Finding the Rights Argument in the Same-Sex Marriage Debate

February 4, 2015

Over the past decade, traditional marriage supporters have been losing public support, with data from the Public Religion Research Institute showing anti more than 20 percent decline during the period. Evangelicals are also waning in their opposition to same-sex marriage most recently detailed in a Time Magazine piece. Yet, of late, traditional marriage supporters have been adopting a strategy that may improve their public case.

For years, same-sex marriage supporters have successfully framed the debate in terms of the “right to marry” and “marriage equality.” Rights and equality are the trump cards of political liberalism, and these are arguably the two most potent frames in American political discourse. Supporters of traditional marriage have lacked a counter-argument that could stand up to these effective declarations. Arguments regarding tradition, nature, and children seemed to lose to those of rights, especially for the young who are more susceptible to rights frames. Recently, however, activists have been reframing their support for traditional marriage using the language of rights, arguing that children have the “right to have both a father and a mother.” Some recent research suggests that this might be effective.

Individual rights are one of the touchstones of the American experience, central to both American culture and the U.S. Constitution. Discussions of rights profoundly affect our politics and our law, and the role of rights in law and politics has increased in the past century in what has been called the “rights revolution”.[1] Some, such as Harvard legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon, have criticized the growth of “rights talk” in American politics, arguing that rights-based arguments promote uncompromising issue positions that produce polarized politics and essentially cheapen fundamental rights.[2] Yet others, including UNLV political scientist Ted Jelen, have countered that rights based rhetoric is the most easily publicly accessible form of public discourse.[3]

Individual rights have long been the domain of liberals in American politics, but conservatives have increasingly wielded the rights sword with success.[4] For religious conservatives, the pro-life movement is the hallmark of this strategy. Pro-abortion supporters gained significant ground in political and legal debates by framing the debate in terms of the pro-choice rights of women, including the ubiquitous “woman’s right to choose”. Yet, pro-life supporters had their own rights-based claim, arguing for the “right to life” for the unborn child. From the beginning, many pro-life advocates framed their arguments in support of the inalienable right to life of the unborn, as seen in the founding of National Right to Life Committee in 1968. Yet, some prominent evangelical leaders, including Reverend Jerry Falwell, often cited feminism and sexual morality concerns, along with the right to life, in their abortion opposition throughout the 1970s,[5] cluttering public discourse. As the pro-life movement grew and evangelicals and Catholics became more unified on the issue, the right to life became the dominant theme of abortion opposition, serving as a compelling, rights-based counterclaim to abortion rights. Wielding this rights claim, pro-lifers have made great progress in the abortion debate, particularly among the young.

My co-authors and I have been examining the effectiveness of conservative rights-based claims on American public opinion. In September 2014, we published an article in Social Science Quarterly that analyzes the results of a series of survey research experiments conducted on college students across the United States.[6] The experiments present a hypothetical political candidate who expresses support for one of five conservative issue positions: 1) a ban on abortion; 2) support for the death penalty; 3) opposition to same-sex marriage; 4) opposition to nationalized healthcare; and 5) support for teaching creationism in public schools. For each category, the candidate expressed his position in terms of either public morality or rights. Consistently, college students rated the candidates that expressed their positions in terms of rights as less polarizing and less overtly religious. Opposing abortion using right to life language was the most effective at making the candidate seem more moderate and less religious, two qualities that are useful in political debates. In addition, non-evangelicals were particularly influenced by rights-based argumentation. Non-evangelicals who received the rights-based, pro-life argument were more likely to rate the candidate as being less conservative, and they were also more likely to view most of candidates that used rights language as being less religious.

Our study suggests that issue framing matters. In addition, contrary to those who are skeptical of rights talk, we find support for the suggestion that emphasizing rights can yield both political success and less polarizing results, especially for younger Americans. The one issue where we could not find support for a conservative rights claim, however, was same-sex marriage. We conducted this study at four universities in late 2010 and early 2011, and the arguments for traditional marriage did not feature an emphasis on rights. Our hypothetical scenarios had the rights-oriented candidate state that he opposed same-sex marriage because he supported the “right of communities to define marriage.” In our article, we suggest that this argument fails to generate success in public opinion because it is not at the forefront of the debate and because it is not compelling. The primary reason why it is neither prominent nor compelling is because this states’ rights argument does not tap into the American ethos—it is not an individual right.

Our research may lead some to suggest that failure is imminent for the traditional marriage perspective, as many others have proclaimed of late. In the past few months, though, prominent proponents of traditional marriage have tweaked their arguments. Individual rights have begun taking center stage, with advocates declaring that children have the right to a father and a mother. This rhetoric was central to the Vatican’s conference on the “Complementarity of Man and Woman” in November 2014 with Pope Francis declaring in his keynote speech that “children have a right to grow up in a family with a father and a mother capable of creating a suitable environment for the child’s development and emotional maturity,” and it has increasingly been used by Catholic and evangelical supporters of traditional marriage.[7]

This line of argumentation is nascent, and rights-based arguments for traditional marriage have not been empirically tested. Yet, they fit the pattern of success of other rights claims. The right of children to have a father and a mother is individual in nature, it is oriented toward the vulnerable, and it can be buttressed with data that supports the value of mothers and fathers. The best-case scenario for conservatives would be what happened with the pro-life movement, where a compelling rights-based argument coalesced with scientific data to serve as a formidable counterweight to a social and political movement—abortion rights—that many thought was a foregone conclusion. To date, the “right of children to have a mother and father” may be the best antidote to “marriage equality.”


[1] See, e.g., Richard L. Pacelle, Jr., The Transformation of the Supreme Court’s Agenda: From the New Deal to the Reagan Administration (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1991).

[2] See Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: Free Press, 1991).

[3] See Ted G. Jelen, “Political Esperanto: Rhetorical Resources and Limitations of the Christian Right in the United States,” Sociology of Religion 66: 303-21.

[4] Prominent examples include: the right to free speech, the right to religious freedom, and the right to life.

[5] See Daniel K. Williams, God’s Own Party: The Making of the Christian Right (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[6] Paul A. Djupe, Andrew R. Lewis, Ted G. Jelen, and Charles D. Dahan, “Rights Talk: The Opinion Dynamics of Rights Framing,” Social Science Quarterly 95: 652-68.

[7] See e.g.: Ryan Anderson and Sarah Torre. “The Right to Life and a Culture of Marriage.” National Review Online. December 10, 2014. John Stonestreet, “The Other Right.” Breakpoint. December 22, 2014.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24