Last week I attended a regular meeting at a government agency I work with, looking forward to a great breakfast. Unfortunately, apparently on short notice, the sumptuous breakfast sandwiches catered by Chick-fil-A for the past two years were replaced with soggy sausage rolls well past their prime. The chicken culture wars have come home to roost. I guess it was just too controversial for government to patronize a company whose founder favors traditional marriage.
I always knew it would come to this. As a conscientious objector in the culture wars, over the years I've written columns for several newspapers proposing same sex marriage in the public sphere while allowing religious institutions the freedom to opt out. I want to give gays and lesbians the opportunity to marry and divorce, but must Villanova hold same sex marriages in the chapel to get NSF funding and Pell grants, without which no university can survive? Must we force religious institutions to choose between their sacred beliefs and continued existence? With a little creativity, can't we craft policies protecting both LBGT rights and religious rights?
Each time, I received numerous emails and letters from religious believers favoring compromise, and equally numerous missives from the secular left calling me a bigot. Only a single religious response ever condemned me to burn in hell, and I'm pretty sure that letter was a joke, given its florid prose and return address of a vacant lot across from a high school.
The differential responses from the secular left and religious right reflect two things. First, for conservatives religion is religion. For liberals, politics is religion. For liberals, the state is God and political bumper stickers are the equivalent of crosses and chadors. Politics defines one's very identity, making compromise difficult.
And in politics, the Golden Rule is smash thy enemy -- not love thy neighbor. I say this as a former elected official. On same sex marriage, leftists want to make history as part of the next civil rights crusade, without actually being beaten by Southern sheriffs or shot at by the KKK. They carry out their crusade with all the zeal of the most fanatical fundamentalists.
Second, as Andrew Sullivan points out, most religious folks have a favorite uncle who is gay or aunt who is lesbian. Traditional religious believers may fear their relations will burn in hell, but do not want them to suffer here on earth because they know and like them. I've spent most of my life in academia, and can say with some conviction that most professors have no friends or colleagues who are out-of-the-closet traditionalists. Academics have little familiarity with and no affection for traditional beliefs and believers. As UCLA political scientist Tim Groseclose shows in his book "Left Turn," the same holds true for reporters.
President Obama, whom I like in many respects and have praised in two scholarly books, has never lived in a red state and seemingly never had a close friend who took the Bible, Talmud, or Koran seriously, except perhaps Jeremiah Wright. It's easy for the president to see the traditionally religious as flyover country fools clutching their God and guns, to be outlasted and outsmarted rather than taken seriously. Observe the confidence of Barack Obama on the same sex marriage issue, compared to the unease of Mitt Romney. The president is sure he is on the right side of history. Romney just wants the issue to go away, because he has friends and probably even convictions on both sides.
In a nutshell, that explains why Republicans are the better party to craft a compromise on same sex marriage, assuming anyone wants compromise.
Robert Maranto (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the 21st Century chair in Leadership at the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, and co-author (with Michael McShane) of "President Obama and Education Reform."