“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.”
While I don’t couch it as a character defect, just a blown tactical opoortunity, Romney did miss a moment last week to make the kind of statement of purpose that Jeff alludes to here, and that I touched on last week, but not in the context of the Washington Post’s hit job. He could have used his speech at a relligious college last weekend to make the point that principled Americans can differ on the definition of marriage; that his reading of the Constitution and his preference for states to decide their own social cultures leads him another way, but that he respects the voices of those who think the issue is a clear-cut matter of justice. He also might have added that conservatives should take comfort from the fact that after decades of marriage attracting some cultural derision in smart, chic circles, its a good thing that the institution is being embraced by a cultural left that was skeptical to say the least in the seventies, when Gallup showed all time lows in faithfulness and expectations of monogamy.
Had Romney gone that route, he would have been criticized on the left and the right for trimming on a moral point. But he would have evoked the tones around a lot of dinner tables last week, and he would have sounded like a leader whom the people at those dinner tables could get used to seeing on their screens for four years.