“It became a cascade.” Dale Carpenter, a friend who e-mailed those words from Minneapolis, was writing about the unexpectedly lopsided vote for same-sex marriage in the Minnesota House last week (the state Senate approved it Monday, and the governor has signed it), but he might have been writing about the whole marriage movement.
This month, Rhode Island and Delaware approved gay marriage. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court could restore it in California. If that happens, nearly 30% of the population will live in gay-marriage states.
The cascade extends beyond marriage. America is rethinking its whole relationship with its gay citizens. This month, a poll by ABC News and The Washington Post found not only a 55% majority supporting marriage equality, but also even bigger majorities in favor of allowing openly gay Boy Scouts and opposed to banning gay Scout leaders. As for NBA center Jason Collins’ public announcement that he’s gay, it isn’t even controversial: It enjoys 68% approval.
To understand why the public is breaking so fast for same-sex marriage, look not at “blue” (Democratic-leaning) states that recently approved it. Glance instead at deep-red South Carolina.
There, on the same day that Delaware’s Senate passed marriage equality, the voters of the first congressional district sent former Republican governor and congressman Mark Sanford back to the House seat he occupied in the late 1990s.
Now, this is not a man who has done right by marriage. Rather, he used it as a doormat. As governor, Sanford took a mistress, then disappeared for days on a visit to her in Argentina and lied about it. He lost his job and his marriage. But last week, the voters chose to overlook both his infidelity and his mendacity. They even overlooked Sanford’s putting his mistress (now fiancée) onstage at a campaign event with his 14-year-old son, whom news accounts described as “visibly uncomfortable.”
The voters of South Carolina are entitled to shrug off Sanford’s connubial escapades, but many other people notice a conservative double standard. No matter how hard gays work to be true to our life partners, we don’t qualify for marriage. But no matter how shabbily straights treat their vows, they qualify not only for marriage but also for Congress.
When millions of Americans see straight people busting up marriages while gay people struggle to form them, they draw the obvious, and correct, conclusion. America needs more marriages, not fewer. The threat to marriage in the USA today comes not from gays’ trying to marry but from straights’ failing to get married and stay married.
Researchers find that blue states have lower rates of divorce and teen pregnancy than red states do. “If you’re looking for solid marriages,” as the (conservative) New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written, “head to Massachusetts, not Alabama.” Why? Gay marriage probably isn’t reducing straight divorce rates, at least not much. But it is part and parcel of a re-commitment to family values, not a flight from them.
Same-sex marriage is socially conservative in that sense — and in a deeper sense, too. The movement is about equality and rights, yes, but it is also about responsibility and obligation. Marriage joins couples not just in a contract with each other but also in a pact with their community, their kids, their God and millenniums of custom. Gay and lesbian Americans yearn for those bonds.
The father of conservatism, Edmund Burke, famously said society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are to be born.” In seeking marriage, gays are asking to join Burke’s mighty stream of tradition. They are asking to be constrained, not liberated: to be tied to a commitment larger than themselves, larger even than each other.
That is why same-sex marriage is cascading. The public looks at marriage equality and sees the greatest social conservative movement of our time. And, at least outside South Carolina, it looks at Mark Sanford and sees something else.