I am supposed to be heartened by North Carolina's vote this week against same-sex marriage.
After all, I am a social and religious conservative who lives in a small town in Louisiana, the deepest part of the Deep South. We Southerners have held the line for tradition and moral truth about marriage every time the issue has been put on the ballot here. Given how decisive the North Carolina vote was, and given that gay marriage proponents have lost in every state, even culturally liberal California, it is tempting to think we can stand athwart history yelling, "Stop!" If only. I think ours is a lost cause. And we Southerners know something about lost causes.
I recently moved back to my hometown, a Louisiana country village of 2,000 people, after living away for nearly 30 years. Though my generation was the first to attend racially integrated schools from the beginning of our education, the relative comity that exists here now between the races - half the town is black, the other half white - is, as you would expect, partly a result of familiarity. Integrating state schools would not have happened if elites (I use the term descriptively, not pejoratively) in the 50s and 60s had not held the federal judiciary and imposed their moral views over popular local will.
That is only part of the story, though, and not the most important part. Yes, I went to school with black children. But despite this it was not as hard as you might think to maintain one's prejudices. Nothing in the local culture actively challenged racist beliefs. Churches avoided controversy by ignoring the issue. So, we Southern children of the 70s and beyond were catechised on the wrongness of racism primarily by television and media culture. It was impossible to watch TV back then and not notice that the conventional racial opinions held by local whites were treated as backward and immoral. They were, in fact, precisely that, but my point here has to do with media ecology. Mass media framed the debate over race in America in a way that stigmatised white racism, and made old-fashioned views obsolete and even embarrassing. The rigid old way of thinking, happily, did not survive a single generation.
In my town we have not achieved a Valhalla of tolerance, but social progress on the race question has been breathtaking. Whatever views people may hold privately, only the most truculent racists - the sort one rarely sees in public life these days - would favour laws and policies that were commonplace here as late as the mid-60s. Racism is seen as trashy - as vulgar - even here in a former segregationist stronghold. This tells us something about the future of gay marriage, given the dominance of the "civil rights" narrative in the public square. As is commonly known, polling data show a stark generational divide among Americans on same-sex marriage. The younger the voter, the greater the support. The demographic tidal wave on this issue is undeniable.
Gay marriage opponents like to tell themselves that people get more conservative as they age - true, in general, but unlikely in this case. As long as the traditionalist position on same-sex marriage, almost universally held only 25 years ago, is treated as irrational hatred and nothing but by the media, business, and social elites, there will be powerful social and psychological pressure to shun it. American business culture is increasingly pro-gay. If the US Supreme Court constitutionalises same-sex marriage the cultural, legal and financial pressure (through the tax code) against conservative churches to abandon orthodox Christian teaching will be enormous.
Leaving aside the role of elites in forming mass opinion, it is not sufficiently appreciated why so many younger Americans support same-sex marriage. It fits easily with what they already believe about the nature of marriage, of sex, of liberty, and of human nature. The high level of religiosity shown in US polls is deceiving. More recent, comprehensive research by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, and sociologist Christian Smith, indicates that young Americans are not only abandoning formal religious observance in large numbers (while still claiming to be "spiritual"), but they see religion primarily in therapeutic terms. That is, they believe that God wants us to be nice, happy and self-fulfilled - and that's about it. As the late sociologist Philip Rieff observed in his great 60s work of cultural analysis, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Western culture had by then abandoned the Christian moral matrix, especially on sexual matters.
Given the haplessness of the churches as a counter-cultural force to the hedonism and individualism celebrated by popular culture, it should surprise no-one that arguments, Christian and otherwise, for traditional marriage are hard for young people to conceptualise. Traditionalists keep winning battles, but we have lost the war at the level of ideas. Our moral and religious claims strike many as illiberal (therefore incorrect) and sociological contentions about the integral importance of traditional family structure to society's health are cold-hearted abstractions. The collapse of Christianity's cultural authority has been profound. Prejudice - either in the bad sense of mindless bigotry, or the good, Burkean sense - is the only thing keeping gay marriage at bay. This will not last, especially as the social, legal, and commercial price for holding fast to tradition increases, as it certainly will, now that same-sex marriage commands the high ground in the US social and cultural hierarchy.
Gay marriage completes the institutionalisation of the sexual revolution, against which the forces of social conservatism and religious tradition have been impotent. As pleasing as ballot box victories are, I see no reason for the long defeat to reverse, at least not in my lifetime. Like it or not, this is what it means to live after the passing of the Christian era.
From the BBC.