On Gay Marriage, Intolerance Cuts Both Ways
I once received a lunch invitation from Fred Barnes, executive editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine. Figuring it involved a job offer, I prepared a short speech. “You may think I’m one of you because I’m respectful to Republicans in my news coverage,” I rehearsed, “but, actually, I’m not a conservative.”
It never came to that. Barnes knew my politics, such as they are, and had asked me to lunch to pose a single question: “Carl,” he said, “what is your view of gay marriage?”
That was in 2004, and the context of his query was a presidential election unfolding in the wake of a Massachusetts state court decision mandating the legalization of same-sex marriage. Public opinion wasn’t yet with the Bay State jurists; and neither George W. Bush nor his Democratic challenger was willing to go there.
Both candidates were putting expediency over principle: John Kerry was one of only 14 members of the Senate who’d voted against the Defense of Marriage Act, the Orwellian-named 1996 law signed by Bill Clinton. And Bush had been remonstrating against anti-gay prejudice since college. In other words, they knew better.
I didn’t say that to Fred. I told him I supported same-sex marriage, and believed a conservative case could be made for it, but that the real answer to his question was that it didn’t matter what I thought about gay marriage and it didn’t matter what he thought about gay marriage—and ultimately it didn’t matter what the next president thought. Gay marriage was coming, I said. It was inevitable, and his main goal should be to act in a way he’d be proud of later. This doesn’t mean you have to support it, I said; opponents would be wise to disagree respectfully and inclusively.
Fred surprised me by replying that this was essentially what President Bush had told him, too, so we left it at that.
Ten years later, I’d like to think I was prescient, but this is only half-true. Gay marriage has come to many jurisdictions in this country, and will soon come to all of them. But the intolerance I worried about has been manifested most conspicuously not by conservatives but by the side that’s winning, the side that likes to call itself liberal.
Conservatives are attacked as homophobes, Christianity derided as backward. Politicians, celebrities, and athletes who run afoul of the new orthodoxy must abase themselves in penance. If they refuse, witch hunts are launched, no matter how innocuous the transgressor. When Miss California gushed that marriage was “between a man and a woman,” one of the judges, a gay blogger, called her vile names and wrote about ripping off her tiara—for enunciating a position supported by a majority of Californians, and which Barack Obama would cling to for another three years.
In 2004 and 2008, both major political parties’ nominees embraced the mantra that marriage “was between a man and a woman.” (This couldn’t be the answer because it was the question.) Only after Joe Biden blurted out his actual view in 2012 did Obama find the gumption to follow suit. Public opinion had changed by then, so it was no profile in courage. Most disturbingly, liberals immediately began attacking the character of anyone or any institution at odds with their newfound creed.
The patriarch of “Duck Dynasty” calling homosexuality a sin? Tell network suits to suspend him. (They did.) Unearth an old $1,000 contribution by Mozilla’s CEO to the anti-gay marriage side of California’s Proposition 8 fight in 2008? Threaten Mozilla to force him to quit. (He did). Learn that House Republicans have retained a respected litigator to defend DOMA in federal courts? Urge his law firm to forsake their client. (The firm caved, and the lawyer went elsewhere.)
That was just the beginning. When family-owned businesses from Vermont to Colorado balked, on religious grounds, to photograph or cater gay weddings they found themselves defendants in high-profile lawsuits.
In the case of Elaine and Jonathan Huguenin, a devout New Mexico couple that declined to photograph a lesbian commitment ceremony, the state Supreme Court ruled explicitly that religious freedom takes a back seat to the freedom from discrimination. Although he concurred with the majority, Justice Richard C. Bosson recognized the gravity of the ruling. “The Huguenins … now are compelled by law to compromise the very religious beliefs that inspire their lives,” he wrote. “The result is sobering. It will no doubt leave a tangible mark on the Huguenins and others of similar views.”
It left a tangible mark on neighboring Arizona, for sure. Lawmakers trying to forestall such judicial expansiveness moved to carve out a religious exception to discrimination laws—and were demonized for it. One media outlet called the bill “a sadistic piece of legislation designed by bigoted extremists to degrade and humiliate gay people and their families.” The governor vetoed it after being threatened with removal of the 2015 Super Bowl from Phoenix.
Ultimately, the New McCarthyism offended some of gay marriage’s earliest and most ardent proponents. Among these voices were Jonathan Rauch and Andrew Sullivan, gay intellectuals who were writing in favor of gay marriage while Bill Clinton was still pandering to reactionaries. Alarmed by the ouster of Mozilla’s CEO, last week they unveiled a petition, with 55 other signatories, “Freedom to Marry, Freedom to Dissent,” that struck the perfect balance.
“So the issue is cleanly presented: Is opposition to same-sex marriage by itself, expressed in a political campaign, beyond the pale of tolerable discourse in a free society?” they wrote. “We cannot wish away the objections of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim faith traditions, or browbeat them into submission. Even in our constitutional system, persuasion is a minority’s first and best strategy. It has served us well and we should not be done with it.”
To that, I say, “Amen.”