You won't hear much about Barack Obama's "evolution" on this issue, at least for the remainder of the campaign.
It only took 8 hours or so for that particular observation to become, ahem, non-operative:
President Obama endorsed same-sex marriage Wednesday, just hours after North Carolina adopted a constitutional amendment to ban it -- one of 41 states where same-sex marriage is illegal.
President Obama's declaration does not change any law, but it does inject a contentious social issue into the race for the White House.
"For me personally it is important for me to affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married," Mr. Obama said.
Got that one wrong. So it goes. The value of my punditry has a direct correlation to the price my readers pay for it.
There are plenty of political implications to Obama's decision to speed up his "evolution," but I'm not thinking about that today. We'll be talking about the politics for the next six months, I'd wager.
In the article I've linked, CBS News points out something that is worth mentioning because, in my view, it's absolutely crucial to understanding the larger dynamic on the topic of gay marriage:
Support for same sex marriage is generational and the president said today his children don't understand why same-sex parents would be treated differently.
"It doesn't make sense to them and frankly, that's the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective," Mr. Obama said.
Emphasis mine. If you have school age children, which I do, one thing becomes immediately evident; they are being taught, in no uncertain terms, that gay marriage is right and proper and that opposing it, for any reason, is wrong. The views you hear from young people on these issues are astonishingly unified on this topic, because questioning the idea of gay marriage is about the same as questioning gravity. It may be different in other parts of the country, or among parochial school kids or home schooled kids, but I'd wager that support for gay marriage among young people is, if not 100%, awfully close, especially among kids who attend public schools. It is a generational thing and those of us who are older are going to lose the argument in the end. Obama is just swimming with the tide.
And because of that impending reality, as I've thought about the issue, I've come to realize that my own views on the subject don't matter especially. I tend to be libertarian on social issues of this sort, because I have little interest in telling people how to live their lives; it's trouble enough living my own life. But since I am a free amateur pundit, I'm going to offer some views anyway.
I worry that we are simply embarking on the latest leg of what's been a 50+ year social experiment that has fundamentally altered the meaning of marriage, at least as far as it has been traditionally understood. And while we can find various counterexamples throughout history, especially if you consult with the right anthropologist, this statement shouldn't be especially controversial -- in most cases, in most societies, the primary purpose of marriage has been to provide a framework for the upbringing of children. Sex is part of the enticement and love is a happy byproduct, but given the amount of arranged marriages that have happened throughout history, romantic love has often been at best a tangential consideration.
The point I'd make is this -- marriage was, at one point, a much different deal than it is today. Plenty of couples take their marriages seriously and view their roles in a traditional sense. I have no reason to believe that plenty of gay couples wouldn't take their marriages seriously. But the traditional reasons and understandings of marriage aren't the same, especially in a world where the message is that marriage is about love, or (in some cases) simply codifying infatuation. We are also living in a world where a lot of people don't bother with marriage when they start a family. And as a practical matter, plenty of women are essentially married to the state because the men who happened to be the biological father of their children aren't available, or even expected, to provide for their progeny. And we are also living in a world where traditional sources of morality, especially certain mainline Protestant denominations, aren't especially interested in fighting for the traditional understanding. My Catholic Church is fighting, but it's getting the hell beat out of it, and a lot of my fellow Catholics are at best ambivalent about the wisdom of the fight. Our associate pastor gave a stemwinder of a homily on the subject last week and while some of the parishioners were applauding, a lot were sitting on their hands.
None of this should be surprising. In our world, in 2012, the traditional understanding of marriage is a tough sell, because the idea of sex when you want, with whomever you want, has a lot of appeal to most people. Once the widespread availability of the birth control pill gave at least some control of female sexuality to something other than the menstrual cycle, or a father with a shotgun, the game changed. And because the goal wasn't preserving a framework but rather seeking "love," no-fault divorce came next, because everyone deserves a chance at happiness, right? And since humans are human and sometimes don't get the birth control right, the legalization of abortion followed that. Each of these changes has had an enormous impact over time and in ways that we're only beginning to understand.
And since love is now the goal and since love is, for many people, simply the practical application of the biological imperative, it's tough to justify keeping gay people out of the party. Normalizing gay relationships was always going to be inevitable in such a world. If marriage is more about mutual self-actualization than it is about making sacrifices for the next generation, there's no good reason to keep gays out of it, at least as a matter of public policy. In some respects, it's almost surprising that all this didn't come sooner. I suspect that if the AIDS epidemic hadn't happened, we'd have reached this moment 15-20 years ago.
Sex/love is a hell of a lot more fun than abstinence. That's a given. And if sex/love is mostly decoupled from its end-stage biological implications, it's going to be the winning message. Even when social norms were a lot different, plenty of people were still looking for a little strange if they thought they could get by with it, because that biological imperative is powerful indeed. I live in a good sized metropolitan area. Over the course of any given day, I'm likely to see dozens of women who are attractive enough to momentarily attract my attention. I don't pursue the matter, but it's tough not to notice them. And I have no reason to assume that women don't notice attractive men, too. Nor, for that matter, would it be particularly surprising that gay men and women see the same things that I see, although their focus would differ.
The nagging, conservative voice inside of me tells me that there are good reasons for traditional marriage, but that voice isn't strong enough to counteract the cacophony of voices that proclaim otherwise, especially when the competing voices celebrate a biological imperative that's plenty strong without the chorus. A lot of people don't hear the nagging voice at all, or choose not to listen. No one enjoys being on the business end of nagging, no matter how sterling the motives of the nagger. So we're going to have gay marriage added to the buffet line of love, sooner rather than later, regardless of what the good citizens of North Carolina might think at the moment, or what is decided here in Minnesota later this year. I fully expect to be dead and gone by the time we take a reckoning of the wisdom of these decisions. Maybe that nagging voice I hear is wrong. But it would not be surprising if, some day in the future, it starts to regain strength.