Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Chris Christie ahead of the GOP curve on same-sex marriage

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Wed October 23, 2013
Same-sex couples get their marriage licenses at the Oakland County Courthouse on Saturday, March 22, in Pontiac, Michigan, a day after a federal judge overturned Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage. Same-sex couples get their marriage licenses at the Oakland County Courthouse on Saturday, March 22, in Pontiac, Michigan, a day after a federal judge overturned Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage.
Photos: Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
Same-sex marriage in U.S.
  • Chris Christie chose not to appeal decision allowing same-sex marriage in New Jersey
  • Julian Zelizer: Gay rights movement was wise to focus on marriage issue
  • By marrying their cause to family values, they won over some in GOP, he says
  • Zelizer: Same-sex marriage is unlikely to be source of continuing conflict

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America."

(CNN) -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie made headlines when he backed away from his opposition to same-sex marriage in New Jersey. Although he had initially indicated that he would challenge the recent court decision, Christie reversed course and announced that he would follow the law of his state.

Most pundits agreed that Christie's decision would enable him to expand his margin of victory in the upcoming gubernatorial election and improve his chances of emerging as the leading Republican presidential candidate for 2016.

Yet some commentators think this might cause objections to a Christie candidacy in the Republican primaries from social conservatives who remain firmly against same-sex marriage.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

In their view, Christie is an outlier, a Republican courting centrist voters who is going against the grain of the party. "This would suit him a lot better if he were running as a Democrat," one Republican told The National Review.

But there is a strong likelihood that within a few years, Christie might not be as much of an anomaly as they think. The progress on same-sex marriage has been rapid.

While the Defense of Marriage Act defined marriage as only being between a man and woman, many states moved forward in allowing same-sex couples to enter into marriage or civil unions.

Prodded by Vice President Joe Biden, President Obama said in May 2012 that he supported the right of same-sex partners to enter into marriage. In June this year, the Supreme Court ruled that DOMA was unconstitutional and that fsame- sex couples had the right to federal benefits that were normally accorded to heterosexual married couples.

Christie withdraws appeal on gay marriage

One of the most important reasons behind the success of this movement has been the decision to join the gay rights cause to a traditional family values issue promoted by the right: marriage. In recent decades, the gay rights movement has turned its attention away from issues of individual sexuality and liberation, and toward the right to marry. The civil right to enter into a partnership that conservatives have extolled for decades has been extremely important politically.

In the early 1960s, civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. won enormous support by connecting the cause of African-American freedom to traditional American values. In August 1963, during the famous March on Washington, King and others delivered their powerful speeches in front of the Lincoln Memorial, a reminder of how desegregation—and then voting rights—were a fulfillment of the American promise rather than a rejection of traditional values.

Unlike abortion after the Supreme Court's Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, there is much stronger potential for same-sex marriage to become incorporated into the national landscape and removed from mainstream political debate.

As the courts and states have moved forward at a rapid pace on this issue, the rest of the nation has not been far behind. Public polls have shown growing support for same-sex marriage throughout the country, including in "red areas" of the country.

Last March, a poll by ABC News and the Washington Post found that 52% of Republicans and independents who lean Republican under the age of 50 supported same-sex marriage and 81% of people under 30 were in favor. Those trends have only intensified in recent months.

We have also seen more frequent images of same-sex marriage in popular culture. In one of the most popular comedy shows of the past few years, "Modern Family," one of the three families that is followed in this pseudo-documentary is a gay couple raising an adopted child.

While their sexuality is part of the story, it is remarkable how most of the shows don't center on this issue but instead on the normal ups and downs of family life. This season, the show began with these two characters, Mitch and Cam, becoming engaged in the wake of California's decision to allow same-sex marriage.

A growing number of Republicans have already backed away from their opposition to same-sex marriage. Christie is just one of those who have changed the tone of the party on this cultural question -- a group that includes Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Robert Portman and former Vice President Dick Cheney -- in an era when polarization has become stronger on almost every other issue. As Mitt Romney adviser David Kochel said, "Opposing the freedom to marry is a loser for our party and serves to drive away a growing number of voters who have turned the page."

So, even though Christie is taking a risk through his recent announcement, the odds are that many other Republicans won't be far behind. The gay rights movement has profoundly shifted the debate and advanced the cause of gay rights far beyond what anyone had imagined just a few years ago.

By taking one of the most familiar and central conservative arguments of our era, marriage, and embracing it as one of their own, the movement has gained legitimacy for the right of gay Americans to build their own families. There will be huge pressure on Republicans in the coming years to get on the right side of this issue and movement activists have made it easier for leaders in the GOP to come around to their side.

Follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric