Skip to main content

Is same-sex marriage too radical for America?

By Timothy Stanley, Special to CNN
updated 6:04 PM EDT, Wed May 9, 2012
Opponents of Proposition 8, California's anti-gay marriage bill, celebrate the court's overturning of it in February
Opponents of Proposition 8, California's anti-gay marriage bill, celebrate the court's overturning of it in February
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tim Stanley: The N.C. vote to ban same-sex marriage goes far, includes civil partnerships
  • He says socially liberal initiatives often move slowly -- the Equal Rights Amendment, for example
  • He says ERA became a line in the sand for the right; too few states ended up supporting it
  • Stanley: Black, Latino opposition doesn't help the same-sex marriage issue

Editor's note: Timothy Stanley is a historian at Oxford University and blogs for Britain's Daily Telegraph. He is the author of the new book "The Crusader: The Life and Times of Pat Buchanan." This commentary has been updated to reflect President Obama's statement this afternoon.

(CNN) -- President Barack Obama has endorsed same-sex marriage. Will it make any difference to the battle for marriage equality? The news coming out of North Carolina suggests not. The Tar Heelers on Tuesday voted 61% to 39% to amend their constitution to outlaw same-sex marriage. Actually, they've gone much further. The new amendment prohibits any kind of same-sex unions, including the relatively innocuous option of civil partnership.

So radical is the measure that gay rights groups hoped this vote might prove to be a replay of last year's surprise result in Mississippi, when voters rejected an amendment banning abortions because its language and consequences were considered too extreme. But now we know the limits of the South's social liberalism: yes to abortions, no to same-sex weddings.

Timothy Stanley
Timothy Stanley

There's a popular myth that social liberalism is unstoppable. But the tide of progress is a myth. Societies have often taken a step forward only to stand perfectly still or even take a couple of steps back. In hindsight, the journey of black civil rights looks like a brisk jog in a straight line, but it was really a winding stumble. The ecstasy of emancipation was followed by the misery of segregation. And although legal segregation was defeated, some would argue that it still continues.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter and Facebook.com/cnnopinion

The story of women's rights demonstrates that sometimes social liberalism can politically overreach itself. In the 1970s, feminists seemed to win every battle they fought on abortion, hiring practices or school sports. They believed that ultimate victory would be secured with passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, which would amend the Constitution to outlaw discrimination with regard to sex. Victory seemed assured. The ERA sailed through Congress in 1972 and was endorsed by President Richard Nixon. It required the ratification of 38 states to pass, and by the end of 1973 it had 30.

Pastor: 'Shove' gay kids, don't punch
The politics of same sex marriage
Will Obama come out for gay marriage?

But then the ERA faced the same problem that same-sex marriage faces today: the sustained assault of America's social conservatives. The right saw the ERA as an assault on the traditional family. They feared it would force women to work in heavy labor or fight in the Army, and many worried that it could even lead to same-sex marriage. As conservatives poured dollars into stopping ratification, more and more states either refused to ratify or rescinded. The ERA hit a geographic boundary in the South and could go no further. Failing to reach its 38 ratifications, it faded away.

News: Obama supports same-sex marriage

It wasn't just the money that killed the ERA; supporters often outspent opponents. The amendment failed because the right turned it into a "line in the sand" issue, a matter on which Americans could say that they were happy for society to progress this far but no further.

The same goes for same-sex marriage. It's true that growing numbers of Americans say they support marriage equality, but then everyone lies to police officers, priests and pollsters. In every state that has held a popular vote on same-sex marriage, it has been defeated (that even includes Maine). Take a look at a map of where it has been passed by state legislatures and you'll see that it's limited to the bits of the country that overwhelmingly vote Democratic.

Crucially, while America is trending Democratic in demographic terms -- as the nonwhite proportion of the population increases -- this doesn't translate into growing support for gay rights. On the contrary, the energy behind the amendment in North Carolina came from African-American churches, many of them deeply offended by the comparison between the struggle for emancipation and the campaign for same-sex marriage. Likewise, Obama's victory in 2008 drew to the polls the same African-Americans and Latinos who simultaneously voted for Proposition 8 in California, outlawing same-sex marriage in the state.

Opinion: In GOP, support for same-sex marriage is growing

Increasingly, gay rights isn't a partisan issue; the battle lines are drawn by class rather than political allegiance. For middle-class whites, supporting same-sex marriage is a test of tolerance that, coincidentally, distances them from the fundamentalist rabble who live down the street. For many African-Americans, Latinos and poor whites, it's a matter of faith vs. Hollywood values.

Given how controversial it is, same-sex marriage could go the way of the ERA -- a reform too far, joining the long list of Democratic, election-time promises that no one ever expects to see realized. And given that he offers no new policies on the subject (he can't: It's a classic states rights issue), Obama's endorsement is little more than kind words. They are brave words in that seven out of the nine swing states he's contesting in November have constitutional amendments outlawing same-sex marriage -- most of them passed by popular referenda. "The folks," as Bill O'Reilly calls middle America, don't like it.

Does the futility of Obama's gesture, or the problems faced by same-sex marriage, mean it's game over for gay rights? Not at all. The failure of the ERA did not retard women's rights in any significant way. While the failure of same-sex marriage might have legal consequences for couples, it doesn't mean that the Westboro Baptist Church has won.

On the contrary, Vice President Joe Biden accidentally got something right on Sunday when he said that American attitudes toward sexuality had been forever altered by the TV sitcom "Will and Grace." On a cultural level, homosexuality is now a fact of life in modern America. People work with gays and lesbians, have them in their family, sit next to them in church, and, most importantly of all, see them on television. That degree of acculturation can never be undone, even by the ballot box.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Timothy Stanley

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:16 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
updated 4:48 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
updated 5:15 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
updated 9:40 AM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
updated 5:53 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
updated 7:05 PM EDT, Thu August 28, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT