Confessions of a Millennial Marriage Apologist

The Heritage Foundation’s authority on marriage and religious liberty, Ryan Anderson pushes against the headwinds on marriage that have swept up his fellow Millennials.

Ryan T. Anderson
Ryan T. Anderson (photo: Heritage Foundation)

WASHINGTON — As a Catholic Millennial and Princeton graduate, Ryan Anderson finds himself on the opposite spectrum of many of his peers when it comes to marriage. At a time when many in his generation are embracing the redefinition of marriage, Anderson has emerged as one of the leading voices arguing with dispassionate spirit for marriage as a permanent, inseparable union of man and woman.

Steeped in the natural-law tradition, Anderson researches, writes and speaks on marriage and religious liberty as the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow in American Principles and Public Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank. 

Originally, Anderson arrived at Heritage to pursue further work on a dissertation that grappled with natural law, social justice and economic rights. But as the Supreme Court began to address cases that asked the justices to incorporate same-sex couples into legal marriage, Anderson was drawn into the increasingly fractious and lopsided debate.

During an April 21 interview with the Register, Anderson discusses the forces that have put Catholics on the defensive in the debate on marriage. He also explains why marriage needs to be comprehensively addressed beyond same-sex unions and how he remains hopeful with the conviction that history will ultimately bear out the truth of marriage.


On April 28, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in key cases that involve the redefinition of marriage. What do we know about the mind of the court at the present time and about the mind of the American people?

Right now, we know the court is split roughly 50-50, and the American people are split roughly 50-50.


Why are cultural elites, corporate America and other elite institutions running from traditional marriage and supporting its redefinition to include same-sex couples so strongly?

I think the left has been pretty successful at stigmatizing anyone who stands for the truth about marriage as if they are today’s equivalent of a racist bigot. So, largely, this has not been through a dispassionate analysis of reasons and arguments and dispassionate evaluation of the evidence. Largely, this has been through a campaign of intimidation and silencing.


You’ve been debating on marriage: How has the cultural tone changed over the last few years — and why?

Ever since the Windsor decision — the Supreme Court decision on the federal Defense of Marriage Act [DOMA] case — that gave a permission slip to many people on the left to be quite nasty on this issue. If you look prior to the Supreme Court’s ruling on that decision, no one knew how Justice [Anthony] Kennedy was going to come down. No one knew what the Supreme Court was going to do. Most people were doing a wait-and-see attitude. President Obama only evolved on marriage a couple of months before the decision. Once he evolved, that gave permission to people on the left to evolve. Once the Supreme Court ruled, that gave people on the left permission to be quite mean about it. There’s a lot of bullying going on from the left.


Lately, we’ve seen more people being marginalized for their traditional beliefs on marriage, and the pace seems to be picking up. Have you experienced this personally?

I don’t know if I’ve been marginalized. I spoke at Harvard Law School a couple of weeks ago, and I’m speaking at Yale Law School tomorrow. I was profiled in The Washington Post last week, and I had an op-ed this week — I don’t think they’ve been successful at marginalizing me, and it hasn’t gotten me discouraged. I think that, ultimately, the tactics they’re using are to try to intimidate people into silence. The response needs to be of people being resolute in bearing witness to the truth.


What do you make of your own alma mater, the Quaker Friends School in Baltimore, distancing itself from you over the profile in The Washington Post of you and your views?

The worst part of what took place with my grade-school alma mater — it was the school I went to from first to 12th grade — is the signal and precedent it sets. It sends the signal to conservative students at that school that their viewpoints will not be validated; that the school is not a place where people on both sides of this issue will be giving a fair hearing and a fair chance. It sends the signal that if you are in favor of the historic definition of marriage — the union of male and female — that that viewpoint is unacceptable.

So if anything created a hostile environment … merely sharing a link on a Facebook page of a Washington Post story about me — if simply doing that created such a bad environment — taking it down sent the signal that anyone who thinks the way I think is not welcomed as a full member of that community.


What lessons have you learned about what is helpful to advance the cause of marriage in the public square? What are the most effective arguments and the least effective arguments in making the case in the current cultural context?

Here, most people can’t understand why people who believe the truth about marriage believe what we believe. Here, we need to find ways to explain the rational basis for more or less a historical consensus that marriage unites the two halves of humanity, male and female. We see this more or less all across the globe and all throughout human history: that marriage was about bringing together man and woman, husband and wife, mother and father. We need to find ways to embody that and express that to people who don’t seem to see the truth in it.


What has been most effective in making the case?

I think some of the Humanum videos that came out of the [Vatican’s] interfaith conference. Here, you had people from all of the continents … and representatives of all the world’s religious traditions, who disagree about so much else but could agree on the sexual complementarity of man and woman. They produced a series of short videos that highlighted various aspects of this, and I thought that was particularly good.


