Getting to know Maggie

Atop anyone's list of leading anti-gay marriage warriors is Maggie Gallagher, the founder of the National Organization for Marriage. Gallagher is profiled in a lengthy piece by Mark Oppenheimer for Salon (though you may recognize the author from the Beliefs column in the New York Times). Oppenheimer reports on Gallagher's failure to create a "traditional" family after giving birth to her first child as a single mother during her undergraduate days at Yale, and implicitly suggests that this experience led to her career as a marriage proponent (the work to stop same-sex marriage is a relatively new chapter in her long career). 

Though Catholic, Gallagher appears not to lean on her faith as a primary motivation for her fight:


Gallagher is a Roman Catholic, but in truth she is not very theologically oriented. When I ask her whether gay people are sinners, her answer sounds almost dutiful, as if she knows what she is supposed to say: “Well, I am a Catholic,” she says. “If you told me you were gay, and asked if you should have sex with a man, I would say no.” Despite being surrounded by Catholic conservatives in college, and then spending much of her 20s thinking about family structure, she did not return to the church until her late 20s, after writing “Enemies of Eros.” Her return was a gentle process, more intellectual than passionate, and she describes it without much fervor.

“I’m a revert,” Gallagher says. “I was raised Catholic. When I was 8, my mother left the church, and she ended up doing a lot of spiritual seeking … I was an atheist from the youngest age. When I was 16, I became a Randian. Becoming a Catholic began as an intellectual thing. In college, I reasoned my way into the pro-life stance. I could not come up with any good reason why the person inside a woman was not a person. Also, I had completely separated sex from procreation, and after I got pregnant, I realized that was a mistake. All the smartest people in the world, draped in all their Ph.D.s, were saying that sex and procreation were separate things, and of course that was just completely not true. The Catholic Church was the only institution that was saying that was not true. On the big issues, I began to realize that on all the issues I thought most deeply about, the church was right.”

Gallagher holds rigid views that she admits will not change even if evidence suggests that gay marriage is good for society, both for those who enter into the institution and the children gay couples may raise. She is often caricatured by her opponents, and Oppenheimer's piece humanizes Gallagher without diluting her views. She is purported to have gay acquaintances who do not begrudge her, to be at odds with her closest family about the issue, and to be thoughtful about how to treat individuals as human beings. But when it comes to marriage, Gallagher's mind is made up and she approaches it as a thought exercise:

Sherry Weaver says that Gallagher “is not perfect but perfectly formed,” and that one key to understanding Gallagher is her almost otherworldly consistency. As an illustration, Weaver tells the story of once taking communion in a Catholic Church, even though she is not Catholic. A friend’s husband had told Weaver she was wrong to take communion, and when Weaver recounted the story, Gallagher said that the friend’s husband had been correct. “If you can understand this story, you can understand Maggie,” Weaver concludes. “For her, life is a set of rules, not arbitrary rules but rules that have been carefully pondered and considered. And her most amazing attribute is that there isn’t emotion and judgment attached to her. She doesn’t hate anyone. She has no anger or hostility. She is pure thought.”

That phrase “pure thought” reminded me of the most disconcerting moment in my interview with Gallagher. At one point, breaking from my script of questions, I interrupted her to ask if, despite all of her fears about same-sex marriage, she didn’t find it heartwarming to see those pictures of joyous gay couples in Massachusetts or Iowa or California, crying and hugging as they celebrated their marriages. Before answering, she takes a long pause, the only long pause of our conversation. “Am I happy for them?” she finally says. “That’s a tough question. I like to see people happy. It’s better than seeing people sad. So yes, I am happy for them. But I am sad. But I am not sad because they are happy.”

She sounded so Jesuitical, so overly reasoned. I was just asking if she was happy to see people so happy. I was asking about her emotions. Her reply was, to use Weaver’s words, pure thought.

A few months ago I attended a debate at Georgetown University that pitted Gallagher against the gay Catholic writer and blogger Andrew Sullivan. I remember thinking that Gallagher's words about marriage were quite disconnected from her thoughts on how gay people should be treated individually. The language she used about gay marriage was certainly harsh, and it appeared to upset Sullivan and many in the young, gay-friendly crowd. When confronted on this topic, Gallagher said that she meant no harm to gay people, and reiterated her belief that, in accordance with church teaching, all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. The idea that the gay marriage debate is primarily philosophical to Gallagher is plausible. But to those whose lives are most affected by the efforts of NOM and its friends, the debate couldn't be more real.

