The Fight for Traditional Marriage Lives On in the House of Representatives

Most Americans support legalizing same-sex marriage, but conservatives aren’t ready to surrender.

Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) speaks to reporters after a news conference May 16, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
National Journal
Matt Berman
Feb. 13, 2014, 6:55 a.m.

Con­ser­vat­ives aren’t giv­ing up on tra­di­tion­al mar­riage.

On Tues­day night, as most mem­bers of Con­gress fled for the exits after vot­ing to raise the debt ceil­ing, a group of con­ser­vat­ives led by Rep. Tim Huel­skamp came to the floor to re­cog­nize Na­tion­al Mar­riage Week.

“Mar­riage isn’t a cre­ation of the West­ern civil­iz­a­tion or of the United States of Amer­ica,” said Rep. Michele Bach­mann. “Mar­riage is an in­sti­tu­tion that was cre­ated by none oth­er than by the cre­at­or of man­kind him­self, the Holy God, the God of the Bible.”{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4734) }}

Bach­mann’s not alone. She’s part of a core group of Re­pub­lic­an rep­res­ent­at­ives who, un­like a ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans, are not mel­low­ing on so­cial con­ser­vat­ism.

Ac­cord­ing to the Sun­light Found­a­tion’s Cap­it­ol Words pro­ject, the word “mar­riage” was men­tioned more fre­quently this month in Con­gress than dur­ing any month since a con­sti­tu­tion­al ban on same-sex mar­riage was re­jec­ted in the Sen­ate in June 2006. This isn’t the first Na­tion­al Mar­riage Week, but with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion mov­ing to of­fer more sup­port to same-sex mar­riages, it is cer­tainly the loudest.

Re­pub­lic­ans are head­ing in­to midterm elec­tions with hopes of tak­ing back the Sen­ate, and are look­ing to­ward co­ales­cing around a pres­id­en­tial can­did­ate who can ac­tu­ally win over an elect­or­ate wider than the Re­pub­lic­an base. But push­ing for tra­di­tion­al mar­riage may threaten these goals by ali­en­at­ing po­ten­tial voters. A ma­jor­ity of Amer­ic­ans now say they would sup­port a law leg­al­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage in all 50 states.

That ma­jor­ity wasn’t be­ing rep­res­en­ted Tues­day night.

“If you open the floodgates to oth­er ideas [about mar­riage], oth­er con­cepts, you don’t know where it ends,” Rep. Doug LaMalfa of Cali­for­nia said on the floor. “Mul­tiple mar­riages, same-sex mar­riage, there’s so many things that are not what the in­sti­tu­tion is sup­posed to be about. In­deed, an in­sti­tu­tion cre­ated by God and sup­posed to be held up and re­spec­ted by men. And wo­men.”

Rep. Ted Yoho, the fresh­man Re­pub­lic­an from Flor­ida and a former large-an­im­al veter­in­ari­an, joined in: 

Mar­riage is an in­sti­tu­tion passed down through thou­sands of years of hu­man his­tory. The three great re­li­gions and oth­ers re­cog­nize the im­port­ance of a mar­riage, and it’s gone through the test of time and it’s been un­der­stood to be the uni­on of a man and a wo­man. It is sanc­ti­fied by God, and it’s in­ter­est­ing to note that chil­dren only come from the uni­on of one half of a DNA strand of a fe­male and one half of a DNA strand of a fath­er. That’s nature’s law. That’s God’s law.

Bach­mann, backed by Huel­skamp, did of­fer an­oth­er sug­ges­tion about hav­ing chil­dren. “I just urge people to con­sider be­com­ing foster par­ents,” said Bach­mann, who has sup­por­ted 23 foster chil­dren. She was also care­ful to say that the Re­pub­lic­an group wasn’t try­ing to con­demn any­one who cur­rently lives dif­fer­ently.

The push for pre­serving tra­di­tion­al mar­riage is los­ing its power among the GOP base. While a ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans still op­pose same-sex mar­riage (61 per­cent), demo­graph­ics aren’t on so­cial con­ser­vat­ives’ side. A ma­jor­ity of Re­pub­lic­ans aged 18 to 29 are in fa­vor of leg­al­iz­ing same-sex mar­riage, with 54 per­cent in sup­port and just 42 per­cent in op­pos­i­tion.

The House con­ser­vat­ives this week wer­en’t just fo­cused on who’s mar­ry­ing who. In an elec­tion year when Re­pub­lic­ans are es­pe­cially con­scious of how the party can bet­ter ap­peal to wo­men, LaMalfa went past pro­mot­ing tra­di­tion­al, het­ero­sexu­al mar­riage to a more clas­sic­al idea of who should be do­ing what in a re­la­tion­ship:

Your mate is your rock. Your sup­port. When you’re in a role like this or whatever it is, it didn’t have to be this, it could be any job. Or what she’s do­ing at home, what your spouse at home, tak­ing care of fam­ily and kids and all that. You be­ing a rock for them too. It’s that part­ner­ship which is what mar­riage is, it was per­fectly de­signed by God. It’s the part where man­kind gets in­volved where things can get a little messy. And so through pray­er, through stick­ing to it, the in­sti­tu­tion of mar­riage is one that is a rock.{{ BIZOBJ (video: 4733) }}

Mean­while, the typ­ic­al Amer­ic­an fam­ily is chan­ging. The Amer­ic­an birthrate hit a his­tor­ic low in 2012, and few­er wo­men of child­bear­ing age are ac­tu­ally be­com­ing moth­ers. Nearly 41 per­cent of chil­dren are now born to un­mar­ried par­ents. From 1996 to 2012, the num­ber of co­hab­it­at­ing, un­mar­ried couples jumped al­most 170 per­cent. A re­cent Pew Re­search poll found that 62 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans, and 72 per­cent of 18- to 29-year-olds, prefer a mar­riage in which both spouses have jobs and share house­hold and child-rais­ing du­ties. Forty per­cent of wo­men are now their fam­ily’s sole or primary bread­win­ners.

For some con­ser­vat­ives, this all may be cause for alarm, lead­ing them to praise and pro­mote the clas­sic­al view of mar­riage on the House floor. But when so many young Amer­ic­ans are em­bra­cing new at­ti­tudes to­ward re­la­tion­ships, the tra­di­tion­al val­ues war­ri­ors may be the ones who are truly out of touch.

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