Now that Obama has completed his evolution on same-sex marriage (nearly -- he still gives states a pass, echoing the states'-rights argument that justified segregation), Mitt Romney's position on LGBT equality is under new scrutiny. Indeed, Obama's morally courageous (if also politically calculated) announcement that he now supports same-sex marriage has the potential to rapidly accelerate another evolution toward something that terrifies social conservatives, though it shouldn't: call it "the new morality."
For years, political observers on both sides of the aisle viewed terms like "morality" and "values" as code for things that only homophobes cared about. It was the so-called "values voters" who swamped the polls in 2004 to vote against same-sex marriage while also pulling the lever for Bush (though the narrative that Kerry lost that election because of it is wildly exaggerated). Gay issues were something political consultants raised when they wanted to distract voters from recessions or wars, and they were always raised to sell gays down the river.
Even if you suspect that Obama's pro-gay announcement this week is an effort to distract voters from the struggling economy, something critical has changed: LGBT issues are now being used as a wedge in our favor, not against us. Finally! If moral issues are going to be used to change the subject, at least morality is being defined in a more genuine way than the sectarian moralizing that passed for morality in the hands of the religious right.
After Obama's announcement, Mitt Romney suddenly seemed a figure from the dark ages, just how the Obama campaign has sought to cast him in its latest video, entitled, "Romney: Backwards on Equality." And Romney has played right into their hands. Placing himself to the right even of George W. Bush on an issue around which attitudes have changed drastically just since his presidency, Romney reacted to Obama's evolution by digging in his heels. He said that states are free to bar a gay man from entering a hospital to sit by the bed of his dying partner of 50 years. However disappointing Obama's own states'-rights position remains, his reluctance was always about the word "marriage" and was never so extreme as to allow this sort of rank cruelty -- the height of immorality.
Romney has even said he opposes civil unions "if they're identical to marriage other than by name." Ponder that point for a minute, and the way he expressed it, because it's telling: Most opponents of same-sex marriage, including Romney, claim that they are not anti-gay and that they believe in the principle of equal treatment. That's why civil unions have become the fallback position for many, because it seems to allow them to support equality while simply claiming an allegiance to the word "marriage." (I don't support this distinction, but at least it has a certain logic.) Yet here Romney admits that what matters to him is giving gay people fewer rights than straight people. Holding onto the "m" word is not enough for Romney types; they need to feel superior. Romney's position can be based on no other principle than casting gay people as lesser.
Contrast Romney's positions with Obama's explanation for his support of marriage equality: The president cites as a rationale for marriage equality "the underlying values that we care so deeply about when we describe family, commitment, responsibility, looking after one another ... teaching our kids to be responsible citizens." These values, Obama said, are "the foundation of what made this country great." Who sounds like the moral one here?
Still not sure? The Washington Post just revealed that a young Mitt Romney bullied a schoolmate who may have been perceived as gay. Spotting his bleached-blond hair with a countercultural wave, Romney pinned down the tearful boy and snipped his hair himself, after hollering, "He can't look like that. That's wrong. Just look at him!"
Romney today apologized for "going too far." And no doubt, everyone did stupid, hurtful things in high school, and this was a very different time. But Romney's apology is telling. "I had no idea that this person might have been gay," he insists. "The people involved didn't come out of the closet until years later." That is, he bullied the boy not because he knew him to be gay, but because he looked nonconformist, specifically gender-nonconforming.
In other words, his practice was to police norms for no other reason than to police norms. And here's why that's important: Romney's only stated reason for opposing LGBT equality, and the only reason offered by the entire cohort of social conservatives who have made opposing LGBT equality their cause célèbre, is that heterosexuality is a longstanding norm. As he said in a primary debate, "Three thousand years of human history shouldn't be discarded so quickly." (Tell that to opponents of slavery, stoning, and segregation.)
Romney reacted to Obama's marriage announcement this week by saying what most mainstream politicians now say about marriage equality, that he believes marriage "is a relationship between a man and a woman, and that's my own preference." He offers no argument, no public policy rationale, no principle, simply an assertion of what he believes marriage currently is (not what it ought to be, and not why). Must we let this pass as acceptable public discourse?
But why does Romney (or, more precisely, the social conservatives to whom he's pandering) believe in this pointless, outdated, and hurtful morality? Psychology researchers like Jonathan Haidt are gaining lots of new insight into how people derive their moral sense. Intuition comes first, argues Haidt, and rationalization after -- a story we tell ourselves to justify an impulse, even if the story is full of falsehoods. Those impulses originally evolved in contexts we inhabited millions of years ago, when failing to reproduce could cost the tribe its strength and survival, hence birthing a moral bias against non-reproductive sex. In time that's hardened into a stubborn, homophobic ideology.
Another moral impulse derived from our tribal ancestry is the urge to protect members of our own group, those who look like us and who we think will protect us back. And the corollary to that is keeping others out, in some cases through borders and fences, and in other cases through the policing of norms and expectations. That impulse also came from a time when survival in a tribal existence was paramount. It doesn't serve us very well in a modern, multicultural nation state that enjoys such benefits as complex language and a police force. But that's why, no matter how clearly we're told in kindergarten to be nice to people who are different, we constantly have to fight an atavistic urge to exclude, punish, or denigrate the "other."
Many have internalized the new, more enlightened norm that's appropriate for modern democracies -- the new morality. President Obama embodied that this week. Mitt Romney hadn't in prep school and, when it comes to LGBT people, he and his political party still haven't. The new research on moral intuition helps us better understand where the pointless and hurtful -- but in many ways natural -- morality of social conservatives comes from. I'd argue it even ought to create at least a bit of sympathy. But it doesn't give them a pass for what's become the new immorality. We get it: our brains were designed by genes that existed a long, long time ago. Now evolve.