Friday, April 17, 2009

Cricket and the gay marriage debate

Cricket has got to be the most boring sport ever invented by mankind. I wouldn’t advise watching it but if you happen to see a match you immediately notice that the spectators aren’t doing much “spectating. “They tend to read books, have picnics on the grass or even take naps – something unheard of when it comes to baseball, rugby or football (either American or not). Cricket tends to linger on and on and on. It seems that games that began in 1923 are still being played with the great, great grandchildren of the original players substituting.

One reason for the boredom of cricket, in my uninformed opinion, is that one team can play for hours before their opponents get a turn. It is entirely possible, that after the first team has finished playing, the outcome of the game is pretty much known. The team that plays second could well come into the game facing insurmountable odds and knowing it. (A Test game can linger on for five days.)

That brings me to something our friends at Reason magazine said regarding the gay marriage debate. They describe an article by Cathy Young as saying “we are in for another long and bloody chapter in America’s culture wars.”

With all due respect, I say poppycock! Let us take the prime example of the culture war: abortion. When the Supreme Court legalized abortion, the public opinion polls were split. That split has hardly budged over the years. If you look at the chart below, it shows how Gallup measured support over a thirty-year period. With just slight variations, there has been hardly any change.

What we are seeing in the gay marriage debate is something quite different—quite unique. There has been a relatively large shift in public opinion in a very short period of time. The Pew survey found that there has been a 10-point shift from 1996 to 2007. Those opposing gay marriage dropped from 65% to 55% (and even that is deceptive). Those supporting gay marriage increased from 27% to 36%. I say the former is deceptive because support for gay civil unions is considerably higher. Pew found that in 2003 45% supported civil unions, but by 2006 54% did, while 42% opposed them. But some of the 42% opposing civil unions do so because they support gay marriage.

One of the most dishonest tactics used by gay-marriage opponents is that they quote “opposition” to marriage as being equivalent to supporting the position that gays should have no legal status equal to—or similar to—marriage. In fact, only one-third of the public agrees with them, while two-thirds support some sort of legal status for gay couples. In this debate, it is far easier to convert a supporter of civil unions to marriage than to convince them to go the other way.

Consider the demographics of the opposition. The most anti-equality groups are old people and evangelicals. The opinions of the elderly show past trends, not current ones. Evangelicalism may be the bastion of opposition, but one in seven support gay marriage and about one-third would support civil unions. It gets even worse for the anti-equality crowd when the trend among evangelicals is investigated.
According to experts, there is a notable generational difference at play between how younger and older evangelicals approach the controversial issues of abortion or gay marriage. For [Paul] Froese, the reason is simple: exposure.
"I've been to so many churches where a preacher will say something about homosexuality, and all these young people will get upset about it," said Brandon Rhodes, a 22-year-old evangelical from Portland, Ore. "We have a much more nuanced and compassionate view. When your sister or your friend is out of the closet, you can't just say, 'Oh you sinner.'"
According to "The New Gay Teenager," a book published by Harvard University Press last year, the average gay person now comes out just before or after graduating high school.
The chances of a young evangelical making it through their teens or their early 20s without befriending someone of a different religious background or sexual orientation are getting remarkably small -- and, experts agree, this new reality is beginning to change a generation's approach to these issues.
According to preliminary studies by The Barna Group, "18-29-year-old, born-again Christians are some 15 percent more likely to find homosexuality morally acceptable than their religious elders.
Baylor University exemplifies the split within evangelicalism. While Baylor is a Baptist university, the student newspaper editorialized in favor of gay marriage. The student editors voted 5 to 2 in support of gay marriage. Older Baptists, who control the university, had fits and came down heavy on those editors. But harsh discipline and condemnation is hardly likely to change the trend. The fact is, younger evangelicals are not buying into the antigay agenda of their parents.

This is not just a problem for the anti-equality movement in general, but for evangelicalism itself. One result of the heavy-handed pressure seen at Baylor, and the Christian obsession with gay people, is that evangelical youth are becoming more and more disillusioned with their own religion. The Barna Group, which surveys opinion trends about evangelicalism, wrote: just a decade, many of the Barna measures of the Christian image have shifted substantially downward, fueled in part by a growing sense of disengagement and disillusionment among young people. For instance, a decade ago the vast majority of Americans outside the Christian faith, including young people, felt favorably toward Christianity’s role in society. Currently, however, just 16% of non-Christians in their late teens and twenties said they have a "good impression" of Christianity.
A good deal of this was due entirely to evangelicalism’s role in legally bashing the rights of gays. Barna says 91% of non-churchgoers felt that Christianity was too anti-gay. But what was disconcerting was that 80% of young evangelicals said the same thing. Religion & Ethics conducted a poll of political attitudes among evangelicals contrasting the views of those under 30 to those over 30. The results are rather dramatic on gay marriage. This poll showed that among older evangelicals support for gay marriage was limited to 9%—though I think one out of ten is better than one could hope for. Among evangelicals 18-29, the percentage triples to 26%. Another 32% of young evangelicals support civil unions. This means a majority of young evangelicals (58%) support either marriage or civil unions for gay couples. This is not far off the national polls numbers of 66% supporting one or the other of these options.

