On Monday, June 8, the Pew Research Center released the results of their most recent poll regarding Americans’ views on “same-sex marriage.” Not surprisingly, Pew reports a significant shift in most Americans’ support of same-sex marriage—the overall trend in the past ten years is that the percentage of those in favor of same-sex marriage has gone from 36% to 57%, whereas the percentage of those opposed has dropped from 53% to 39%.
Of course, those are the overall numbers. The Pew Research Center also breaks down the data by demographic groups, including political affiliation, “race, generation, religious beliefs and familiarity with people who are gay or lesbian” (for a more detailed overview of the report, click here). In doing so, two things become clear—political affiliation and religious belief are two of the most significant identifiers of those who oppose same-sex marriage. According to the poll, only 34% of Republicans favor same-sex marriage (up from 19% in 2005), in contrast with the 65% of Democrats and Independents who favor it. And the poll also reveals that “One of the strongest factors underlying views of same-sex marriage is religion, and the sense that homosexuality is in conflict with one’s religious beliefs. White evangelical Protestants stand out for their deep opposition to same-sex marriage: Just 27% favor allowing gays and lesbians to marry, while 70% oppose it (43% strongly oppose).”
This last set of data, about the position on same-sex marriage taken by white evangelical Protestants, got me to thinking again about an episode of On Being that I heard a year or so ago that had been on my mind recently, as the first anniversary of my “same-sex marriage” approaches. The episode was, as I recall, a live conversation between Jonathan Rauch, a gay advocate of same-sex marriage, and David Blankenhorn, co-director of The Marriage Opportunity Council who originally opposed “gay marriage,” but has since changed his mind and is in favor of it. The show concluded with Tippett and her guests agreeing that proponents of same-sex marriage should be sensitive to Christians’ anxieties about it because same-sex marriage is rewriting what marriage means, undoing Christians’ heritage and their beliefs.
I agree that we should be sensitive to the anxieties of those opposing same-sex marriage. After all, doing so means showing compassion, something the world could use a lot more of. But I disagree that the anxiety is rooted in the fact that Christian beliefs are being threatened, at least by merely including same-sex marriage in our legal definition of who can marry. That only offers another way to define marriage; it doesn’t get rid of other definitions. In other words, Christians are still free to define marriage in any way they want to, though not all might be sanctioned by the law, depending on what those definitions are. If Christians’ beliefs change regarding marriage because of the institutionalization of same-sex marriage, that is their doing, not the doing of the existence of legal same-sex marriages.
Rather, it seems to me that what is undone in the presence of same-sex marriage is the fiction that Christianity is the moral authority in the United States, along with any identity predicated on that fiction. To make matters worse, this undoing is accompanied by the notion that if Christianity isn’t our moral authority, all hell will break loose. And while I don’t believe it for a minute, I do believe we could be kinder to those who do believe it and, even if indirectly, expressed through hostility, are in the midst of realizing—as we all do at some moment or another in our lives—that what they thought was true, isn’t, at least not in the way that they’d thought. However, those who don’t share those beliefs can do better than to express their “compassion” through condescension. The folks who feel their religion is under attack by the legalization of same-sex marriage are experiencing devastating loss. But it is not of their heritage or their beliefs. Rather, it is of their identity, which can be, though it doesn’t have to be, a kind of death. Regardless, its throes will ask us to muster all the compassion we can.
 The scare quotes signify my not believing in some special kind of marriage called “same-sex marriage”; rather, the issue is about marriage parity. But since it’s how Pew framed the issue, I’ll use their terminology.