The gay marriage debate nears its conclusion.
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Researchers Lazar Berman of the American Enterprise Institute and Daniel Berman of the London School of Economics have raised questions about whether even young voters are an unquestioned gay marriage juggernaut. They examined North Carolina’s Amendment One vote in the pages of the American. “What is more surprising is the behavior of young voters, who, according to the adjusted numbers, only narrowly opposed the amendment,” they wrote, concluding: “In fact, even if nobody over age 45 had voted Tuesday, the amendment still would have passed by around 8 percentage points.”
NEVERTHELESS, THE TREND LINES seem clear enough that few marital traditionalists are optimistic over the long term. What happened to transform support for same-sex marriage from a fringe position in the 1990s to, at least arguably, the majority viewpoint today? First it seems that a lot of secular opposition to the idea was based on either custom or revulsion against homosexuality. The unarticulated premises of those customs were not strong enough to survive a sustained assault by supporters of gay marriage, while anti-homosexual sentiment has declined generally.
The strongest and most enduring visceral opposition to same-sex marriage has been religious. (That partly explains why black Americans are so much more opposed to the idea than their more secular Counterparts in the Democratic coalition.) But this has proved a double-edged sword: The fact that so many evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons believe marriage is between a man and a woman has reinforced the liberal argument that this definition is simply a matter of religious dogma. Preserving the meaning of marriage favored across civilizations for thousands of years therefore violates separation of church and state.
Nor is the religious opposition to same-sex marriage entirely immune to other trends. An August 2011 survey by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 44 percent of evangelicals between the ages of 18 and 29 are in favor of gay marriage. In fact, the poll found “at least a 20-point generation gap between millennials (age 18-29) and seniors (65 and over) on every public policy measure in the survey concerning rights for gay and lesbian people.” Among older mainline evangelicals, there is at least some anecdotal evidence that having spent decades fighting these issues in their churches has weakened their appetite for gay rights consuming their politics.
Changes in the gay community have also influenced this debate. Large numbers of gays and lesbians have come out of the closet. This has made them more familiar — and sympathetic — to heterosexuals while raising the issue of how the government should recognize, or at least accommodate, their relationships. At the same time, the mainstream gay rights movement shed its more radical accoutrements in favor of more bourgeois aspirations: becoming scoutmasters, joining the military, gaining employment nondiscrimination, and, yes, getting married.
Homosexuality, writes Daniel McCarthy in the American Conservative, “had come to be seen as an innate desire about which individuals have little choice.” McCarthy continues, “as these strange new beings emerged from their hiding places they didn’t look so frightening-indeed, they looked a lot like everybody else.” He concludes that the new assimilationist gay rights movement triumphed as it moved from the “militancy of ACT-UP to the banality of Will and Grace.”
Social conservatives were slow to react to all of these developments. Many of them hoped to restore the taboos and stigmas against homosexuality that had been accepted by nearly all Americans as recently as the early 1970s. This campaign has failed manifestly. It has also distorted the marriage debate.
WHEN SAME-SEX MARRIAGE first burst onto the national scene in 1993, thanks to a lawsuit before Hawaii’s state supreme court, most people intuitively agreed with social conservatives on the issue, but many of them didn’t know why. That was the time to make a positive case for traditional marriage, which many conservatives did. But many more relied on habit and moral objections to homosexual acts. When those habits died and the morality of the country began to change, the poll numbers swung in favor of gay marriage.
Social conservatives hoped that homosexuals would either go back in the closet or become “ex-gays” by changing their sexual orientation. I remember a Nightline segment at the time when Andrew Sullivan debated the religious right activist Janet Folger. The exchange largely consisted of Sullivan insisting that Folger wanted to put him in jail, while Folger repeatedly told him “the truth in love is that change is possible.”
Possible, perhaps, but not likely in large enough numbers to make the marriage issue go away. For a time, it appeared a compromise was possible by decoupling the “incidents of marriage” — many of the benefits that derive from being married — from the institution itself. This would take care of property sharing, joint checking accounts, hospital visitation rights, power of attorney, and other points of contention. States and municipalities experimented with “domestic partnerships” and “civil unions” as a means to that end.
This compromise remains popular with those who are a crucial swing vote on gay marriage, but it was rejected by activists on both sides. Gay rights groups increasingly saw civil unions as a “separate but equal” institution that was inherently discriminatory. Consider that California already affords same-sex domestic partners all the rights of married couples in their state. This did not stop a federal appeals court from deciding that the state had discriminated against same-sex couples by passing Proposition 8.
Social conservatives rejected civil unions for two reasons. First, they did not want to grant any government recognition to homosexual couples (although there was a version of the idea that would have extended to friends and roommates not in a sexual relationship of any kind). Second, they feared the consequences of creating a parallel “marriage lite” institution. It is possible that inflexibility on this point — which also prevented Republicans from uniting around a single version of the federal marriage amendment — will in the end prove to be a miscalculation.
Even if social conservatives had stressed the positives of traditional marriage without appearing to single out gay people, they would have run into a problem: a lot of heterosexuals behave in ways that undermine the marriage ideal. The logic of the conservative position precludes, or at least casts some doubt on, no-fault divorce, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and many popular practices that, if left unchecked, could lead to the commodification of children. Needless to say, a lot of heterosexual voters don’t want to hear any of this.
Moreover, people can agree with the merits of traditional marriage without supporting any policies that promote it. Consider out-of-wedlock births. Very few people today dispute that Dan Quayle was right, as the Atlantic memorably put it during the flap over Murphy Brown’s fictional illegitimate child. But aside from a family cap on mothers receiving welfare — which actually divided social conservatives, since many feared it would lead to an increase in the number of abortions — there hasn’t been much of an effort to do anything about it. Illegitimacy is as much a problem in the America of Charles Murray’s recent book Coming Apart as it was when he published Losing Ground in 1984.
ROD DREHERE SUMS UP THE BIGGEST, and perhaps insurmountable, obstacle social conservatives face: “As long as the traditionalist position on same-sex marriage, almost universally held only 25 years ago, is treated as irrational hatred and nothing but by the media, business, and social elites, there will be powerful social and psychological pressure to shun it.” To that list, one can add the judiciary: Justice Antonin Scalia warned that by dismissing traditionalist beliefs as irrational “animus” in its 1996 Romer v. Evans decision, the Supreme Court was setting the precedent for a constitutional right to same-sex marriage. It is entirely possible that today’s Republican majority court could hand down a Roe v. Wade of gay marriage in response to the Proposition 8 appeals.
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