Rhetorical Strategy in the Marriage Debate: People vs. an Institution


Theodore Shoebat recently contacted thirteen gay or pro-gay bakers and asked them to bake a pro-traditional marriage cake with the words, “Gay Marriage Is Wrong” on it. He writes, “Each one denied us service, and even used deviant insults and obscenities against us. One baker even said that she would make me a cookie with a large phallus on it.”

It was a nice try at making a point, and surely it seems to reveal something, but even Christians have raised doubts as to the wisdom of the approach. A man and woman’s wedding cake should be about their wedding. To expect it to do something else like this seems offensive even with respect to their own marriage; which confuses the experiment too much to allow clear-cut conclusions to be drawn from it. It leaves some wiggle room for alternate explanations, and in this case, “some” wiggle room is a lot.

Rhetorical strategy in the marriage debate

Still the experiment provides an excellent illustration of the rhetorical asymmetry between the pro-natural marriage position and the pro-gay “marriage” view. What I mean by asymmetry is that the communication and persuasion challenges faced by either side of this issue are really quite different. In this article I will first analyze that rhetorical asymmetry, and then offer advice as to how natural marriage proponents should take it into account.

Here’s the problem in a nutshell:

Every gay marriage wedding cake, no matter how it’s decorated, says the man-woman-only view of marriage is wrong; but it takes special effort to make a man and woman’s wedding cake communicate that gay marriage is wrong.

That’s just symbolic of the problem, of course. Let me explain now what it symbolizes.

Rhetorical strategy: people vs. an abstraction

The marriage debate takes place on two levels, micro and macro. There is each couple wanting to marry, and there is the overall institution of marriage. Same-sex “marriage” proponents are attacking an institution and defending couples’ desires to marry. Natural marriage proponents are defending an institution and standing in the way of gay couples’ desire to marry.

Natural-marriage proponents seek to disrupt two real people’s desires, hopes, and felt needs. Same-sex marriage proponents seek to disrupt the historic institution of marriage.

So it’s defending couples or defending an institution. Rhetorically and persuasive, those who defend the  couples have the natural advantage.

Natural-marriage proponents are cast (falsely, I think) as hating gays, and that’s real rhetorical trouble, whether it’s true or not. Suppose same-sex marriage advocates hate the man-woman-only view of marriage, though, and suppose their hatred for it is real. So what? Institutions aren’t people. They’re abstractions. How much trouble can a person get into for hating an abstraction?

Institutions matter to people, and yet…

Make no mistake: institutions matter. They matter to people. Marriage matters to children. It matters to communities and whole societies, all of which are made up of people. It’s not that the natural marriage position has no impact on people, it’s that it’s harder to take a picture of those people. It’s harder to demonstrate how important marriage is to them—even though it is.

Rhetorical strategy in the central issues

So then, from a rhetorical perspective, which of these plays better in the media?

The couple pointedly looking their debate opponent in the eye, and saying, “You don’t want us to marry and experience the same kind of joys you experience in marriage. You must hate us to feel that way!


The natural marriage proponent pointedly looking the gay or lesbian couple in the eye, and saying, “You’re tearing down the central institution that holds society together!”

And what about this one, also from natural-marriage proponents?

“Gay marriage is morally wrong.”

There’s not much persuasive pull there, even if it’s true (which it is). Over the past few generations, right and wrong have become seen as abstractions themselves, dependent on institutions, authority structures, and “society” or “culture,” whatever that might be.

So when manwoman-only proponents stand up against same-sex marriage advocates, often we’re seen as representing abstract institutions, while they’re representing flesh-and-blood people.

What works trumps what’s right (strategically, that is)

Notice now how none of what I’ve said so far has anything to do with whether one side or the other is more nearly right. Gay “marriage” doesn’t have to be right to win rhetorically. It has the strength of battlefield position and firepower. Armies with superior strategic positions don’t always have the superior moral position. Granted, some people hold to the theory that right and wrong depend on who wins. That would be an awkward position for gay-rights advocates to adopt: if right and wrong depended on who was holding the power, then when they started their campaign decades ago, they were wrong.

