But, in the longer run, that isn't true. While an individual, and even a whole geographic community's place on the political spectrum is very stable over time, in the case of communities, even over more than a century, the location of specific policy stances on that political spectrum can shift dramatically in a couple of a decades or less.
A poll from CNN this week is the latest to show a majority of Americans in favor of same-sex marriage, with 51 percent saying that marriages between gay and lesbian couples “should be recognized by the law as valid” and 47 percent opposed.
This is the fourth credible poll in the past eight months to show an outright majority of Americans in favor of gay marriage. . . Prior to last year, there had been just one survey — a Washington Post poll conducted in April 2009 — to show support for gay marriage as the plurality position, and none had shown it with a majority. . . . opponents of gay marriage almost certainly no longer constitute a majority; just one of the last nine polls has shown opposition to gay marriage above 50 percent.
In New York State, likely voters polled earlier this year supported gay marriage by a 56-37 margin. In New York City suburbs support for legalizing gay marriage is 61-33. Roman Catholics are more likely to support gay marriage than members of the population at large, notwithstanding church doctrine to the contrary.
If you told me when I started high school in small town Ohio in the mid-1980s that a majority of Americans would support gay marriage two and a half decades later, I would have thought that you were crazy. When I graduated from high school, only about 11% of those polled thought gay marriage should be legal, while about 72% oppose it. Frankly, I'm surprised that support for gay marriage back then was that high, I would have guessed that it was in the single digits, and maybe in small town Ohio it was. It is also possibly that the single pre-1994 poll's number was high and was made public at all only because it was a statistical outlier on the high end.
The AIDS epidemic had started to make most people aware that there were actually people who had intimate relationships with members of the same sex voluntarily, but even the notion that someone could actually identify as "gay" or "lesbian" in real life, as opposed to merely as an insulting and inaccurate description of someone, wasn't real clear to me at the time. I had never met anyone who had come out. I hadn't even seen or heard of anyone who had come out on TV, in a movie, on the radio, or in anything that I'd read in print. There were no organizations for gays, lesbians, transgender individuals that I was aware of in my town, and the only one that I was aware of nationally was ACT-UP. I was aware of a couple of same sex adult couples who lived together as a household, one of which involved an extended family member, but it had never occurred to me that a household like that would be anything other than platonic, and nobody in those households ever said a thing that suggested that more legal rights were necessary for them.
Since then, the trendline has been more or less steady and shows no sign of reversing. Nate Silver notes in the linked article that "If support for gay marriage were to continue accelerating as fast as it has in the past two years, supporters would outnumber opponents roughly 56-40 in the general population by November 2012." Even if the growth in support reverts to the overall trend line, there will be a pretty safe majority that favors legalizing gay marriage by then, and some states will be ahead of that trend while others will be behind it.
Popular understanding of sexual orientation and gender identification has expanded dramatically in a quarter of a century. By the time I finished high school, I learned that there were at least a few people in my community who self-identified as gay or lesbian (I would not meet anyone who had a transgender identity until after I finished college). Oberlin, where I went to college, was a mecca for gay and lesbian students, who were often active in campus politics, were deeply involved in running one of the major social events of the year on campus (the drag ball), and made it a point to be out of the closet in daily life in class and around campus. A large share of our student body came from New York City and some students personally knew people who had participated in the Stonewall Riots.
But, while college changed my views, this took much longer for the rest of the nation. More than one book has recounted what happened in the years that followed, but my point is not to illustrate how this happened. My point is to note that it did.
Even a decade ago, even among liberal minded people and many people in the gay and lesbian community, some form of civil unions seemed possible and desirable, but gay marriage seemed like a remote possibility that might never happen anywhere in anything but the distant future (where author Kate Elliott, who I whose science fiction Jaran novels I was reading in the late 1990s had put a society that had gay marriage). It was a little hard to determine at that point what gay marriage would even mean at a practical level, because not a lot of attention had been given to the question by people in a position to know the answers.
Now, there are thousands of same sex legally marriage couples in the United States and more in Europe. Colorado doesn't legally recognize same sex marriage and doesn't even have a civil unions law (one was narrowly defeated in this year's session of the Colorado General Assembly). But, it does have a lot of same sex couples who view each other as spouses, who hold themselves out to the public as spouses, who live as a household and who raise children together. They are parents of children who go to school with my children. They are teachers. They are nurses. Their families are my neighbors. Those couples are my clients in large numbers.
It has become obvious to a large share of the population through countless examples that someone can be gay or lesbian as a matter of personal identity, and that a person's sexual orientation is a stable part of who someone is as a person that someone is generally aware of to some extent, even if they may not fully understand their feelings in some social contexts or may be confused at times, for most, if not all, of their lives. (And, who doesn't, at some point in life, find their potential romantic relationships to be confusing?)
It has become clear as well that gay marriage doesn't have negative externalities. It doesn't weaken the institution of marriage for opposite sex couples. It helps many children and harms none. It imparts dignity without taking it away from anyone.
