I was going to leave well-enough alone over the North Carolina amendment. It was really hard to think of "my" state doing this, and like many people I felt a bit of shock and almost mourning over the law's passage. For a day or two I'd see talk of organizing boycotts against NC and graphics painting Tarheels as uneducated and rednecks. But then President Obama made his announcement and the focus shifted away from NC (sort of), so as I said, I was just going to back away from this topic.
I still see wisps of NC-bashing every now and then, though. Case in point is Leonard Pitts's latest column, where he referred to NC's amendment as "one state's atavistic backwardness" and "the stubborn intransigence of those who desperately need to wake up and smell the 21st century." So maybe it's best to write another post on the topic. Because, really, I'm not sure NC did too badly here.
To be clear: I'm not defending the constitutional amendment. I think it's a badly-written amendment and a bad policy position, and also that it's needlessly hateful toward homosexuals since gay marriage was already illegal in the state. But I also think that, first, the bill didn't pass as solidly as it seems like at first glance, and second, that people might have a first-flush opposition to gay marriage in NC without that meaning they hate gays. I'll explain why in a minute. This wasn't NC's finest hour, but I don't think it's nearly as bad as some people seem to be implying it is. So let me take some of the various charges I've seen floating around one by one and try to explain why.
Charge: This amendment constitutes "atavistic backwardness" (to use Pitts' phrase).
Wikipedia has a nifty map showing what states allow what degree of marriage, civil union, etc. Nineteen have bans written into the state constitution and eleven more have state laws banning it. Eight other states allow full-out marriage and all the rest have various in-between stances (New Mexico, for instance, recognizes gay marriages made elsewhere but doesn't marry homosexuals itself). With rare exceptions, most states outside of liberal pockets like California and New England ban gay marriage. A big part of me wishes it wasn't so, but NC's amendment isn't backwards. It's mainstream.
Also, those nineteen other states with constitutional bans? Most of them were voted in during the height of the Bush years. Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Utah, and much of the South all voted in amendments in the general election. In NC it took the tea party to get the amendment on the books.
Charge: The overwhelming majority of North Carolinians voted to outlaw gay marriage.
39% of primary voters voted against this amendment. According to the NC State Board of Elections, there are about 6.3 million registered voters in the state; less than 2.2 actually voted in the primary. If I ran the numbers right, that means this "overwhelming majority" is really only 20.7% of the voting public. Of course there's no proof that the folks who didn't vote for the marriage would have voted against the amendment if they'd been at the polls; but there's no proof they would have, either.
I can only imagine that in a primary election where the Democrats had an incumbent running would have veered more heavily conservative than most primaries do. Also, there's the fact that if this amendment had been defeated gay marriage would still be illegal in NC. (There was already a regular statute on the books.) Even in light of that, nearly a million NC voters registered their disapproval of this amendment.
Charge: This wouldn't have happened if we kept religion out of politics.
Talking about "religion" as if it was one well-defined entity always strikes me as a bit problematic. There are some religious groups that are straight-out homophobic. (There are some non-religious groups as well, I imagine.) Many people cite chapter and verse of the Bible and other scriptures to show that homosexuality is immoral, but I have also heard lots of religious North Carolinians arguing against this. Some are in favor of gay marriage outright; others just think the amendment's so poorly structured it inflicts damage on others like children of unmarried heterosexuals.
Now, I do wish more clergymen had focused on the gay marriage part of the amendment. I would have liked to see more people do some scriptural exegesis rather than brush the tough verses aside with vague statements on how God is love and how God cares for those on the margins of society. All those things are true, but I personally think you can show why those specific passages don't condemn the modern practice we call homosexuality – at least not universally. (Of course, promiscuous sex is immoral according to Christianity, but I don't think homosexuals are more prone to or condemned for this than their straight neighbors. I would have liked to see more of that, both in the lead-up to this election and more generally.
But that doesn't change the fact that many religious leaders were fighting against this amendment tooth and nail, and trying to lead their faith-communities. While morality is not limited to religion by any stretch, in North Carolina and in the South generally the church is where this conversation usually takes place. This is I think a natural consequence of the way the South is spread out; unless you're in a major city, the church was historically the heart of the community. It was where socializing happened. I'm afraid that if you told the pastors to sit down and shut up, you'd have a lot less reflection on these issues by individuals.
Also: just because a pastor is talking to his congregation it doesn't mean he's advocating for a religious definition of marriage. Clergymen are often among the most educated members of their community. (If you're talking about a major denomination, the pastor almost certainly has a masters-degree in theology and a bachelors degree in either business or the humanities.) They recognize the difference between church and state better than most of their congregants do.
I was going to walk through why I think a vote against this amendment doesn't necessarily mean you're homophobic. I still think such a vote is wrong, but it has more to do with latent gender issues so subtle I don't think most people are even fully aware they're at play. That's another post, though; it's past nine, and I need to find dinner and then get some more grading done. I'll try to come back to that if I have the time.