As you know, many of our fellow Millennials are embracing the idea of redefining marriage to include same-sex couples. What’s curious is that you went to Princeton but did not follow the Millennial trend. Why is that?

For me, I was an undergraduate at Princeton, and I had been accepted to do Teach for America. I was planning on doing Teach for America for a couple of years and then probably following the rest of my classmates into iBanking or law school or whatever it is that the typical Millennial Princeton graduate now does.

For me, I had an opportunity to be a research assistant to Princeton professor Robert George, who at the time was on President [George W.] Bush’s council on bioethics. So my first job out of school was doing work on stem-cell research, embryo-destructive research and broader questions about biotechnology and the ethics that govern biotechnology. From there, I went to work at First Things — Father [Richard John] Neuhaus was my boss for two years; Jody Bottum was my boss for two years — then I decided to go to graduate school to get a Ph.D. in political philosophy [at the University of Notre Dame]. And that was when I first started doing work on the marriage issue — that’s where the book I co-authored [What Is Marriage: Man and Woman: A Defense] came from — and then I came to Heritage [Foundation] originally to do work on my dissertation. My dissertation was on economics and philosophy. It was entitled “Neither Liberal nor Libertarian: A Natural-Law Approach to Social Justice and Economic Rights.” So I was trying to think through the natural-law tradition and what it has to say about economic justice and property rights. … I was at Heritage to do work on that. I came here, and I ended up doing a lot of work on the marriage issue, because I got here, and then President Obama “evolved,” and the Supreme Court announced they were going to be considering these cases. I already had a book coming out in a couple of months: The book had already been sent to the publishers; we were done with the book, so I thought I was finished with my work on this issue and that I would be starting to work on my dissertation and related policies. Instead, I did both: on nights and weekends was when I did my dissertation and during the daytime was when I did my marriage-policy work.


Can we really expect the next generation to embrace traditional marriage as it becomes more and more absent as an institution or model in their lives?

It becomes harder, and that is one of the reasons it is happening at this point in time. If you want to think, “Why is the redefinition of marriage taking place right here and right now?” it is because, for the past 40 or 50 years, heterosexuals bought into a bad vision of marriage that came from the sexual revolution, a vision of marriage that is largely of consenting adult romance who do whatever consenting adults want to do. On that vision of marriage, it makes sense to eliminate the male-female part of marriage. The problem is that vision of marriage is a bad vision of marriage, and it has led to a series of bad outcomes for children in particular, but for spouses themselves. So if you think the past 50 years’ experience of marriage and sexuality in the United States has been problematic, you probably don’t want to redefine marriage in all 50 states and do it at a constitutional level where you’re not going to be able to revisit the question.


Does the marriage movement have to take on legal divorce if it is to make the case that marriage is a lifelong, one-man, one-woman union for the sake of children?

Oh, yes. It has to be a multipronged approach. We have to walk and chew gum at the same time. We have to be able to take on the hook-up culture; we have to have a response to nonmarital childbearing; we have to have a response to the increase of divorce; we have to have a response to religious-liberty violations. All of these things have to take place simultaneously. It’s not a matter of doing one instead of the other; it’s a matter of doing all of them.


How does your faith inform your work as a marriage apologist?

I would say that, for my faith, my job here is to not lie. My job here is to think as carefully and as critically as I can about issues of public policy. So, to a certain extent, the work that I’m doing here is to help our society and our nation to think through which marriage policy best serves the common good.


Right now, much of the national debate has focused on redefining marriage, but in many ways, it appears that promoting marriage with healthy policies has fallen by the wayside. What should a healthy marriage policy look like in the U.S.?


A starting point would be to define marriage accurately; it would be a presumption of a permanent union, so the marriage license would be “to death do us part.” It would be the exclusive union of a man and a woman — so it wouldn’t allow for extramarital affairs; that would be a violation of the marital bond — so it would respect the norms of permanency, exclusivity and monogamy. And those three [norms] are really based upon and grounded in the norm of sexual complementarity.

The most important thing now is not to lose the sexual complementarity of marriage, because that seems to be the foundation of the norms of monogamy, exclusivity and permanence.


The political and cultural winds are blowing against traditional marriage. At the end of the day, what gives you hope and keeps you going in this work?

A lie can win only for so long. We’ve seen throughout human history that there have been regimes that have told lies about human nature and the human good. And while they may have been successful for a season, they are not successful in the long run. So getting human nature and the human family wrong will ultimately not be a success story. Redefining marriage ultimately dissolves marriage, and it won’t be good for public policy; it won’t be good for society; it won’t be good for the common good. So, in the long run, we will return to the truth about marriage.

Peter Jesserer Smith is the Register’s Washington correspondent.

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