MOST attention, in our recent national elections, focused on the
presidential race and the control of Congress - naturally enough,
since they shape the government's direction for the next few years.
Another significant outcome, however, had to do with a social
issue, the opening up of marriage to same-sex couples.
Marriage, in the United States, is
governed primarily by the states, with the federal government
intervening only exceptionally. In the late 19th century, Congress
pressed the Mormon Church to give up polygamy before allowing Utah
to become a state. In 1967, the Supreme Court belatedly declared
that a Virginia law prohibiting marriage between people of
different races was an unconstitutional violation of equal
In 1996, Congress passed a law
forbidding federal recognition of gay or lesbian marriages, even in
those states where they are legal, and the Supreme Court will soon
have to decide whether the constitution permits this.
The main arena of conflict and
decision, then, continues to be the individual states, eight of
which (plus the District of Columbia) now acknowledge same-sex
marriages. Up until now, this kind of change occurred either
because a state court had determined that the state's constitution
did not allow limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples, or because
the state legislature voted for the change. Whenever the issue was
submitted directly to the larger public as a ballot proposition, a
majority voted to limit marriage to opposite-sex couples.
This November, however, voters in
three states (Maine, Maryland, and Washington) decided to make
same-sex marriage legal. In a fourth state, Minnesota, they
rejected a ballot proposition that would have written a ban on
same-sex marriage into the state's constitution. Even though public
opinion was already evolving in this direction, the sudden shift is
surprising. What makes it still more remarkable is that the voters
of Maine reversed the contrary decision they had made only three
Opponents of same-sex marriage have
minimised the importance of these events, asserting that the states
involved represent only the liberal margins of the country. Since
Maine is, in fact, historically conservative and Republican, this
sounds like whistling in the dark. Even though no one expects to
see Alabama or Mississippi change their minds on the subject any
time soon, other states could well do so.
What has made the difference? More
effective campaigning by proponents of same-sex marriage is one
part of it. In Maine, for example, they emphasised the desire of
parents and grandparents to have this right extended to members of
their families. But the opponents of same-sex marriage may have
contributed unintentionally to their own defeat. For several
decades, they have proclaimed that same-sex marriage would mean the
end of civilisation as we know it. In fact, little has changed,
except that more and more people know married gay couples, who turn
out not to be remarkably different from their heterosexual
The most effective counter-argument to
apocalyptic scenarios turns out to be the sheer, homely familiarity
of married life.
The Revd Dr Bill Countryman is
Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Church Divinity School
of the Pacific in Berkeley, California.