Some observations on same-sex marriage.
▪ Government officials must do their jobs. Kudos to Gov. Pat McCrory for vetoing legislation that allows magistrates to opt out of performing marriages. America is founded on the principle of the rule of law. The government’s primary duty is to enforce those laws wisely. If one’s conscience makes it impossible to carry out those duties, don’t work for the government.
▪ Private citizens are not government workers. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would allow North Carolinians to refuse to engage in activities that violate their constitutional right to religious freedom, may be necessary. Our laws accommodate dissent, especially in the exercise of inalienable rights. Self-employed Amish Americans, for example, do not pay Social Security taxes. In an ideal world, Tar Heels would settle these matters among themselves, as individuals freely choose with whom they wish to do business. Regarding same-sex marriage, this approach is not just principled but practical as only a small and dwindling number of business owners would forsake Mammon for God. Sadly, we may need a law because, in our litigious society, it is likely that interest groups would target holdouts.
▪ Opposition to same-sex marriage is not necessarily old-fashioned bigotry. Undoubtedly, some North Carolinians just don’t like gays and lesbians. But many are informed by their faith. On the one hand, religious beliefs, like racial views, are learned attitudes. Taught, they can be untaught and replaced – which is what is happening in America with breathtaking speed. Unlike racism – which is a black and white view of one central aspect of community – religion is a complex worldview. It offers a philosophy of life that often summons the best in people. Opposition to homosexuality has been part of this broader moral vision for most faiths; it has not been just a check-list stance but part of the warp and weft of the fabric of belief. Branding opponents simply as bigots shows a lack of imagination and understanding; it is applying the vocabulary of politics to faith.
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▪ People have short memories. Until recently, the vast majority of Americans rejected same-sex marriage. Branding those who still oppose it as intolerant bigots is small-minded and counterproductive. Was President Obama an intolerant bigot before 2012? Was Hillary Clinton? Given this context, the aggressive effort to shame and bully people into supporting the practice is a form of imposed group think. That effort dovetails with other troubling efforts to limit free speech and dissent through the deeply un-American concept of restricted hate speech. Instead of attacking opponents for political advantage, the millions of newly minted supporters should make the positive case, explaining why they have changed their minds. Perhaps they could also explore whether they have any residual unease with the idea of their children being gay or transgender. This approach honors the history of the movement. Acceptance has blossomed since the 1980s because many LGBTQ Americans courageously came out of the closet, letting family members, neighbors and co-workers know that the people they loved and cared about were gay. It was these countless private acts of persuasion that turned the tide.
▪ Same-sex marriage is a symbol. Unfair as it is to LGBTQ Americans, the issue has become a proxy for troubling breakdowns in society. The assault on authority and loosening of cultural restraints since the 1960s have produced tremendous benefits – including gay rights. But those expanding freedoms, and the diminishing role of religion and traditional customs, have coincided with the coarsening of popular culture and the breakdown of traditional families, especially among the poor. We need a more thoughtful, less divisive discussion of these developments, especially the interplay of morality and economics. It is more than ironic that upper-middle class Americans (both Democrats and Republicans) who drive the national discourse are much more likely to practice “traditional values” than poorer Americans, even as they hesitate to preach these values. The result would be a fuller understanding of how same-sex marriage strengthens families and communities.
▪ Same-sex marriage should be good for Republicans. While the party must represent its evangelical base, it should work harder to align gay rights with its larger commitment to freedom. Paradoxically, the freedom to oppose same-sex marriage depends on the freedom to embrace it. No ideal is more Reaganesque than this: Americans must be able to pursue life, liberty and happiness as they define it with minimal government control.
America remains a shining city on a hill because it is an evolving experiment built on an unchanging idea – freedom. Safeguarding that individual liberty while debating who we want to be as a community and country is a hard and neverending task. But we can make it a less daunting by respecting each another.
Contributing columnist J. Peder Zane’s new book is titled “Off the Books: On Literature and Culture.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.