In 2004, President George W. Bush ran a reelection campaign highlighting the issue of same-sex marriage. He told conservative voters that it would become the law of the land should his opponent prevail, and Evangelicals and white Catholic voters responded kindly, helping him secure a solid victory.
Just 8 short years later, President Barack Obama stood in front of the nation on Monday during his second inaugural and declared, “for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.” He not only offered public support for a position that would be political suicide just a few years ago, but added a defining moment for gay rights, the riot at Stonewall, to the litany of great American moments in civil rights history.
Is Barack Obama a radical progressive who somehow eked out a victory over a hapless Republican candidate? Nah. The center is shifting.
About ten years ago, when Massachusetts brought same-sex marriage stateside, just under a third of all Americans believed that it should be legal. Today, support has risen to nearly half. It’s a possibility that, as early as 2020, the two major parties will nominate candidates for the presidency who support same-sex marriage. Those in their 20s largely view denying same-sex couples a right to marry as immoral, a marked difference from their parents and grandparents who once viewed homosexuality itself as immoral.
President Obama and Democrats in Congress are likely to introduce a sweeping immigration reform bill, one that should garner significant Republican support, and one that may very likely contain a provision to keep same-sex partners united. Will Catholic and Evangelical leaders, who have for a long time been some of the most ardent support of immigration, support such a bill, or stay on the sidelines or even fight it? Will Catholic social service agencies continue to shut down programs and services rather than comply with state-mandated non-discrimination laws against gay people? When federal and state anti-poverty efforts include sections supporting the LGBT community, will these groups pull their political and practical support?
This is not a question of changing theologies to fit the times, but adapting to how religious institutions operate in a public square that has moved beyond those teachings. Divorce is still verboten in the Catholic Church, but there aren’t many campaigns to restrict civil divorce laws.
It’s often noted that the church measures history in centuries, not years. But in just a few years, institutions that were once considered mainstream may find themselves described as fringe. How they react to an issue that many consider the great civil rights issue of our time may affect how that institution survives, politically and demographically, in the years to come.