Then And Now: Conservative Reactions To Marriage Equality Have Lost Their Verve

Pastor Leonard Cohen protesting in Boston, March 11, 2004.

President Obama’s endorsement of marriage equality this week is a significant milestone in the inevitable arc toward its universality. Though conservatives have expressed outrage, their comments also reflect how much public opinion has shifted in even the last decade.

Consider the four comparisons below. In the left column is how various social conservative spokespeople responded in November, 2003 when the Massachusetts Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage. In the right-hand column, see how they (or their successors) responded this week to Obama’s announcement:

Marriage Equality – Massachusetts Marriage Equality – President Obama
Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins (2003): “We must amend the Constitution if we are to stop a tyrannical judiciary from redefining marriage to the point of extinction.” Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins (2012): “From opposing state marriage amendments to refusing to defend the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DoMA) to giving taxpayer funded marriage benefits to same-sex couples, the President has undermined the spirit if not the letter of the law.”
Focus on the Family’s James Dobson (2003): “The dire ramifications of what is happening in the United States and other Western nations cannot be overstated.” Focus on the Family’s Jim Daly (2012): “President Obama’s announcement that he has changed his position and now personally supports same-sex marriage is disappointing.”
Maggie Gallagher (2003): “To lose the word ‘marriage’ is to lose the core idea any civilization needs to perpetuate itself and to protect its children.” Maggie Gallagher (2012): “On the one hand, morally this is good because lying to the American people is always wrong. President Obama has come clean that he is for gay marriage. Politically, we welcome this. We think it’s a huge mistake.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie (2003): Gay advocates are practicing “religious bigotry” and “intolerance” by demanding Americans condone same-sex marriage. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus (2012): “While President Obama has played politics on this issue, the Republican Party and our presumptive nominee Mitt Romney have been clear. We support maintaining marriage between one man and one woman and would oppose any attempts to change that.”

The players may not have changed much, but the rules have. There are certainly some conservatives whose anti-gay screeds continue to be explosive, but in general, it seems that changing public opinion has forced them to tame their rhetoric. Less than a decade ago, marriage equality threatened the survival of society, but now it’s just “disappointing” and “a mistake.” It won’t be long before even these timid responses alienate voters who understand that marriage equality is good for communities, good for families, and good for everybody everywhere.