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.


  • fiona64@livejournal.com' fiona64 says:

    Your right to swing your Bible ends where the other fellow’s nose begins. Thus endeth the lesson.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    The “right to a father and a mother” idea is a hilariously ill-conceived soundbite tactic, because it’s obvious to everyone who doesn’t live in a sad little bubble that the universe does not owe anyone either a mother or a father, and the state is not going to ban single-parent adoptions, or take children away from widows, just for an excuse to dehumanize LGBT people. Conservatives are pretending that they can/would provide every orphan with a mother and a father, when they wouldn’t even guarantee them homes or medical care? Give me a break. The most vulnerable children are now in the cross-hairs of a frantic battle to keep gay people demeaned and disenfranchised, and that’s repulsive.

  • stillgoodtotalk@gmail.com' David says:

    If using this tactic is lying then the left is guilty of the same.

  • reedjim51@gmail.com' Jim Reed says:

    The tactic was certainly mastered by the fiscal conservatives long ago, and now it is spreading to the social conservatives.

  • mevansnh@tds.net' samiinh says:

    How so? Please explain.

  • alannaberger@hotmail.com' SWPA1111 says:

    It’s against my religion to pay taxes to a corrupt government, but I have to anyway.

  • GMG248 says:

    The challenge before us will be to assure that those religious groups who wish to deprive others of the very things they demand for themselves are kept in the spotlight. Thanks Eric. Thanks RD. The denial of dignity, freedom, choice, and equality in the name of religious freedom ( and/or God) is perhaps the most insidious perversion of the gospel of Jesus. Religious freedom is a hallowed American tradition that is endangered not by progressives or secularism but by those who wish to define it as a license to discriminate. The purchase of one’s freedom at the expense of another’s undermines everyone’s freedom. The real problem is that there is a tremendous amount of money at stake here. A breathtaking amount of state and federal taxpayer money is funneled into religious “ministries” every year. This is on top of the enormous pile of tax exemptions that religious entities enjoy. The religious right knows that when its discriminatory agendas are deemed by this culture to be egregiously unacceptable they will either have to make adjustments or say goodbye to those funds and benefits. The use of taxpayer dollars by religious entities to punish those same taxpayers who do not conform to their particular political, economic, religious, and moral vision for America will cause the whole social arrangement to unravel. If the message is that the state must provide funds to religious entities but has no right to interfere in how those funds are used then a crisis is inevitable. It may be that the ideal of the separation of church and state is more myth than reality in America. The interpretation that says whenever this society refuses to conform to our religious agenda then society is discriminating against us is as ridiculous as it is destructive.

  • phillinj@slu.edu' NancyP says:

    SBC has gotten good at the politicians’ game: lie if you can get short-term benefit from it, then claim to be misunderstood if challenged. Remember Ralph Reed?

  • tachyx@gmail.com' Tige Gibson says:

    A right is nothing more than a privilege guaranteed by the state, so claiming for example a “right to life” is just a pseudo-intellectual way of saying “the state ought to make sure there are no abortions”.

  • tachyx@gmail.com' Tige Gibson says:

    If a mother dies, the government forces the father to marry another women within 90 days or they take away his children.

  • tachyx@gmail.com' Tige Gibson says:

    It isn’t really lying, it’s just that the real meaning is not transparent to most people.

  • zinealine@gmail.com' cranefly says:

    Nonsense. No one can die, because we have a right to life. Didn’t you hear?

  • tachyx@gmail.com' Tige Gibson says:

    If you had the right to life and died, the government would raise you from the dead and throw you in jail for violating your own rights.

  • rtoltschin@gmail.com' RexTIII says:

    This reminds me of the recent distinction so loudly discussed relative to the matter of Vaccines. Being ‘pro’ Vax, the concerns are valid and based on many valid realities within the entire field of medicine, but that’s another matter. The relative point, on the ‘rights’ or a lack of rights, where exemptions other than for medical reasons are allowed and being reconsidered. I don’t recall hearing the distinction so clearly spoken with regard to another topic, Choosing to Opt Out of Vaccine programs for Personal Beliefs or Religious Beliefs – Some states only allow ‘Religious Beliefs’ many allow both while discussion of eliminating ‘Personal Beliefs.’ Say What? There is no distinction between either – since when does Religious Belief trump Personal Belief -? Belief is belief based on personal experience and a chosen path of engagement, religion is nothing more than a ‘Personal’ belief, on a singular level while perhaps participating in religious organization of choice. My head spins.

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