Even this stronghold of anti-gay attitudes has a significant fifth column, their own young people, who want the church to change its values. Surely, this means that as older evangelicals go to their final reward, evangelicals who don’t share their prejudices will replace them. In addition, the numbers of Americans who consider themselves affiliated with these conservative sects has either stagnated or declined, depending on the denomination. For instance, the percentage of Americas self-identified as Baptists, declined from 19.3% in 1990 to 15.8% in 2008. Those described generically as Pentecostal hardly budged, from 1.8% to 2.4% over the same period, while the Assemblies of God, Church of God, Jehovah’s Witesses, Seventh Day Adventists and Mormons stagnated over that period.

When it comes to the four main regions of the county, a plurality (or even majority), support civil unions for gays in all but the South. Even in the South 46% of the population supports civil unions while 50% oppose them. In the East 62% are supportive, but the most support is in the more libertarian West where 66% are supportive.

Another important trend is that anti-equality forces can’t rely on the closet being their ally. As mentioned above, gay people are admitting their sexuality at younger and younger ages. In addition, more gay people are being open about their sexuality than at any time in the past. A Pew Survey found that 40% of Americans now say they have a friend or relative who is gay. The percentage is highest among women, young people, college graduates, liberals and mainline Christians and lower amongst men, conservatives, the elderly and Republicans. One predictable result is: “People who have a close gay friend or family member are more likely to support gay marriage….”

It doesn’t make sense to argue that homosexuals are less prevalent in conservative families than in liberal families. Yet 59% of liberal Democrats know gay people while only 33% of conservative Republicans do. While 47% of mainstream Protestants know a gay individual, only 31% of evangelicals do. This indicates there are still a large number of closeted gay people in those demographic groups where opposition to marriage equality is highest. These individuals are like “gay marriage landmines” waiting to explode. The Pew survey shows that if someone knows a gay person they are twice as likely to support gay marriage: 55% to 25%.

A unfortunate incident, that perhaps could have come out differently, occurred when the US Supreme Court was considering sodomy laws, in 1986, in the Bowers v. Hardwick case. Justice Powell, considered a swing vote on the matter, was being fed anti-gay material by his one law clerk, Michael Mosman, a hard-core Mormon. Powell mentioned to another clerk, Cabell Chinnis, “I don’t believe I’ve ever met a homosexual.” Chinnes weakly replied: “Certainly you have, but you just don’t know that they are.” Chinnes was referring to himself and to several previous law clerks in Powell’s office. But when Powell voted with the majority (since overturned in Lawrence v. Texas) he did so believing he had never known a gay person. Could the same be said of anyone appointed to the bench these days? If anything, the trend in the courts, especially given existing precedents, will be more strongly toward equality of rights. (For the record Mosman was later appointed to the U.S. District Court by Bush the Lesser. Mosman briefly stopped Oregon’s civil union legislation for same-sex couples from taking effect.)

As more gay people admit their sexuality, support for gay marriage increases. The higher rate of closeted gays in anti-gay circles indicates that as fewer and fewer gays remain closeted, the greatest shift in support for gay marriage is likely to come from those people who today are most inclined to oppose it. Certainly, as younger evangelicals are more supportive of gay people, the trend in those circles will be for more honesty in regards to sexual orientation. Homosexuality, being a natural phenomenon, doesn’t bypass conservative Christianity. A more supportive culture around evangelicalism means that gays within evangelicalism will be more likely to come out as well. Already, gay evangelicals are challenging their own religious culture with groups like SoulForce actively confronting young evangelicals at Christian colleges across the country.

SoulForce shows the divide among evangelicals quite clearly. At campus after campus, students wanted to dialogue and talk. Campus officials tended to respond by demanding that the gay evangelical visitors be forcibly expelled or arrested. Even at the ultra-fundamentalist Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell, a large number of students left the campus to talk to the SoulForce students who had come for dialogue. One SoulForce student wrote that a student brought two other students from campus for discussion with her: “I could see his heart opening and his mind growing as he and his friends questioned the ideas that their school told them were the inarguable words of God…. At one point, one of these students even apologized for his own past closed mindedness.”

When all these trends are looked at, I can’t see the “culture war” on gay marriage being nearly as long and bloody as Cathy Young apparently thinks. For me, the entire “battle” is like one of those cricket games where the final outcome is known well in advance. Now and then something might happen that gets a lot of attention, but none of it is likely to change the outcome. And, of the many issues currently being debated, this is one of the very few which I think will be decided in a way consistent with libertarian principles. For me, the gay marriage debate is no longer a battle, but an island of hope in a sea of despair. It is one issue I can point to and say, “Well, at least that is a battle we’re winning.” Actually, I’d go much further. It is a battle that has been won already; the rest is mop-up.

The marriage “war” is not between social conservatives and social liberals as much as it is a war between our society and our government. Society has already changed. Equality rights for gay relationships is largely accepted among all groups of Americans. What we have is a political system that is trailing behind social attitudes. Unlike the debate on interracial marriage, where the law changed before social attitudes did, gay marriage is a case where social attitudes have preceded legal change. In is really a case of society evolving faster than the political process can accommodate. We are just waiting for politicians to catch up with the rest of us.

Photo: No that's not a crowd at a cricket match. This is a photo of members of SoulForce meeting outside campus limits at Falwell's Liberty University with students wishing to talk with them.

UPDATE: As an indication of the shift in the public's view note that the Houston Chronicle recently reported that 43 percent of residents of the Houston area "believe gay marriages should have the same legal status as heterosexual ones—up from 32 percent just two years ago." It becomes harder and harder for conservatives to label marriage equality as "San Francisco values" when almost half the residents of Houston, Texas line up in favor of those values.

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