The mainstream media have labeled marriage the “hottest front in the culture war.” Much to the media’s surprise, several of the GOP candidates have already signed the National Organization of Marriage’s (NOM) Marriage Pledge. They were surprised by major candidates’ willingness to sign NOM’s pledge because this was supposed to be the year the social issues did not matter.

Presidential candidates for the 2012 election need to know that marriage is not only an essential issue in this race; it is a winning issue.

Elites have sounded the death knell on the marriage debate again and again, but popular support for traditional marriage refuses to die. Americans at the ballot box have repeatedly shocked elite opinion by demonstrating that even in deeply blue states a majority of Americans continues to oppose same-sex marriage.

This May, a poll commissioned by Public Opinions Strategies for the Alliance Defense Fund found that 62 percent of those surveyed agreed with this statement: “I believe marriage should be defined only as a union between one man and one woman.” Fifty-three percent strongly agreed, while just 35 percent disagreed.

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Yet recent polling also reflects that Americans in the mushy middle are no longer hearing much about the opposition to same-sex marriage. Their willingness to express support for a traditional understanding of marriage is starting to shift, depending on how the question is posed to them and what other questions surround the polling question.

This shift means something: when the issue is framed as one of fairness or equality, Americans are now reluctant to disagree with gay marriage, but when it is framed as a moral or family issue, they continue to adhere strongly to traditional norms of marriage.

As Ken Blackwell recently put it, marriage is not a wedge issue but a bridge issue, creating strange bedfellow coalitions never before seen in American politics across lines of race, creed, and color.

Nonetheless, the campaign to silence opposition to gay marriage by reframing it as illegitimate hatred or bigotry is effective: those who defend marriage as the union of one man and one woman suffer consequences.

Write a book on marriage, and mainstream corporations will fire you. Ask Frank Turek, who claimed that his contract with Cisco was terminated when a human resources executive found out through Google that he had written a book opposing same-sex marriage.

Appear in an advertisement opposing same-sex marriage, as Maine’s Don Mendell did, and your professional license might be jeopardized or taken away.

Donate to pro-marriage organizations—or simply to a group that supports a candidate who also happens to support marriage—or ask a sitting Congressman who opposes gay marriage to address your business group—and you will meet with threats to your economic interests and your business enterprises from those who do not see same-sex marriage as an issue about which Americans of good will can and do disagree. Instead, you will be charged with failing to realize that same-sex marriage is today’s defining civil rights issue, opposition to which marks you as a bigot outside the American mainstream. Ask, for example, the Wilton Manor Business Association of South Florida, which yielded to boycott threats by retracting their invitation to Rep. Allen West.

Advocates of gay marriage are not slow to use any lever of power, including government, to impose their new morality on America. The primary goal of the existing gay marriage movement is to use cultural, social, economic, and political power to create a new norm: marriage equality. The governing idea behind “marriage equality” is this: there is no difference between same-sex and opposite-sex unions. If you see a difference, there is something wrong with you. “You’re a hater, you’re a bigot, and you need to be fired!” Watch out.

So why is marriage, the one issue that the progressive left is energetically making too radioactive even to address, also the one issue that a candidate committed to American civilization cannot evade, avoid, or downplay?

The first reason is the nature of marriage itself.

Every human society has recognized that there is something special about the union of husband and wife. Amid the spectacular myriad of relationships that human beings create, marriage is unique for a reason: these are the only unions that can create life and connect those new young lives to the mother and father who made them.

For same-sex marriage advocates to make good on their promise of marriage equality, the very idea that children need a mom and dad must be delegitimized, rendered unspeakable in polite company. Same-sex marriage represents an intellectual and moral repudiation of the idea that marriage is grounded in any human reality outside of government, that government is obligated to respect and protect. Marriage is becoming an idea at the mercy of changing fashion, without deep roots in human nature.

And our current marriage culture is in serious trouble. According to a new Brookings Institution report by two major family scholars (Brad Wilcox and Andrew Cherlin), “the sexual disorder that marked the underclass in the sixties has moved up the class ladder well into Middle America.”

The study discovered that by the late 2000s, “moderately educated American women were more than seven times as likely to bear a child outside of marriage as compared with their college-educated peers.” While college-educated mothers showed a six-percent rate of nonmarital births, the rate of nonmarital births for moderately educated mothers was closer to the rate for mothers that do not have high school degrees—44 percent and 54 percent, respectively.

Add to these statistics that 43 percent of moderately educated young adults between ages 25 and 44 report that “marriage has not worked out for most people they know,” while only 17 percent of highly educated young adults report this.

