Ryan T. Anderson, 31, researches and writes about marriage and religious liberty as the William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC. He is also the editor of Public Discourse, the online journal of the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, NJ.
He has emerged as a leading defender of traditional marriage before audiences on college and law school campuses, as well as in the mainstream media (he recently sparred with CNN host Piers Morgan and lesbian financial advisor and motivational speaker Suze Orman, for example).
Anderson was born and raised in Baltimore, and, while he is Catholic, his parents sent him and his four brothers to a Quaker school, “for reasons we still don’t fully understand,” he chuckles. At an early age he found his views often at odds with those of his classmates, such as on the issue of abortion. He said, “Being in a minority status makes you examine your positions more thoroughly.”
Anderson’s articles have appeared in numerous periodicals, and he recently co-authored What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense (Encounter Books) with Robert George and Sherif Girgis. He recently spoke with CWR.
CWR: Why is marriage unique from other adult relationships?
Anderson: As we argue in our book, it is unique because it involves a union of hearts, minds, and bodies of a man and a woman, at all levels of their beings, in an act that has the potential to produce new human life. Marital relationships are not only emotional, but are ordered towards bearing and rearing children.
If we reject the understanding that marriage should be between one man and one woman, other questions arise. Why, for example, should we limit marriage to two people? What about “thruples” [a three-person “couple”]? What’s so magical about the number two? Perhaps someone believes their marriage would be enhanced with the introduction of a third party. If we don’t insist that marriage is a distinct, bodily union between one man and one woman, then we leave it up to the spouses to decide.
Also, why should marriage be permanent? Emotions come and go, so some people might prefer their marriage to be temporary.
CWR: Polls say younger people are more open to same-sex marriage than the overall population. Why do you think many in your generation have this perspective?
Anderson: Because they didn’t experience a strong marriage culture; they are the first generation that came of age in the aftermath of no-fault divorce and the sexual revolution. They don’t understand marriage and didn’t witness strong marriages growing up.
Also, there is a tremendous amount of propaganda being put out by cultural elites, aided by prominent figures such as Hollywood or sports stars, who advocate a redefinition of marriage. Anyone who challenges this view is subject to attack. After I did the Piers Morgan interview, I had people I went to high school with looking me up through Facebook and attacking me. Many who say they’re for tolerant attitudes are often the most intolerant themselves.
CWR: When you leave the stage or when the television cameras are turned off and people come speak to you privately, what sort of things do they say?
Anderson: Many people, both on my side and on the opposing side, admit they’ve never heard my arguments before. Some say that they support the traditional definition of marriage because the Bible or their church tells them so, and now they’ve heard me articulate it from a public policy perspective in a way that makes sense.
Others will tell me that they disagree with me, but they don’t have a response to what I’ve said. They’re beholden to an ideology. They’ve never heard my arguments, but still know I’m wrong. They’re strong ideologues.
CWR: For centuries, traditional marriage has been universally understood and accepted by cultures throughout the world. For a little more than a decade now, there has been an aggressive push by some to change its definition. Why do you think that is?
Anderson: Some people equate support for marriage as between a man and a woman as being “anti-gay” bigotry. They think the only way to combat this bigotry is through redefining the institution of marriage. They think, “To protect gays and lesbians we must be in favor of redefining marriage.”
But they’re separate issues. There are a host of public policy solutions we can adopt to address these concerns commonly raised by those who support redefining marriage. We can consider adjustments to public policy, for example, in regards to hospital visitation rights or inheritance laws for unmarried persons, whether they have same-sex attractions or not.
In reality, the push to redefine marriage is more about putting a government stamp of approval on same-sex relations instead of trying to ensure that a child grows up with a mother and father. As the 1970s and 80s began to demonstrate, men and women don’t necessarily stick together over the long haul even if they have a child together. The law should encourage them to do so for the benefit of their children. If we don’t, the social costs run high, with broken hearts and broken homes. The data shows that children who grow up without their mother and father suffer a greater incidence of a variety of social problems.
The whole argument has become a “gay rights” issue, when it should be about whether or not marriage matters.
CWR: Some politicians uncomfortable about the issue suggest that the state “should get out of the marriage business.”
Anderson: But the state has to be in the marriage business, because nine months after a man and a woman unite, often a new human being comes into the world. Someone has a responsibility for that new life: should it be the parents or the government?
The government can try to pick up the pieces of a broken marriage culture through the introduction of a variety of welfare programs, or the government can limit itself by recognizing the institution of marriage in a civil society. It can adopt laws to encourage life-long marriage, and thus safeguard the rights of children. We’re not forcing marriage upon anyone, but holding it up as an ideal, because every child needs a mom and a dad and it’s best that they be married to each other.
If the state “gets out of the marriage business,” it will lead to a further erosion of the marriage culture, with negative effects on our society. Children raised outside of marriage, for example, have an 82 percent greater chance of living in poverty. If we care about social justice, we need to understand that the love, protection, guidance, and support of mother and father, not more government programs, are what a child needs.
CWR: You’ve referenced a divide between “cultural elites” and “ordinary Americans.” What do you mean by this?
Anderson: Ordinary Americans understand that men and women are different. They unite in the sex act, producing children, who need mothers and fathers. They recognize that children do best when they have a mom and a dad.
The opposing side believes that gender is a social construct, that men and women are interchangeable. They think that all that matters is the feelings of the adults. If that is all that marriage is, then it looks like bigotry to deny marriage to same-sex couples.
Ordinary Americans don’t buy into this. They can see in everyday life that men and women are different. Say a parent and son were wrestling, being physical in a non-violent way. Who is that parent more likely to be, the mom or the dad? Everyone knows it will be the dad.
The social science data supports the belief that men and women are different, but ordinary Americans know this from everyday experience. It’s common sense.