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The Stunning Public Shift on Same-Sex Marriage

The velocity of change in public attitudes on same-sex marriage–from being unimaginable not long ago to being fairly commonplace today and probably dominant tomorrow–is extraordinary, even unprecedented.

One obvious indicator of that is public opinion polls; another is the number of elected officials who are reversing their past position on gay marriage. We’re now at the point where embracing federalism–letting states rather than the Supreme Court decide the issue–defines the most reliably conservative position. Republicans who support same-sex marriage, from former Vice President Richard Cheney to Senator Rob Portman, (thankfully) aren’t in danger of excommunication. In fact, I know of almost no critic of gay marriage who relishes talking about the issue. 

What explains this seismic shift? Books will be written examining this question. My own sense, more impressionistic than based on careful research, is that several factors are responsible for it. Changing mores is part of it, as is marriage having been delinked from certain past teleological assumptions. So are family members and friendships with people who have come out as gay. Much of it is generational, with huge majorities of young people supportive of gay marriage. And it’s undeniably true, I think, that the arguments advanced by people like Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan have carried the day, at least if you judge winning by persuading people to agree with your point of view.

I also believe that a central explanation for what we’re witnessing–and one related to the ingenuity and power of the Sullivan and Rauch arguments–is that they helped reposition the gay rights movement from libertine to conservative, from gays being a threat to our social order and institutions to wanting to be a respected part of them. They didn’t want to uproot marriage, they wanted to share in its blessings.

Once that shift occurred–once many Americans believed that the gay movement was de-radicalized and domesticated–much of the opposition to gay marriage began to dissipate. Not all at once, of course, and many Americans still oppose same sex marriage. (Ron Brownstein argues that that for the near future, “the nation appears locked onto a trajectory in which almost all reliably blue states will establish gay marriage (or civil unions) and possibly not a single reliably red state will follow.”) But because of the generational differences when it comes to gay marriage, there is little doubt where this issue is headed, regardless of what the Supreme Court decides.  

There will still be important issues to sort through, including how religious institutions and people of faith who oppose same sex marriage are treated. For example, will orthodox Christian churches and educational institutions, if deemed to be bigoted based on their opposition to gay marriage or homosexual conduct, eventually be treated in law like racist organizations? Will mainstream evangelical colleges one day be dealt with in the same way we did Bob Jones University? (In the early 1980s Bob Jones University lost its tax-exempt status because of its ban on interracial dating.) That may not happen. But if it were to occur, the debate could quickly shift in a different direction, from being seen by many as a celebration of individual rights to one that is viewed as an attack on religious liberty. 

For now, though, what has occurred is a stunning social shift, quite unlike anything we’ve ever seen.


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