If gay marriage isn't such a big deal anymore, then maybe the religious right isn't, either.

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
May 20 2009 6:39 PM

Wedding Crashers

If gay marriage isn't such a big deal anymore, then maybe the religious right isn't, either.

Gay marriage. Click image to expand.
A gay marriage ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Politics

Talking White

Black people’s disdain for “proper English” and academic achievement is a myth.

Hong Kong’s Protesters Are Ridiculously Polite. That’s What Scares Beijing So Much.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

A Jaw-Dropping Political Ad Aimed at Young Women, Apparently

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:05 PM Today in GOP Outreach to Women: You Broads Like Wedding Dresses, Right?
Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

How Tattoo Parlors Became the Barber Shops of Hipster Neighborhoods

This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century

Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 8:34 AM This Gargantuan Wind Farm in Wyoming Would Be the Hoover Dam of the 21st Century To undertake a massively ambitious energy project, you don’t need the government anymore.
  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 1 2014 12:20 PM Don’t Expect Hong Kong’s Protests to Spread to the Mainland
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 9:39 PM Tom Cruise Dies Over and Over Again in This Edge of Tomorrow Supercut
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?