Will “Rights” Claims Tip the Scales Against Gay Marriage?

Last summer, toward the end of a short post on “religious liberty” arguments, I cited an article from Social Science Quarterly finding that ideologically extreme positions may be disguised within moderate frames – especially those touting “rights” as a primary concern. This is interesting, I noted, because it helps explain why so many conservative culture warriors have lately shifted positions, transitioning from broad moral condemnation to the principled defense of liberal values – religious liberty, for instance. I had made this exact qualitative argument elsewhere, and appreciated the quantitative support.

Then, earlier this week, I was a little surprised to see that Andrew Lewis, one of the authors of that study, had taken to Canon and Culture, a Southern Baptist Convention forum, to promote its findings to conservative activists themselves. It seems that, where I had seen the rights-frame as a tool of political deception, Lewis sees it as a tool of conservative strategy.

In the abstract for the SSQ piece, the authors explain:

Rights frames are a way to provide publicly accessible reasons that should lead to perceptions of the source as less extreme, which enables discourse rather than cuts it off. We hypothesize that framing conservative issue positions in the language of “rights” (as opposed to morality) will lead to perceptions of the candidate as less conservative and less religious, enabling liberals to increase their support for the source.

Later, after that hypothesis has been confirmed, they enumerate the lessons learned:

First, issue frames matter. Our results are troubling in the traditional way that framing effects are damning. The most uplifting finding would have been no shifts in perceptions of the source based on the framing of these highly conservative policy positions. Instead, invoking rights appears to be a cloak of invisibility for candidates. A simple shift of frame allows ideologically extreme candidates to hide in public sight, appearing to be something different than they are and much more acceptable than they otherwise would be.

The authors report being “troubled” by the extent to which “rights talk” can shift public perceptions of issues and candidates, especially as these allow ideologically extreme figures to pass beneath a “cloak of invisibility.”

To me, this indicates that the public should take extra care when presented with rights claims by conservative figures, but for Lewis, apparently, it means that conservative figures should be making more rights claims. Doing so, he suggests, would help them better oppose the advance of same-sex marriage:

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.

Lewis cites the success of “right to life” as a key term of the abortion debate to suggest that “right to both a father and mother” would perform similarly in the debate over marriage.

I have argued that attempts to frame same-sex marriage as a religious liberty issue have proven ineffective, and I suspect that the “rights” tactic would prove equally so. After all, conservative activists have been citing the threat that gay people pose to children for over forty years. It’s an argument that dates back to Anita Bryant’s talk of “recruitment,” and that has taken various forms since. A “rights” repackaging is unlikely to make it any more compelling.

Still, my primary qualm with Lewis’s Canon and Culture piece is that it encourages conservative activists to pass themselves off as other than they are – as less conservative and less religious, essentially moderate liberals concerned only with the protection of basic human rights. Addressed to the likes of conservative stalwarts like Sam Brownback or Roy Moore, this is little more than an encouragement to lie.