Barack Obama's decision to support gay marriage has led to a debate about how it may influence the presidential election and the future of gay marriage in the United States. But the underlying reasons why gay marriage is so controversial in America are being overlooked. While there is generally no consensus for or against gay marriage in other Western nations, the issue has far more political importance in America, where it is the object of an exceptionally intense debate.
Only a few U.S. states allow gay marriage: Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, and Vermont. Multiple other states have passed constitutional amendments barring gay marriage, as North Carolina recently did. But the fact that gay marriage is usually illegal in America is not exceptional in the Western world. It is only lawful in Belgium, Canada, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden thus far. The considerable contrasts one witnesses within the United States are what is remarkable. Several U.S. states are among the world's trailblazing jurisdictions in recognizing gay marriage and gay rights, whereas the leaders of various other states would endorse the criminalization of homosexuality altogether, as is now the case in much of the Third World.
Indeed, after the Supreme Court held in 2003 that consensual sex between men could not be criminalized, many social conservatives were appalled. The Court's 6-3 decision concerned a Texas law that was virtually never enforced. The majority held that the law was unconstitutional because it infringed on fundamental liberty and reflected "stigma" against homosexuals. Justice Antonin Scalia, admired by numerous Republicans as a model judge, wrote a sharp dissent. Scalia posited that the criminalization of gay sex is a legitimate state interest. "Many Americans do not want persons who openly engage in homosexual conduct as partners in their business, as scoutmasters for their children, as teachers in their children's schools, or as boarders in their home," he underlined.
In other words, besides gay marriage, the underlying question of homosexuality is much more controversial in America than in most other Western nations. A 2011 poll of five Western countries found the United States to be the least tolerant on the matter. Sixty percent of Americans felt that homosexuality should be accepted by society, a far lower proportion than the people of Spain (91 percent), Germany (87 percent), France (86 percent), and Britain (81 percent). The views of Republicans mainly accounted for the difference.
Both liberals and conservatives in most other Western countries have evolved towards modern norms of tolerance on gay rights. However, a large segment of conservative America has strongly resisted this process. Certainly, conservatives in other Western nations are typically more traditional-minded than their liberal counterparts and many do oppose gay marriage. Still, they are distinctly more tolerant than Republicans. For instance, Nicolas Sarkozy, France's former conservative president, opposed gay marriage but neither he nor his party made the issue a big part of their platform. Meanwhile, in Great Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party have led efforts to legalize gay marriage.
Moreover, until "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" (DADT) was recently repealed, America stood alone in the West in continuing to ban gays from the military, a policy characteristic of Third World, authoritarian, and Islamist nations. Even though a majority of Republican citizens supported DADT's repeal, only 8 Republican Senators and 15 Republican House Representatives voted to end the discriminatory policy. They notably ignored how DADT's repeal was supported by certain top military figures and a comprehensive Pentagon study. The GOP's stance illustrated how its leaders commonly embrace the religious right's views. After all, it was John McCain, one of the most moderate Republicans of modern times, who led the opposition to DADT's repeal.
Why is conservative America so out of step with the rest of the West when it comes to modern norms of tolerance? One major factor is that conservative America is essentially the only part of the modern Western world where a fundamentalist approach to Christianity is prevalent, as I noted in a prior article. Religious fundamentalists strongly support an ultra-traditional patriarchal family model. That not only explains why women's reproductive rights like abortion and contraception are exceptionally controversial in conservative America, but also why gay rights cause such polemic.
The clash over gay rights is an extension of the conflict between traditional patriarchy and the more egalitarian gender system of modern times. Patriarchy seeks to affirm unambiguous gender roles and obligations. Men are expected to be "masculine" and women to be "feminine." Homosexuality inherently challenges the foundations of traditional patriarchy since men seemingly assume a "feminine" identity and women a "masculine" one. Homosexuality consequently imperils the religious right's conception of the family, which is fundamentally patriarchal. Because religious conservatives also tend to equate sexuality with procreation, at least in principle, they commonly find homosexuality taboo. These are among the reasons why the religious right laments that the recognition of gay marriage amounts to an "assault on the family" or an effort to "destroy society." What may sound like hyperbole is true from the point of view of the patriarchal traditionalist.
The legalization of same-sex marriage further threatens the American religious right's conception of marriage as a sacred institution. Religious conservatives fear that it will be at risk if its definition becomes a mere matter of secular government policy, as noted by Naomi Cahn and June Carbone in Red Families v. Blue Families. The "sanctity of marriage" will be further undermined if the institution is open to "profane" homosexual unions. Unlike many American conservatives, liberals tend to regard marriage primarily as an expression of love and commitment, often taking God out of the equation.
The religious factor behind opposition to gay marriage is less present elsewhere in the Western world, where indifference or skepticism towards religion is far more common than in America. Approaches to religion can also differ significantly. Contemporary European Christians, for instance, are rather moderate in their faiths, particularly when compared to American evangelicals. While the Catholic Church condemns homosexuality and same-sex marriage, its influence is nowadays limited in Europe except in a few nations, especially Poland, Italy, and Ireland. Additionally, like numerous American Catholics, European Catholics frequently disregard the Church's teachings on questions like contraception, abortion, and gay rights. In sum, once religious conservatism is absent or moderate, opposition to gay marriage becomes less intense.
Of course, homophobia is not only spurred by religious conservatism. It can equally reflect uneasiness or animosity towards people who are perceived as different, just like racism, sexism or xenophobia. In that regard, homophobia presumably exists in all countries to a lesser or greater extent. Yet, the extraordinary weight of Christian fundamentalism in conservative America exacerbates concerns about sexual morality.
The question of gay rights illustrates the great polarization between contemporary liberal America and conservative America. An international comparison suggests, however, that liberal America is much closer to other Western nations than to conservative America when it comes to embracing modern norms of tolerance.
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