There are still plenty of people in the world who still insist that same sex loves are sinful based on epistles written by John the Gospel writer a couple of thousand years ago, and stories and laws written by Jewish priests centuries before then. But, those scripturally motivated views don't last long in the face of encounters with real life friends, neighbors and colleagues. They don't have much credibility with young people, even those who are evangelical Christians who have grown up in a world that has allowed them to see gays and lesbians and transgender individuals living ordinary (and extraordinary) lives like anyone else.
Decisions from courts and politicians, like the recent Congressional repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy in the military and the President's decision not to defend in court the part of the Defense of Marriage Act applicable to the federal government have provided the leadership that has changed the views of the majority, and willingness to hire a gay man as the White House social secretary. Once you abandon the sin theory of sexual orientation the rest flows pretty naturally, and the leadership that our nation's leaders have shown has pretty well discredited that understanding of sexual orientation.
The sin theory of sexual orientation is rapidly going the way of the equally scripturally supported and equally empirically inaccurate demon possession theory of mental illness. Despite the fact that the words in the Bible haven't changed, very few people walking the streets believe in an internalized way that mental illness is caused by demon possession, and likewise, the Biblically based defenses for the institutions of slavery are also now heart felt for only a tiny minority of American Christians.
Lots of people believe that faith healing (which the Gospels devote a great deal of time to) is possible, or at least once was possible, but very few people resort to a clergyman laying on hands as their sole means or even primary means for dealing with poor physical health.
The Pope's official position, reduced to writing ever since 1968 in "Humanae Vitae," is that using contraceptives is a sin. But:
A survey just one year later . . . found that 44% of Catholic women (who were regular churchgoers) were currently using artificial contraception. In 1974, 83% of Catholics said they disagreed with the Pope’s stance on birth control. By 1999, nearly 80 percent of Catholics believed that a person could be a good Catholic without obeying the church hierarchy’s teaching on birth control. A 2005 nationwide poll by Harris Interactive showed that 90% of Catholics supported the use of birth control. The Center of Disease Control and Prevention 2002 National Survey of Family Growth revealed that 97% of American Catholic women over age 18 have used a banned form of contraception, which is the same percentage as the general population.
The sea change in public opinion on gay rights isn't the only recent example.
While he was living, Martin Luther King, Jr., our nation's pre-eminent hero was the civil rights movement, was wary of pressing to strike down miscegenation laws and emphasized civil rights in the public sphere of work and commerce instead. Yet, in the wake of Loving v. Virginia, even prominent segregationist politicians like Strom Thurmond eventually came around to the view (and I genuinely believe that at least that far it was sincere) that miscegenation laws were wrong and that there was nothing wrong with interracial marriage. Large percentages of white, usual Republican primary voters in Mississippi still haven't come around, and we are not a nation of color blind people. But, Jim Crow era laws to enforce segregation and discriminate on the basis of race have been utterly morally discredited for the vast majority of Americans today.
We haven't reached a comfortable answer that tells us how to balance work and family in a world where both men and women are part of almost all parts of the workforce. But, almost nobody wants to return to the status quo that was in place when I was born when the percentage of women in law school student bodies was in the single digits, and there were only a handful of jobs that were open to women, especially to married women. Likewise, almost nobody advocates a return to a legal regime in which women cannot own property, bring lawsuits or enter into contracts in their own name, as was the case when the Founders wrote the United States Constitution.
Similarly, nobody is advocating that the franchise be limited to white male property owners over the age of twenty-one as it was when the Founders wrote the United States constitution. Indeed, while non-whites can no longer constitutionally be denied the right to vote based on race, women can no longer constitutionally be denied the right to vote based on gender, and eighteen to twenty year olds can no longer constitutionally be denied the right to vote based on age, laws restricting the franchise to property owners would quite possibly not violate the federal constitution, although such laws would be politically impossible to pass at the moment.
Abortion remains controversial, but popular opinion today would never support the laws struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut in 1965 that made it illegal to use "any drug, medicinal article or instrument for the purpose of preventing conception."
Support for legalizing marijuana is at about the same point that support for legalizing gay marriage was two years ago. The year that I graduated from high school, about 74% opposed that and 24% supported it. Now, about 50% oppose legalizing it, while 46% support legalizing it, and support for legalization has grown more or less steadily for the last fifteen years. According to the executive director of NORML:
Thirteen states have decriminalized marijuana, and that covers 130 million Americans. We now have fifteen states and the District of Columbia that have legal protections for qualified medical-marijuana patients, and that covers 90 to 95 million Americans.
The President has taken the position of not using federal law to punish people who use marijuana in compliance with state medical marijuana laws, and has paid essentially no price (and perhaps gains support) for taking this position.
In aspects of life where people have real experience and are affected in their daily lives, religious texts and doctrines and even community traditions are all but irrelevant to people's opinions. The previous generation's unthinkable possibilities can become the current generation's moral norms.