One tends to think of the progression of same-sex marriage as an accelerated version of how abortion came to be legal in the land. People started to clamor for it. Some states started to look into it, some states legalized it and then SCOTUS stepped in and made it so. Certainly proponents of same-sex marriage are trying to drive such a narrative, but something different is going on.
For one thing it is more than a little “accelerated” in comparison of abortion. It is downright forced. This was illustrated strongly in a talk radio event I attended this past weekend. The very conservative panel split along interesting lines. On the one hand there were the younger people, and one older ally, that pointed out their generation simply was not fired up about it. The older ally pointed out that the issue of religious freedom was distinct and had political traction even is same sex marriage did not. On the other hand most of the older people on the panel were making slippery slope arguments that same sex marriage was just the latest attack on not merely religious freedom, but religion generally, and that despite the ambivalence of the younger generation, we had to fight and fight hard.
The talk radio audience is largely older, so it is not surprising that that latter view resonated with the room. Certainly things like what is happening in Houston and Coeur d’Alene would add credence to the latter view. But what we really have here is not an issue problem, but a messaging one.
The younger argument is, for their generation, well framed. They are libertarian with regards to same-sex marriage, as my generation was about abortion. But the over reach that is happening in places like Houston and Coeur d’Alene really are religious freedom questions, not same sex marriage questions. They can get traction across generational lines. But it was also clear from the room at the event that such subtle messaging is a bit too subtle for the older generation.
Aside from the speed and overly judicious means by which same sex marriage is spreading, this is where the abortion analogy begins to break down. Abortion really was the dirty little secret of history. While often illegal or illegitimate it has been practiced in various forms pretty much forever. Most people, rightly, think that the same thing is true about homosexuality. But same sex marriage is something quite different from simple homosexual activity. It is without historical precedent. Many other of what we consider aberrant forms of marriage (polygamy, for example) have historical antecedents, but there are simply none for same-sex marriage. From the perspective of the older generation which has learned history not merely propaganda, the idea of same-sex marriage is so outside of human practice as to be unworthy of discussion, let alone serious consideration.
One of the younger members of the panel pointed out that same-sex marriage is advancing because no one is arguing against it. He was sympathetic that in light of history, we were caught flat-footed, but that we had to respond. What I heard when I heard that was a young man asking to be parented. Of course this guy is married with small children of his own, but from the perspective of my age that’s what it sounded like. Some things are so rudimentary, so fundamental to human functioning that they should not be argued for or against. To argue is to admit that the opposing view has some merit. Somethings are dismissed, not argued. For the younger generation to give credence, not dismissal, to arguments for same sex marriage is a lack of parenting, not rhetoric.
Of course, at this juncture there is an enormous amount of cultural analysis that could and should take place. But from a purely political standpoint, can parenting be accomplished in political messaging? And if so, how?
I am not smart enough to figure out the complete answer to that question, but there is one component of it that I know is necessary. Our political leadership has to begin again to lead, not merely cater to the voter. Much of the urgency that we see on the same sex marriage issue right now is because the lack of political leadership in the nation is so painfully obvious that almost anyone can figure out that the next administration will be better at it, regardless of who is elected.
But this also sets an agenda for the next Congress. Should the polling hold and the Republicans gain both houses, they have got to lead, not merely pander for votes. Because of the administration their leadership may be fruitless, but they have to be seen to lead. Generals in losing battles are still leaders – winning is not the point right now – leadership is. Such leadership will embolden the older generation to do the same in small ways throughout the nation and the cultural tides may begin to shift. If a Republican Congress fails to lead they will be just as to blame for the cultural degradation of our society as those that openly call for so much that is symptomatic of the decline.
It is high time we older folks acted like it.