It has become commonplace to observe that law and politics are “downstream” from culture. In other words, our laws, generally speaking, are shaped and driven by the culture rather than the other way around. To be sure, law often solidifies cultural trends, but it rarely creates, drives, or shapes them. This relationship between culture and law came to mind a few times during the comparatively quiet week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The first occurred when my family and I played Hasbro’s “The Game of Life.” Both my wife and I had enjoyed playing the game as children and thought it would be good fun for our family. So we bought the new version, complete with the iPad app. In case you’re not familiar with Life (as it’s called), the object of the game is to retire with the most money. As each player winds his way through a simulated life, he makes decisions (e.g., pursuing a career immediately or going to college first) and encounters events (e.g., getting sued or winning the lottery). Those decisions and events have financial consequences, and the iPad app keeps track of each player’s progress. The game requires each player to get married. My 11 year-daughter was the first to hit the “get married now” square on the game board. She had previously “told” the iPad app that she was a girl, and she put a little pink peg in the driver’s seat of her car/game piece. The app gave her a choice of spouses — a male or a female. I suspected that there was more to this than a software quirk, and I was right. Apparently, the original iPad app reflected the natural and traditional understanding of marriage, pairing players with opposite-sex spouses. But, predictably, that generated complaints. It appears as though the game’s manufacturers responded to those complaints, disconnecting the app’s understanding of marriage from its real and natural definition. That, in turn, generated counter-complaints, which had no effect. The game’s manufacturer picked a side. All would agree that its choice would have been almost unthinkable a decade or two ago.
The second occurred when I was catching up on some scholarly reading, namely Entertainment Weekly‘s year-end issue. One article was entitled, “This Was The Year That . . . Everyone Came Out in Parenthetical.” The essential message of the piece was that when certain celebrities (e.g., CNN’s Anderson Cooper) announced that they were homosexual, there wasn’t much of a reaction. The article’s first sentence nicely sums up its point: “Some revolutions make headlines because they don’t make headlines.” The article’s final paragraph resonates with my point about the relationship between culture and law:
The Hollywood closet isn’t going away, nor is antigay prejudice–although, happily, that’s being shoved into a closet of its own. But it’s a measure of how well the entertainment industry has pioneered this issue, and how far we’ve come, that our focus is shifting to fields–sports and politics–in which bigoted rhetoric is slower to disappear. EW has been covering this subject since 1990, and we’re not close to the end of the story yet. But as Churchill once said (not about gay people), it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.
Note that phrases like “antigay prejudice” and “bigoted rhetoric,” as understood by liberal Entertainment Weekly writers, include support for the natural and traditional definition of marriage.
The Game of Life and Entertainment Weekly are both part of “the culture” that drives and shapes law and politics. And the shifting cultural consensus about homosexual behavior and the definition of marriage has profound consequences for the religious freedom of individuals and organizations. Threats to their freedom don’t come out of the blue; the ongoing attack on marriage didn’t start with the introduction of legislation or the filing of lawsuits designed to alter the legal definition of marriage. And the objective of these efforts is not simply to secure legal approval of homosexual conduct; it is to punish and marginalize those embrace the traditional understanding of marriage and sexual morality. As the EW writer declares, such individuals and organizations are “being shoved into a closet of [their] own.” Indeed. This means that our longstanding national commitment to religious freedom will continue to be severely tested in the coming year, as cultural trends translate into legal and political efforts to push traditional religious believers “into a closet of their own.”