I won’t dwell on that absurdity, though, because I don’t accept the power premise on which it’s based. When gay rights advocacy kicked in back in the late 60s and 70s, it was either right or wrong in itself, regardless of where it stood in relation to the culture’s power structures.

And my point here again is that it didn’t have to be right in order to win. That goes a long way toward explaining how it has been winning of late.

Real strategy: To be both effective and right

We natural marriage proponents, then, are fighting this battle from a difficult rhetorical position. We ask gay bakers to make cakes for us that express our position, just as gays have asked some of us to back cakes that express their position. Their request comes across as rhetorically natural, ours is clumsy and awkward. That’s not Theodore Shoebat’s fault. It’s inherent in the structure of the debate.

So what do we do in light of that?

First, we need to do our homework, and understand the reasons for our position. If you don’t know why you stand for a natural marriage viewpoint, then I have trouble myself understanding why you would hold to it, even though I think you’re right. We do ourselves no favors by encouraging people to join our side thoughtlessly. I have several books I would recommend. (The last one there has to do with godly, loving ways of interacting with those we disagree with.) I’ll have a book of my own out on these topics in a few months.

This isn’t just about rhetoric after all. I’m all for effectiveness, but only with integrity. If I had to choose, I’d rather be morally right than be the winner of this debate. Better yet, I’d like to be right and also effective. Going on, therefore:

Second, we need to identify the other side’s rhetorical weakness. The clearest one to me is gay-rights advocates’ dependence on dehumanizing rhetoric. When defending their own position they can present a positive, sympathetic face. When they attack opposing views they resort far too often to prejudice, stereotyping, and labeling.

There are some strange contradictions in their position as well, and on these they are quite vulnerable. I’ll name three examples:

  • When they cast disagreement as hatred, for example, they label themselves as haters, for they disagree with us as much as we do with them.
  • Their central talking point, “marriage equality,” is one they themselves don’t really believe in.
  • They call for major legal differentiations between same-sex friends who are having sex and those who are not, thus encouraging governmental oversight of sexual relationships—while also crying out, “Get the government out of my bedroom!”

Third, we need to be wiser about finding points of rhetorical symmetry (I have also written on this previously.) I applaud Theodore Shoebat’s attempt to show gay bakers’ discriminatory attitudes toward Christians, except I’m not sure he really did that. He asked bakers to make cakes introducing an attacking, negative message into an otherwise positive and joyful celebration, which bakers could easily have rejected just on the grounds that it was weird! (They didn’t have to be as offensive as they were in their answers, though. There was more going on there than what I’m very charitably trying to offer them credit for.)

No, we should be asking gays to make cakes and cater events (conferences or seminars, perhaps) celebrating the positive value of what stand for: the institution of marriage for a man and a woman only. If they refuse, then that’s clearly discriminating, without much room to wiggle out of the charge.

Fourth, we need to put real faces on our position–adult children of same-sex couples, for example.

Fifth, even though it’s an uphill battle, we need to continue to explain and defend moral truth.

Finally and most importantly, we need to bear in mind that there is a spiritual asymmetry here as well. This whole article has been about rhetorical situations and strategy, but there are deep spiritual reasons to stand for natural marriage, and spiritual ways to do so: with love, with the truth, with prayer, never forgetting that Jesus Christ is at the center of all reality, including our lives and lives of those with whom we are debating.

A postscript on “hate”

I just re-read what I wrote about asking gay bakers to serve events like conferences or seminars where we celebrate the true value of man-woman-only marriage. I thought, Who would do that? It would be a rude, thoughtless, gesture, possibly even a hatred-inciting gesture.

Then I thought, Before Theodore Shoebat’s experiment, no one ever seems to have thought of doing anything so thoughtlessly rude, except for the gays who asked conservatives to make cakes for their celebrations. 

And then I thought about the reported responses the conservatives gave: respectful, offering advice on other places people could be served, and compared it to what Theodore Shoebat reportedly heard in response to his request (above).

And then I thought, Why do they accuse us of being the haters?