When President Obama announced his support for gay marriage, supporters and pundits declared it symbolic of a historic shift in American attitudes. But as the attention fades, the fact remains that voters in 31 states have rejected gay marriage and more are lining up to do so.
That leaves opponents of gay marriage to wonder if they’re lagging behind history-in-the-making or leading it. Some say that, despite their convictions, they believe marriage between two men or two women will inevitably become law across the U.S. Others say that Obama’s announcement strengthens their resolve, and will not slow the drive to protect an institution they consider vital to the nation’s survival.
Backers of same-sex marriage often argue that, as more people see friends, family members and neighbors in committed gay relationships, misgivings fade. But opponents cite their own specific, personal experiences — as a missionary working with teens from single-mother households or a nurse treating a suicidal gay man — to explain their belief that the only way forward is for marriage to be limited to one man and one woman.
Many say that while their opposition to gay marriage begins with a reading of the Bible, it is confirmed by the challenges and observations of everyday life in a country whose values they see as crumbling. The politics of recent days, they say, will not change that.
That view is echoed in interviews with opponents from around the country, with some of the strongest conviction in states where gay marriage has been a hot issue.
In Minnesota, where a vote is set for this fall on an amendment similar to North Carolina’s, missionary John Tolo said he’d long admired Obama for rising to become the nation’s first black president. But he lamented Obama’s stand on gay marriage as an unprincipled pursuit of campaign cash.
The president’s stand contradicts the lessons of his own experience, said Tolo, recalling his own drug use and multiple sexual relationships after his parents divorced and, more recently, his work in a poor part of St. Paul.
In the Frogtown neighborhood, where Tolo’s group has bought and is renovating an abandoned house that he says is a gathering point for teens, too many children grow up in households where there’s “this fundamental breakdown of having a healthy father role model and a healthy mother role model,” he said. “There’s this major identity issue where men are just missing.”
Tolo said that, while he supports the idea of some kind of legal recognition for same-sex couples, marriage is a sacred template for raising and caring for children as God intended. For government to try to broaden marriage risks undermining that, while infringing on the rights of Christians to define their own institutions.
“It’s like saying Muslim women should no longer be allowed to wear burkas. To me, that’s deeply offensive,” Tolo said. “It’s almost like the government wants to come and rewrite the Bible and, to me, that’s a position that I don’t think the government should take.”
In North Carolina, Jennifer Cockerham’s support for a gay marriage ban is rooted in a childhood spent in Bible Belt churches, warned against fornication and adultery. She said tornadoes and other cataclysmic events are a sign that God disapproves of the way Americans are living.
But with those beliefs as a foundation, Cockerham said certain experiences during her 23 years as a nurse cemented her opposition to gay marriage.
“My first encounter, personally, with a homosexual was when I had a patient who tried to commit suicide” after an argument with a lover, said Cockerham, who lives in Kernersville, N.C. “I felt really sorry for him because he had almost succeeded with the suicide attempt and I felt that he had so much more to live for than that particular lifestyle that had brought him there.”
Visiting a daughter at college near San Francisco, she was dismayed by the openness of gay and lesbian couples.
“I know that made me feel uncomfortable and also made me feel concerned with the fact that they just needed the Lord. I felt they needed a heavenly father who could love them and teach them differently,” she says.
On the night of the North Carolina vote, Cockerham stayed up until 1:30 a.m. watching reports of the results that were a fulfillment of her prayers.
Since Obama’s announcement the next day, the president is in her prayers. “I can ask God for mercy for him,” she says, “and I think the silent majority has finally spoken here in North Carolina.”
Another opponent of gay marriage, April Brown of Lewisville, Texas, said the North Carolina vote and Obama’s announcement are just the latest in a continuum of events, both public and personal, that have shaped her thinking on the issue over the past four or five years.
“I was evolving, definitely, just like the president,” said Brown, the mother of four.
Until a few years ago, Brown said she was heading toward acceptance of the idea of civil unions for gay couples. But she was troubled after reading about a lawsuit filed by a gay man against the eHarmony dating site, demanding it provide matchmaking for gays and lesbians. That struck a chord because Brown knew two straight couples who had met through eHarmony and gotten married. While same-sex couples might argue they had a right to be together, what gave gays or lesbians the right, she wondered, to demand a private business change its ways to suit them?
Brown, who describes herself as conservative, said she became more concerned as demands grew among gay-rights advocates for a right to marriage, which she regards as a religious institution.
“I just began kind of questioning, what do they really want?” she said.
Brown said she doesn’t want to tell people they can’t be together. But the word “marriage” means something more, the joining of a man and a woman that is critical for society to sustain itself. “That’s when it goes from a right to a privilege,” she said.
Still, Brown is uncertain what recent events may say about the direction of American society. In the short-run, she believes conservative voters who were skeptical of Mitt Romney could be galvanized to support his candidacy. She notes that polls show a majority of Americans now approve of same-sex relationships. But votes like the one in North Carolina show they will not embrace gay marriage, she said.
Others, though, are increasingly concerned that such votes will not be enough.
Tim Arensmeier, pastor at the Sonoma Valley Community Church in Sonoma, Calif., said that despite the 2008 approval of a proposition barring same-sex weddings in a state known for its liberal politics, he is certain the momentum is shifting toward widespread legalization of gay marriage. Obama’s announcement is one more step in an exorable march toward that end, he said. When the California proposition was overturned by a U.S. district judge, it convinced him that even a majority opposed to gay marriage is destined to fail.
Arensmeier, who is 71, said he would retire rather than agree to preside over such a marriage. But he remains troubled by what he sees around him. One of his daughters and her husband are in favor of gay marriage. So is one of his grandsons.
“We still get along and I feel like it’s possible to disagree with someone robustly and still be courteous and polite and have fun with them. I mean, Jesus said love everybody, for crying out loud,” Arensmeier said. “Is that the way the country is going to go? I think it probably is.”
But others who oppose gay marriage say the battle must be won.
When Mary and Rob Robertson of Damascus, Md., went to a rally in January at the state capital to protest legalization of gay marriage, they did so thinking of their four young children.
“I can just tell you that the confusion that is happening in our world in terms of morality will just wreak havoc for years down the road,” Mary Robertson said. “My children, we have to explain the whole situation about homosexuals and lesbians and my son just says to me, ‘Do I have to decide who I like?’”
Robertson and others who oppose gay marriage say they’re concerned they’ll be labeled as extremists, when what they want is to protect their families and institutions.
“I just want you to know that we love everyone,” she said. “But there’s rightly ordered things in our lives, and if you look at a man’s body and a woman’s body, those two bodies fit together perfectly. And that’s what God intended.”