Popping the Question

One almost certain consequence of Goodridge, et al v. Department of Public Health, the decision by the Supreme Judicial Court last November to allow gay marriage, will be an increase in Massachusetts tourism; imagine the number of weddings in Provincetown next summer! But the national implications of the state court’s actions, for politics and society, are more difficult to predict.


America has witnessed something close to a revolution in its attitudes toward homosexuality over the past half century. Not that long ago, gays, especially those who worked in sensitive jobs, could be blackmailed because of their sexual orientation. Both physical violence and verbal abuse toward them was common. Homosexuality was treated by many as either willful or sinful, requiring, in either case, stern countermeasures. And those were the attitudes of the people willing to talk about the subject; large numbers of Americans preferred instead to pretend that homosexuality did not exist and certainly would never discuss it in polite company.

Even in the late 1990s, when I was interviewing Americans all around the country for my book One Nation After All, people who were otherwise reluctant to pass moral judgment on the beliefs or behaviors of others seemed to put homosexuality in a different category. It was as if, confronted on all sides by the demands for greater personal freedom, they wanted to draw the line somewhere. The issue of homosexuality, touching as it does on matters involving love, sex, family, and God, was where they drew it. Americans generally do not know or care what happens to tariffs, but they have strong opinions about families and what makes them strong.

Today, by contrast, gay characters are featured on prime-time television; prominent politicians (of both parties) are either gay themselves or have gay children they make a point of expressing pride toward; and a right to privacy in one’s own bedroom, even if what takes place in that bedroom is gay sex, is generally respected. In June 2003, the US Supreme Court, in Lawrence v. Texas, ruled that states could not criminalize gay sexuality through laws against sodomy, and although a backlash to the decision was predicted, none ever developed.

The Massachusetts ruling may be a very different story. Americans make a sharp distinction between what takes place in private and what happens in public. Though nominally a vow of commitment between two people, marriage is among the most public of acts, legalized by government, celebrated by friends, and (at least for many people) sanctified by religion. As much as Americans support the right to privacy, they balk at giving homosexuals full equality for an act as public as marriage, even when conducted as a civil ceremony outside of church. A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center before the Massachusetts decision found that 59 percent of Americans oppose gay marriage; among evangelical Protestants, 80 percent were against the idea. Gay marriage is not an idea whose time has come, at least not yet.

The disjunction between the Massachusetts high court’s embrace of gay marriage and the country’s ambivalence (if not hostility) toward it makes the issue unavoidable fodder for the upcoming presidential election. It is frequently said by inside-the-beltway commentators that Karl Rove was disappointed at the low turnout among evangelicals in 2000 and hopes to see more of them at the polls for George W. Bush the next time around. Not being inclined to turn down free gifts, the Republicans are unlikely to pass up the opportunity provided by our SJC to rally their religious base. Still, President Bush has to watch out for a backlash, should his attitude be perceived as intolerant. That is why the president is likely to avoid language that smacks of discrimination, instead giving symbolic backing to a constitutional amendment defending heterosexual marriage (symbolic because the possibility of any such amendment ever being ratified on the necessary state-by-state basis is so remote). But this will not stop other partisans from using the Goodridge decision as evidence of the need to re-elect a Republican president who will name conservative judges to the bench. (The fact that no president appoints judges to the supreme courts of the states will no doubt be overlooked.)

The Massachusetts decision also gives the GOP an opportunity to make inroads into two key minority groups. African-Americans, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, tend to be conservative on the issue of homosexuality and frequently object to gay activists using the language of civil rights to advance their cause. Latino voters are not only predominantly Catholic but more likely than white Catholics to support the church’s teachings on sexuality, including opposition to gay marriage.

What is more, the Republicans will be able to run not only against gay marriage but against Massachusetts. Unlike the rest of the country, half of Bay State residents support gay marriage, according to polls conducted by The Boston Globe and the Boston Herald shortly after the decision, and a portion of the rest are not sure. Gay marriage is simply not as unpopular in the Commonwealth as it is in the rest of the country, and we are unlikely to join in any backlash that may develop elsewhere. As the Democrats assemble in Boston in July to nominate their candidate, Republicans will remind voters around the country of Massachusetts’s (well-deserved) reputation for liberalism. It will surely be pointed out that our state, at this time of increasingly Republican hegemony, has an entirely Democratic congressional delegation, one of whose members, moreover, is the most openly gay politician in Washington. We were the only state to vote for George McGovern in 1972 (the District of Columbia joined us), a fact that will surely be cited to indicate how tenuous is our relationship to the God-fearing Americans who live in the rest of the country. Republican ideologue Ann Coulter likes to call liberals treasonous. Surely she will find appropriately ugly words to slander residents of America’s most left-leaning state.