Michael J. O'Loughlin 

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
This is a very interesting and thought-provoking article, and I may have to read more of Maggie Gallagher.  In many ways, I agree with her.  For example, when I ponder deeply the mystery and miracle of human life, I can see how any "barriers" to conception (as in contraception) would in some way be "wrong", an affront to the unfolding Reality in which we find our existence.

In an ideal world, a man and a woman would be in perfect and deep contemplative cooperation with this Reality in their marital love.  This is, indeed, the truest reflection of the Creator and Creation.

But, on the other hand, I find myself in this human dilemma of imperfection and broken-ness.   A place of violent struggle and misery, where we hurt each other and don't even know why.  And we ask for forgiveness and try to love despite all our flaws and mistakes.  And that seems just as Real to me as the ideal of a Maggie Gallagher interpretation.

So I find myself straddling these 2 ways of seeing, and I refuse to take a side or make a stand totally in one or the other camp.  Maybe that is what being human is, holding both.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
Well, I just read the whole of the Salon article about Maggie Gallagher.  I don't know anything about Ms. Gallagher other than these 2 articles and a brief look at her blog.  I was hoping to find some deeply thought out writings about the sacredness of marriage and sexuality, but all I found was a very sad woman, still trying to understand and fix her personal hurt..  Her influence, both in politics and religion, disturbs me.
Joshua DeCuir
6 years 11 months ago
Gallager has been a defender of marriage for a extremely long time.  She was one of the earlier critics of "no fault" divorce regimes for its harmful effects on women, pointing correctly to the statistics that show that women are more often than not the true economic victims of divorce.  As she says, he gay marriage position is simply an outgrowth of those efforts.  This makes her very difficult to categorize or stereotype, not that it stops anyone.
Beth Cioffoletti
6 years 11 months ago
I didn't mean to categorize her, Josh ... I was just looking for some more in depth writing of hers.

Quite honestly, we really do need a good theologian to delve into the sacredness of marriage and sexuality in a way that encompasses our humanity, which is prone to broken-ness, diversions and missteps.  Sexuality reaches deep into our unconscious, so it's not going to be a necessarily safe and secure - as in everything works the way we think it should - place.  I was hoping that Gallagher had ventured into that territory.  But the more I read of her and about her, the more I saw that she was consistently siding with the safe answers and I was disappointed.

I actually agree with many of her premises - that divorce hurts women, that sexual activity is far too casual, that marriage should be til death - but she's missing a dimension of sacredness, in my opinion, that leaves me feeling that her writing and her views are way too shallow.

[And - if she were really serious about enlightening people about sexual values, she would stay out of the political arena.  THat automatically puts her on a "side" with an idological agenda.]
Joshua DeCuir
6 years 11 months ago
Didn't mean to suggest YOU were doing that at all.  In fact I didn't read your comment that way.  It is interesting though, when you say "[And - if she were really serious about enlightening people about sexual values, she would stay out of the political arena.  THat automatically puts her on a "side" with an idological agenda.]", that over the course of her career, it's the politics AROUND her that have changed rather than her.  By that I mean when she was pointing out the dire economic consquences for divorce for poor women, she was celebrated by womens' rights groups.
Jim McCrea
6 years 11 months ago
Gallager has been a defender of A NARROW DEFINITION OF marriage for a extremely long time.
Maybe if she did a little research on Catholic marriage, she might actually learn something.


The latest from america

An extraordinary minister of the holy Eucharist distributes Communion during Mass at Transfiguration Church in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
According to a report released by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University on Jan. 22, just 33 percent of bishops in the United States think the church “should” ordain women as deacons.
Michael J. O’LoughlinJanuary 22, 2019

When the poet Mary Oliver died last week at the age of 83, my social media feeds blossomed into a field of tributes.

Lisa AmplemanJanuary 22, 2019
Most of the undocumented immigrants who are in the United States have overstayed a visa and did not cross the border illegally, according to a new analysis from the Center of Migration Studies.
J.D. Long-GarcíaJanuary 22, 2019
The church is my home because my home was a domestic church.
Katie Prejean McGradyJanuary 22, 2019