Going about my business yesterday morning, fixing breakfast, waking up the kids, I happened to hear an interview with Sen. Marco Rubio on NPR. That Sen. Rubio was being interviewed the day after he formally announced his candidacy for the 2016 Republican Presidential race made perfect sense.
But I found it interesting that the topic first up in the interview centered on the recent RFRA controversy. Sen. Rubio recently came out in initial support of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which, as originally written, would provide a First Amendment (religious freedom) defense to those sued for refusing to serve to LGBT people.
The NPR interviewer wanted to know if the fact that a majority of Americans support the right of LGBT people to marry would present problems for the GOP in the coming election. Sen. Rubio made a careful distinction between discriminating against individuals because of their sexual orientation (which he said is wrong) and agreeing to participate in a wedding, against the tenets of someone’s faith (which he said ought to be protected).
Nothing earth shattering. If you’ve followed the RFRA Wars, you’ve probably heard something like Sen. Rubio’s argument. People of good will obviously disagree on this.
What I found distressing, though, was the Senator’s attempt to buttress his argument by appeal to a popular fallacy: Argumentum ad populum — that is, an appeal to the masses or an appeal to the majority. Argumentum ad populum basically says that everyone believes it, so it must be true. But we know on its face this is wrong, because it is often the case that a majority believes something to be true that turns out to be completely, unthinkably loopy (e.g., a geocentric universe, slavery, National Socialism, Justin Bieber, etc.).
What was Sen. Rubio’s particular logical offense? He said:
“Because mainstream Christianity teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman. People feel very strongly about that.”
In other words, Sen. Rubio said: “A majority of Christians are taught that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
This claim raises serious questions in a couple of different ways. First, even if a majority of Christians are taught that “marriage is between one man and one woman,” that is largely beside the point, since American legal philosophy (because, you know, the First Amendment) is predicated on a kind of religious agnosticism. That is to say, American constitutional democracy is supposed to avoid preferring one religion over another — by design. That a significant number of Christians believe a thing to be true doesn’t particularly make it a more interesting legal argument.
But second, and just as importantly, Sen. Rubio is wrong in his assessment of what’s relevant about “mainstream Christianity.” He is correct that a portion of mainstream Christianity teaches “that marriage is between one man and one woman.” But what such an assertion fails to take into account is that much of mainstream Christianity doesn’t teach “that marriage is between one man and one woman” any longer. In fact, a reasonable case could be made that, regardless of what is taught, most of mainstream Christianity doesn’t actually believe “that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Indeed, 60% of White Mainline Protestants and 57% of Catholics are in favor of same sex marriage, apparently refusing to believe “that marriage is between one man and one woman.” Unless Sen. Rubio wants to claim that the majority of American Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians, ELCA Lutherans, United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, and American Baptists fall somewhere outside the boundaries of “mainstream,” he’s making an injudicious claim about “mainstream Christianity.”
I suspect, however, that when Sen. Rubio is referring to “mainstream Christianity,” what he’s thinking about is White Evangelical Protestants, of which only 21% agree that same sex marriage is acceptable. And those evangelicals and fundamentalists who oppose same sex marriage, really oppose it.
Interestingly enough, though, among White Evangelical Protestants, Millennials (those born between 1980–2000) are completely out of step with their elders. Fully 64% of Evangelical Millennials support same sex marriage. So, by a wide margin, a significant segment of what Sen. Rubio would call “mainstream Christianity” doesn’t even believe “that marriage is between one man and one woman.”
Given the paradigmatic religious/cultural/political shift in favor of same sex marriage going on in America, one wonders how long it will take the brutal truth of reality to overtake the popular conservative narrative. When, in other words, will people like Sen. Marco Rubio be forced to recognize that the Christianity he takes for granted as “mainstream,” is actually an aging and fading, though no less clamorous, fringe?
- While it’s true that approval of same sex marriage is not a majority among Black Protestants (41%), the numbers are trending closer and closer to acceptance among this group as well. ↩