture for marriage and family will entail many things. To start, we can reframe the issue by asking the question, “Do we need a civil institution specifically geared to unite children with their own mother and father? Yes or no?” This new framing describes the fullness of marriage, reconnects marriage with children and family, and obviates any need to discuss complementarity, conjugal acts or homosexuality. This framing changes the discussion and avoids the traditional conflict.

We can start reframing our own thinking by asking, “How can we promote and defend Church teaching on the fundamental human right for all children to be born into a family with their mother and father united in marriage? What are the steps needed to accomplish this?”


Bill May is the president of Catholics for the Common Good, which sponsors the Marriage Reality Movement.

LEFT: The Black Madonna of Częstochowa. RIGHT: A Polish 120 mm battery during the Battle of Warsaw in 1920.

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