If a state legalizes gay marriage and nobody notices, can gay people still get married? What if four states do it in six weeks?
As more states legalize same sex-marriage, the lack of outrage is striking. Forget the Armageddon we were promised. There's hardly even been a press conference. It would appear that gay marriage is just not that big a deal anymore and that the Christian right—long the main source of opposition—isn't either. Both are scenarios I find encouraging, but I question whether the nation's collective shrug can be fully explained by the natural ebb and flow of politics and social mores. What if neither the Christian right nor the issue of gay marriage was ever as central in American politics as the media or the far right would have had us believe?
There was a time when an inflammatory remark from one of the leaders of the religious right would spark a media feeding frenzy. (Remember when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed 9/11 on gay people?) If you count New Hampshire, where a bill is awaiting the governor's signature, since the beginning of April four states (the other three are Iowa, Maine, and Vermont) have legalized gay marriage. Predictably, speaking on the Christian Broadcasting Network, Robertson reacted to Maine's legalization of gay marriage with an old chestnut: "What about bestiality and ultimately what about child molestation and pedophilia? How can we criminalize these things and at the same time have constitutional amendments allowing same-sex marriage among homosexuals? Mark my words, this is just the beginning of a long downward slide in relation to all the things that we consider to be abhorrent."
Yet nobody seemed to notice Robertson's comments.
Just last year, the press made it seem as if the entire Republican presidential primary consisted of a competition for the endorsement of James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. Now where is he? Four years ago he said same-sex marriage would likely lead to "marriage between daddies and little girls" and "marriage between a man and his donkey." Yet lately he has been more concerned about President Obama's decision to skip a National Day of Prayer event than about gay marriage. And Fox News, which not long ago would have been forced to add an extra hour to the day to fit in all the gay-marriage outrage, has decided to focus on tea bags and torture instead.
Of course, the growing acceptance of gay marriage hasn't prompted much celebration, either, at least outside those states where it is now legal. So how do we explain the nation's nonreaction to the legalization of same-sex marriage?
Attitudes do change over time, and that's no doubt happening here. But those kinds of generational shifts take place slowly. They can't explain how an issue that was supposedly so incendiary so recently could turn into an afterthought so quickly. It's also likely that the recession has played a role in diminishing the focus on social issues, as some pollsters point out. But while the economy remains a concern, the acute fear that gripped the nation over the winter has somewhat receded. And thanks to a bit of mildly encouraging news and our collective ennui, the recession is no longer the all-consuming headline of several months ago. There now appears to be room in the national consciousness for issues besides the economy. Why not same-sex marriage?
In 2004, the pundit class latched on to the story line that evangelicals were responsible for the re-election of President Bush, ignoring polls that showed that voters considered Iraq, terrorism, and the economy—not gay marriage or abortion—the top issues. Voters also just found Bush more likable than John Kerry. In spite of these facts, the media chose the juicier headline ("Evangelical Christians Taking Over America") over the more accurate one ("Americans Still Trust Friendly Cowboys Over Patrician Phonies").
And in 2008, evangelicals were about the same percentage of the electorate as they were in 2004. But the Democrat won handily. How? Well, middle-of-the-road, independent Americans decided the election, just as they did in 2004. Evangelicals may be crucial to Republicans in the primaries, but they have never been kingmakers in the general election. General elections are decided by moderates, the same people whose changing attitudes are largely responsible for the quiet acceptance of recent gay-marriage victories. (Two recent polls put national support for same-sex marriage at 42 percent and 49 percent, respectively, and rising.) And while those moderates may be more open to gay marriage now than they were a few years ago, it was never a touchstone issue for them—as evidenced by the fact that it was not a top concern in the 2004 election.
Of course, there remains substantial opposition to same-sex marriage in America. But as people start to see that New England hasn't turned into Sodom and Gomorrah—and as they start to find out that the nice "single" woman in their office isn't so single—they'll likely get more comfortable with the whole notion. Clearly, that's already happening. How else to explain the lack of outrage?
No doubt the religious right will return. But when it does, let's not forget this era of bland acceptance of same-sex marriage. It raises serious questions about the religious right's power. Perhaps it has always been better at projecting influence than exercising it.