Originally published in Official Artur Davis
The most eloquent, poignant argument I ever heard against same-sex marriage came from an African American woman in her late fifties who organized youth groups at a black mega-church in the South. I can’t quote her verbatim but it went something like this: “in the black community, gay marriage is a source of worry because we struggle so hard, and against so many cultural forces, to make even conventional marriages work. We don’t buy into officially recognized alternative relationships because we can’t even win the battle to make the standard kind of marriage look appealing: not when our boys want the music video lifestyle—a different girl at every stanza in the song—our girls get degrees and can’t find men who can support them; and our teenagers think a baby is what happens when you become a woman or a man. Yet another alternative to men and women building families together? That’s a luxury we can’t afford.”
There’s a heap of generalization there, and reasonable minds may or may not agree. In fact, I’ve heard more than a few blacks argue that legal marriages between black homosexuals beats the closets in the black community, which often have the unfair, reverse effect of making any heterosexual black man who stays single look suspect. But the woman I mention was utterly free of malice and not at all reliant on Old Testament allusions to make her case. If you think she is in spite of that a beacon of intolerance, you’ve just indicted a thoughtful representation of about 60 percent of the African American community.
The media-filtered reaction to President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage has been predictable: an undercurrent of exaltation in the newsrooms that have long ceased to think of homosexuality as anything but another form of freedom; cherry-picked evangelical leaders who fit that same media’s expectations of what social conservatism looks and sounds like. To be sure, the networks and cable have brought forth their share of high profile African American ministers and Catholic bishops, but they aren’t the woman in that southern church running a youth group, trying to grapple with how social change shapes fatherless neighborhoods: the preachers and clerics are speaking in the accents of scripture and biblical text, which most Americans are in the custom of preaching not practicing.
It would be a healthy thing if more of the debate featured voices like the woman I described. It would be equally healthy if more conservatives (and frankly, conservatives disagree with each other on this issue, liberals are entirely of one mind) had weighed in not with jibes at Obama’s timing or the sincerity of his original, pre-”evolving” mindset, but with an honest declaration that the argument over gay marriage does not have the same contours today as it did ten years ago. The fight for most Americans going forward is whether the legal future of same sex marriage is determined state by state, with voters and democratic processes deciding this issue, and not by federal judges deploying an elastic construction of the equal protection clause; and secondly, whether sectarian institutions like Catholic adoption agencies will preserve their own freedom of conscience or lose it to public and elite opinion.
Had there been more pragmatic voices, more voices speaking the language of democratic choice and not absolutism, (see Ross Douthat for an insightful take on how the gay rights community has effectively wielded an absolutionist position to stigmatize opposition) this fundamental cultural argument might be one that clarified rather than deepened our division. Had President Obama gone one step further in his interview and defended the right of good people to differ, he could have actually strengthened his case: instead, he portrayed his own past skepticism as a weirdly disconnected thing that had little force or philosophy behind it, and the logic of his case is that to differ is to condone bigotry.
Don’t hold your breath, though. Culture wars and party politics don’t reward what I just described, and it is culture warriors and partisans who get the microphone at these kinds of junctures. That’s the state of play in the values debate circa 2012.