The collapse of our marriage culture has economic costs. The cost to taxpayers of our rising rates of fatherlessness and fragmentation is at least $112 billion each year, as government expands to meet the needs of children in broken families. (For more statistics, see Benjamin Scafidi’s economic analysis, “The Tax Payer Costs of Divorce and Unwed Childbearing: First-Ever Estimates for the Nation and All Fifty States.”)

All of these children in fatherless homes are casualties of the deepest idea of the sexual revolution: human institutions that limit sexual desire must be remade in order to achieve “maximum feasible accommodation” with adult sexual desire.

Same-sex marriage will contribute further to the erosion of our marriage culture by making it unacceptable to say that children need married moms and dads. Our goal should not be to strengthen Americans’ commitment to good romances, but to strengthen our commitment to marriage as a social institution dedicated to bringing together male and female so that children have mothers and fathers. In that institution, the government clearly has a stake because it is so vital to the common good.

Far from being a neutral or pro-liberty position, same-sex marriage amounts to a government takeover of an ancient and honorable institution. Here, there are deep similarities philosophically between the abortion and gay marriage movements. At the heart of each movement is the belief that by re-jiggering words, elites change reality itself. A human life can be redefined as a cluster of cells. Marriage can be remade to mean whatever the government decides. Reality itself can be re-mastered to accommodate sexual desires.

But in truth, government cannot create life, and did not create marriage, and government has no business redefining either.

The second thing at stake in the marriage debate is the relationship between Christianity (and Judaism) and the American tradition itself.

The new public norms at the heart of “marriage equality” attempt to deface the Bible by ripping out Genesis and remaking the American tradition, so that public norms are incompatible with orthodox Judeo-Christian beliefs. For the first time in American history, mainstream, orthodox Judeo-Christian beliefs will render an American a second-class citizen, subject to a variety of bars and exclusions government imposes to reduce the reach of “anti-equality” bigotry.

It’s hard to see what conservatives will have left to conserve if we accept this, especially at the most fundamental level (which is the philosophical level, the level on which America is founded and sustained, for we are a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated therefore to propositions).

How should a candidate strengthen his or her commitment to upholding marriage? A first step is to sign NOM’s Marriage Pledge, which includes the following five concrete actions:

  1. Support and send to the states a federal marriage amendment defining marriage as between one man and one woman.
  2. Defend the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in court.
  3. Appoint judges and an attorney general who will respect the original meaning of the Constitution.
  4. Appoint a presidential commission to investigate harassment of traditional marriage supporters.
  5. Support legislation that would return to the people of Washington, D.C., their right to vote for marriage.

Beyond signing the pledge, GOP candidates should also make the steps below part of their platform:

  1. Speak for marriage as the union of husband and wife that is unique for a reason: children need mothers and fathers. A good society will acknowledge the need to help children in all family forms, but will aim for a state where children are raised in the most favorable situation: a stable two-biological-parent family.
  2. Develop new strategies to protect and expand religious liberty, which is being relentlessly threatened by a newly energized and aggressive progressive elite. A model to follow is Arizona’s new law that protects religious student groups from discrimination at public universities because the groups require adherence to orthodox religious beliefs and practices. Employment discrimination laws may need to be amended to protect traditional marriage supporters. A playing field where the law protects those who enter gay marriages from economic injury, but where defending the content of Genesis can also get you fired, is not fair or level or just.
  3. Fund research on marriage, and especially research on interventions to strengthen marriage. Reduce unnecessary divorce and lower the rate of out-of-wedlock pregnancy without undermining parental rights or religious liberty.
  4. Use your bully pulpit to promote the Second Chances Act and other reasonable reforms of no-fault divorce.
  5. Ask Hollywood to look for ways to help promote marriage. Use the cultural influence of the White House to launch a new generation of artists and storytellers committed to telling the real truth about love and marriage.
  6. Foster and reward a new generation of empirical social scientists willing to brave political correctness to investigate the benefits of marriage. The empirical culture wars are won and lost at the level of elites. Use the power of the presidential office not to interfere in science, but to encourage a new generation of scientists that is willing to go fearlessly wherever the data actually leads.

The stubborn common sense of the American public in resisting same-sex marriage, even in the face of the mainstream media’s approval, provides a platform for presidential candidates to seize, and thereby not only resist a radical transformation of the American tradition, but also help build a culture committed to a core American idea: moral truth exists, and our rights (including our right to marriage) are not gifts of government, but are grounded in and bounded by Nature and Nature’s God.

This essay is part of the 2012 Election Symposium. Read all of the entries here: