President Obama has said his opinion on gay marriage is “constantly evolving.” Social conservatives were hopeful — evolution is only a theory, after all.
And during Obama’s first two years in office, their hopes were answered. The President cultivated something of a reputation for indifference regarding gay rights — an image only partially rehabilitated when he oversaw the repeal of the military’s homophobic and unpopular Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy this past December.
But now the White House has signaled that it is serious on civil rights. Last week, Obama determined that the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union exclusively between a man and a woman, is unconstitutional, and instructed the Justice Department to quit defending it in court.
In terms of social ills that undercut America’s potential, homophobia ranks above racism and below sexism. And it has the notable distinction of being the only kind of bigotry still officially endorsed by the state.
Obama’s policy shift doesn’t change that: DOMA is still on the books and Obama has pledged to continue to enforce it for as long as it remains there. Now, striking it down is a matter for the courts, and repealing the law is up to Congress. And even if DOMA is struck down, the choice to legalize gay marriage will ultimately be a choice made by individual states.
In other words, gay couples haven’t yet found their happily-ever-after.
Yet, more than ever before, gay marriage not only seems “inevitable,” as Vice President Joe Biden has suggested, but actually is within grasp. And it looks as if the Republicans aren’t going to try to stand in the way.
In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act passed with strong bipartisan support. Back then, gay marriage wasn’t a viable option. According to a Gallup poll that year, 68 percent of Americans opposed it outright.
What a difference a decade and a half makes. Now five states and the District of Columbia have legalized gay marriage. And in 2010, according to a Pew poll, only 48 percent of the country opposes gay marriage.
This means that one in five Americans has changed their mind in less than 15 years.
The talking heads on television will tell you that young people have rejected the whole homophobia thing. However, according to the Pew’s polling analysis, “The shift in opinion on same-sex marriage has been broad-based, occurring across many demographic, political and religious groups.”
Certainly, young people are at the forefront of this shift.
And it’s not just a trend among Democrats and independents. Meghan McCain — whose father was the grumpiest proponent for Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — actively campaigns against California’s Prop. 8 and on behalf of gay marriage. George W. Bush’s daughter, Laura, is also an active voice in the fight for gay rights.
If the Log Cabin Republicans, GOProud and the seemingly endless number of married Republicans who find themselves in gay sex scandals prove anything, it is that sexuality is just a benign feature of a complex person. It is hardly a determinant of something as complex as political beliefs.
And the irony of trying to socially engineer sexuality, while condemning the overreach of the federal government, seems not to be lost on this generation of conservatives.
Even those who oppose gay marriage seem to be doing it in a pro forma sort of way — paying lip service out of tradition rather than conviction.
As the right’s intellectual fringe — including David Brooks, George Will and David Frum — have pointed out, opposing gay rights from here on out is not only at odds with the evolving conservative ideology, it’s also bad for business.
That is probably why the announcement didn’t warrant a tweet from Sarah Palin, a peep from Mitt Romney or much more than a desultory “I object” from most of the rest of the party. I’d venture to guess that they are quietly relieved Obama has paved a path to gay equality that doesn’t force them to take a stand, risk being labeled bigots and seem helplessly out of touch with modernity.
The only notable Republicans who’ve come out vehemently against Obama’s gay marriage shift are possible 2012 presidential candidates Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich.
To put the former’s position in context: Huckabee believes that the absence of mandatory prayer in public schools has contributed to America’s “moral decline” — despite the fact that mandatory prayer in schools ended before segregation did. (For the record, he also blames American moral decline on video games, taking the shotgun approach to diagnostics.) So it’s no wonder he wouldn’t budge on gay rights.
As for Gingrich, he’s claiming that “the rule of law is being replaced by the rule of Obama.” But he’s the quintessential old guard of Republican old boys, helplessly out of touch with the direction of history. He claims Obama’s shift to not defend DOMA is unconstitutional, despite the fact that he was minority whip when then-president George H. W. Bush used precisely the same maneuver for an affirmative action program.
His claim that Obama is out of touch with the American people is cute. If that were really true, the next election would yield a Republican leader who would re-legislate against gay marriage.
The problem, which Gingrich knows, is that this will never happen. No politician will campaign in the 2012 or 2016 presidential races on a platform of stripping rights away from anybody — not only is that bad campaigning, but it’s downright un-American.
Indeed, when gay marriage passes, it will be the first time that the American legal system wholly reflects this country’s values of equality and fairness. It will be the true beginning of the realization of America’s founding principles, of one of the more eloquent sentences ever written: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
A few weeks ago, an unreleased video-game version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby from 1990 made its way onto the Internet. It recalled for me another of the more beautifully poignant sentences ever written: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
A bit of unsolicited advice for young Republicans: Don’t do the whole culture war thing. Trying to recreate the past didn’t work for Jay Gatsby and it won’t work for the G.O.P. either. Onward, then?
Cody Gault is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stakes Is High appears alternate Thursdays this semester.