Finally, the Republicans may benefit simply because their position will be the simpler one to understand. Nearly all the Democrats in the race have said that they oppose gay marriage but support civil unions. In the context of a debate with a Republican who says he is against both, Democrats will appear equivocal, tailoring their stance to focus groups. For Republicans, gay marriage is a “red meat” issue. For Democrats, it is a study in ambiguity.

Yet the Republicans will not hold all the cards on this issue. It is important to remember that the Massachusetts case was decided by a state court interpreting a state constitution. In theory, the “full faith and credit” clause of the US Constitution guarantees that an action in one state will be recognized by all the others. But under the Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress in 1996, no state would be forced to accept a gay marriage that took place in Massachusetts (unless, of course, the Defense of Marriage Act were declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court). As of now–even as of the May deadline set by the SJC–Massachusetts law is not national law. Since it is they who usually argue for giving states leeway to make their own rules and set their own standards, Republicans will be violating their own philosophy if they rattle their swords against Massachusetts, as Democrats will be glad to point out.

In denouncing gay marriage, moreover, Republicans will also find themselves arguing against marriage–an odd position for a conservative party. Republican-leaning columnist David Brooks of The New York Times has made a powerful conservative argument on behalf of gay marriage. Surely at least one Democrat–perhaps Richard Gephardt, who has spoken movingly about his gay daughter–can take the hint and speak in favor of expanding a social institution that discourages promiscuity, offers protection against sexually transmitted disease, encourages love and compassion, is committed to wealth sharing, and creates a stable environment for raising children. That, of course, will take a certain amount of political courage, but it will also demonstrate qualities of leadership that voters tend to admire.

These tactical considerations are rooted in public attitudes, which continue to change.
Finally, the issue of gay rights contains an undercurrent of anti-governmental sentiment that appeals to libertarians in both parties. Defenders of Roe v. Wade rarely defend abortion per se; they argue that government should not come between a woman and her doctor. Along similar lines, defenders of the Goodridge decision can point out that just as government should not decide which industries will flourish and which will die, it should not dictate what kinds of marriages will be permitted to succeed and what kinds must fail. Gay rights and gun rights do not resonate with the same constituents, but both possess the same underlying logic. Whether or not this is a good thing is another question entirely.

These tactical considerations are all rooted in public attitudes, which are continuing to change. For that reason, the ramifications of gay marriage, in politics and society, go far beyond the 2004 election. The issue that the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has put in play will go a long way toward determining whether America’s culture war has a future.

Before this decision, evidence existed that the culture war was coming to an end. On affirmative action, the US Supreme Court found a compromise last year that essentially removed race as a divisive issue in American society. And the passage of a law banning “partial birth abortion” transformed the conservative side in the culture war from losers to winners, thereby undermining its claim that the United States is plunging headlong toward moral decadence. With two of the major battles of the culture war concluded, there seemed every likelihood that the 2004 presidential campaign would be devoted to issues like national security and the economy.

That may still be the case. If gay marriage either peters out as an issue or develops in such a way that its political benefits are neutralized, the issue of gay marriage–however important it may be to gays on the one side and conservative religious believers on the other–could wind up losing traction.

Americans may someday come to feel about gay mar-riage as they now do about interracial marriage, which is that while it is an exception to the norm and can occasionally cause a head to turn, it is also nobody’s business but the people involved. The United States has for some time been moving away from its Puritan and censorious past, and this would be one more step in the direction of a society that values personal freedom more than it does adherence to older conceptions of morality, including those that originate in religious teachings.

Should that occur, the implications could be more profound than the choice of the next US president. It would mean that the culture war is really over.

Meet the Author
Some of the issues that once defined its passions, such as abortion, will shift in the direction of marginal restric-tions on the right to choose. Others, such as affirmative action, will find a compromise in the middle. On the issue of homosexuality, the shift would be to the left, since people who hold the strong religious conviction that homosexuality is a sin will have to give way to respect for individual rights.

And if the culture war does come to an end in such a way–with each side winning a bit and also losing a bit–Americans might find themselves actually looking for politicians who unite them rather than divide them.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.