Opponents of same-sex marriage had won 32 state referendums in a row, but their winning streak came to a screeching halt on Election Day, 2012. Voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington state added to the number of states where marriage equality is now the law, increasing the total to nine states and the District of Columbia. In Minnesota, a referendum that would have amended the state constitution to exclude same-sex marriages failed.
It remains to be seen whether the dramatic turnaround becomes a trend. But many things changed, even before the bellwether election, which may shape the future in both political and religious communities. Some conservatives are also recognizing what these changes may mean for their movement and their party.
While public opinion has long been trending toward greater public acceptance of homosexuality and marriage equality, many sympathetic polls across the country have tended to avoid taking a clear stand. But this year, not only did President Obama and Vice President Biden prominently and unambiguously endorse marriage equality, but also the Democratic Party added it to the national platform for the first time. In contrast, the Republican Party doubled down in their opposition.
Religious leaders also presented a clear difference this year. While leaders of the Christian right played their usual role as the main opponents of same-sex marriage, the 2012 election season saw Christian and other religious leaders emerge as effective public supporters of marriage equality. Religious communities and leaders were formally part of the pro-marriage equality coalitions in all four states with initiatives on the ballot. “Each state’s campaign had a faith director and faith organizers,” Sharon Groves of the Human Rights Campaign explained in The Washington Post, “and, in the case of Minnesota, the faith director served as part of the senior policy team. In addition, sophisticated multi-faith coalitions and denominational groups stepped up their organizing efforts.”
The prominent United Church of Christ minister, Rev. Otis Moss III, made a statement in a YouTube video featuring African American clergy. “In the name of fairness and equality for all, let us lay aside what divides us and join forces in that which unites us. On November 6, vote for Question 6 and let’s protect all Marylanders.”
The involvement of progressive Christian leaders is important, in part because one of the main arguments made by conservative Christian opponents has been that marriage equality is a threat to their religious liberty. Pro-equality religious leaders were able to authoritatively rebut conservative claims that churches that oppose same-sex marriage would be compelled to perform them in violation of their religious beliefs. In fact, no one has ever been forced to perform a marriage of which they did not approve in any of the states that have embraced marriage equality since Massachusetts led the way in 2003.
At this writing, some conservatives are breaking ranks in ways that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. “Conservatives don’t need to change core convictions to embrace the growing support for equal rights for gay Americans,” Ken Mehlman, former chairman of the Republican National Committee wrote in The Wall Street Journal. “It is sufficient to recognize the inherent conservatism in citizens’ desire to marry, to be judged on their work, and not to be singled out for higher taxes or bullying at school. These objectives can be achieved while also protecting religious liberty… ”
Mehlman concluded that conservatism, and by extension, the Republican Party, succeeds “when we attract new supporters to timeless traditions.”
That some traditionalists now want to include gay people in the great tradition of marriage is, however, nothing short of revolutionary.
Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker, writing in The Washington Post, joined Mehlman at the rhetorical barricades — calling on the Republican Party to “marginalize or banish those who in any way make African Americans, gays, single women or any other human being feel unwelcome….”
Such views are not uncommon among establishment Republicans. But conservative Christians are unlikely to change their theology to accommodate them. John Helmberger, for example, who heads the Focus on the Family political affiliate in Minnesota, declared at a major Christian right political conference in September: “What really drives us here is… marriage is about the Gospel. Marriage is a picture of the Gospel. By God’s design, marriage is a picture of Christ the Bridegroom and his bride, the Church.” He added: “If marriage is under attack anywhere, it is under attack everywhere.”
Of course, supporters of marriage equality, whether they are progressive or conservative, religious or non-religious, do not see themselves as attacking marriage anywhere. They see marriage equality as merely extending the opportunity to marry to all.