It was a year ago that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court discovered that the traditional understanding of marriage — as in “I now pronounce you man and wife” — violated the state constitution and was a moral atrocity on the order of Jim Crow. The designations husband and wife were duly replaced on state marriage licenses with Party A and Party B back in May. This anniversary is sure to occasion smug op-ed pieces celebrating the fact that the sky hasn’t fallen yet, but it’s doubtful that the social engineering Chief Justice Margaret Marshall will receive too many bouquets and bottles of champagne in the mail.
Liberals who would otherwise admire her handiwork just aren’t in a very celebratory mood. The Goodridge v. Department of Health decision that brought same-sex nuptials to the Bay State produced a national backlash. Supporters of gay marriage went 0 for 11 on state referenda on the issue; defense-of-marriage amendments helped bring out voters who sank Democratic candidates all over the country, arguably including presidential nominee John Kerry of Massachusetts.
Many of the election postmortems vigorously contest this last point. The newly minted conventional wisdom is that social conservatives weren’t that big a factor — why, George W. Bush didn’t do that much better with evangelicals and those exit-poll respondents could have thought that “moral values” meant anything. This (recent) historical revisionism isn’t entirely without merit. The contention that gay marriage was the biggest issue in the presidential campaign and Gavin Newsom was this year’s George McGovern was always a bit overblown. But so are the reappraisals of this meme. Most voters know darned well what pollsters mean when they talk about “family values” or “moral values,” and it was people who adhere to such traditional values — including the belief that marriage is between a man and a woman — who provided the raw numbers the Republicans needed to counter highly mobilized Democratic constituents who according to most existing turnout models should have otherwise been able to throw this president out of office.
And yet in Massachusetts, where same-sex weddings are already going on, the marriage debate wasn’t the dominant election story. Legislators who voted against a state constitutional amendment to reverse Goodridge were not punished. The fate of that amendment, which needs to pass another round before it can be placed on the ballot in 2006, is uncertain now that Thomas Finneran has left the legislature and been replaced by a less socially conservative house speaker. Congressional candidate and traditional marriage advocate Ron Crews, far from scoring an upset, was in fact trounced.
But this hasn’t stopped the wailing about the electoral successes of marital traditionalists elsewhere in the country. One e-mail that found its way into my inbox likened the results to Kristallnacht, claiming that “every anti-gay amendment that passed may as well have been accompanied by the sounds of angry mobs and shattering glass.” Unhinged, but catchier than declaring the death of enlightenment.
One eloquent proponent of same-sex matrimony tried to put votes reaffirming traditional marriage into perspective. Jonathan Rauch, writing in the National Journal, argued that in fact “60 percent of voters supported gay marriage or civil unions (predominantly the latter).” Very much predominantly the latter. But in pointing out that at least some of people voting against gay marriage supported some form of civil unions, Rauch misses an important reason for the apparent disconnect.
THE FACT IS, FOR MOST people marriage is not an expression of hatred against homosexuals. The existing definition of marriage as a union between one man and one woman was not formulated to persecute or discriminate against gays and lesbians. Most people who oppose a redefinition of marriage are not engaged in a conspiracy to deny gays inheritance and hospital visitation rights. There are millions of people who oppose same-sex marriage yet bear no ill will toward their fellow Americans who are homosexuals.
Instead many of these people voted for the idea that ideally children should have both fathers and mothers, that there is something unique about the arrangement syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher has described as “men and women coming together to make the future happen” worth upholding as a shared social norm. A high percentage of these same people would oppose policies that deliberately make gay and lesbian couples’ lives harder, and indeed favor offering them some benefits associated with so-called civil unions as long as it isn’t simply marriage without the name. Instead of demonizing these people and enlisting the courts to bully them, maybe gay activists would do well to appeal to their sense of fairness and try to change their minds.
An even larger number of Americans with disparate views on the subject of homosexuality object to the idea that shared social norms can be revamped unilaterally by unelected, unaccountable judges. They have voted for the idea that what we as a society decide to recognize in law as marriage should instead be decided by the people.
Congressman Barney Frank (D-MA) implicitly recognized the good will of those who oppose him in the same-sex marriage debate in comments quoted by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby: “Showing a bit of respect for cultural values with which you disagree is not a bad thing. Don’t call people bigots and fools just because you disagree with them.”
One year after Goodridge this much is clear: If gay marriage is ever going to be accepted by the majority in this country, proponents are actually going to have to get their hands dirty in democratic debate. It will certainly not happen simply because Anthony Lewis’ wife wants to shove it down our throats.