Marriage Equality and the New Faces of the Republican Party

As President Obama prepares to make his first Supreme Court appointment, the religious right appears to be shifting gears away from focusing on abortion rights and turning their attention more to the question of gay marriage. This reflects a broader strategy on the part of the Christian Right to make fighting against marriage equality the top issue on their agenda.

While campaigns based upon bigotry and intolerance are always harmful, the timing of this decision by opponents of marriage equality may be good news for those of us who think gays and lesbians should be treated equally by our laws. This may seem a strange thing to claim less than seven months after the passage of Proposition 8 in California, but the political climate in the United States has changed substantially since that election. It now looks as if the passage of Proposition 8 was the last gasp of the reactionary politics of the Bush era, rather than a sign of renewed intolerance in America.

Since the November 2008 election, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont and Maine have passed laws supporting gay marriage and it seems reasonably clear that other states will join these states, and Massachusetts, soon. Advances in these states suggest that Proposition 8 was the end of something, not the beginning. More states are making marriage equal for all people not because of an upsurge of passionate supporters of gay marriage, but because of a collapse of the moderate opposition to allowing two men or two women to marry each other.

The ground underneath the gay marriage policy debate has shifted leaving opponents in a far weaker position. In this moment of the Obama ascendancy, the center has clearly moved somewhat. Perhaps this is a reaction to the disastrous administration of Obama's predecessor, the ongoing economic troubles or a broader shift in perceptions or understandings among the electorate. While there are still pockets of reaction, at least for now, they feel like pockets when only a few short years ago they were the mainstream. The string of electoral defeats for marriage equality has given way to a string of legislative victories for the same issue.

The collapse of the moderate opposition to gay marriage is both partially caused by, and increasingly contributes to, the right wing of the Republican Party's increasing, but almost certainly temporary, isolation on the fringes of American politics. While there are, undoubtedly, numerous reasons why this has occurred, one major reason why moderate opposition to gay marriage is weakening is because very few people in the broad American political center want to be associated with Rush Limbaugh, tea parties, intolerance or anachronistically calling the president a socialist for supporting moderate tax increases for the wealthiest Americans. Yet, this is precisely where the religious right finds itself as it seeks to fight against marriage equality-associated with unpopular leaders, devoid of any cohesive solutions and sounding increasingly frustrated and irrational as they yell from the sidelines of political life.

The right wing has made it very difficult for opponents of gay marriage to stake out a centrist view where they can articulate a position that is in line with some liberal majority positions, such as support of the economic stimulus and opposition to the war in Iraq, while still opposing gay marriage. Previous election returns, and other evidence, tell us that at one time in the not so distant past there were many voters who, while not consistent right wing Republicans, felt some discomfort with gay marriage. It was these voters who made the difference in passing laws against marriage equality in many states. Today, whatever discomfort these voters may feel about gay marriage is being trumped by the broader discomfort they feel with the far right of the Republican Party.

This is a major strategic mistake by opponents of gay marriage; and one which does not seem to be lost on supporters of gay marriage. During this period when the anti-marriage equality movement has been hijacked by the extreme right, supporters of gay marriage are, and should continue to, push through as much marriage equality legislation in as many places as possible.

By taking advantage of this political moment, which may just be a brief dynamic arising from the broader political context, lasting damage will be done to the forces of intolerance because as gay marriage is made legal in more states, ordinary Americans will see that the bizarre and offensive fears raised by radical opponents of gay marriage are, of course, nonsense. Families will not collapse; society will not come to a grinding halt; children will not suffer. Instead, reasons for opposing marriage equality will become less, not more, clear as a few more loving couples will be treated equally and our country will come a little closer to meeting the ideals for which we strive.