The Dynamics of a National Conversation

Quick Recap: On 9 May 2012, President Obama, who had for years said that his view of marriage equality was still “evolving,” told ABC news, "At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that, for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married."

I noted in an earlier article that reactions to this announcement varied.  Liberal views included skepticism over his motives, regret over the time it has taken, and outright joy.  Knee-jerk condemnation from conservatives was mostly uniform and unsurprising.  Also unsurprising was the hope from conservatives that Obama’s shift on this controversial issue would cost him needed votes in November’s Presidential election.  This hope seemed to be supported by statistics.  In the United States, 43% of our population attends church on a near-weekly basis, 80% believe in God, and 12% more believe in a universal spirit (shame on Gallup, though, for not defining “universal spirit” in their poll).  Gallup has also shown that while 84% of non-Christians believe “same-sex marriage should be legal,” only 39% of Protestants and 51% of Catholics do.

The trope conservatives have been bandying about is that these large blocks of religious people, for whom faith is an important issue in their lives and who look to that faith when making political decisions, will feel Obama has so rejected their values that they will be galvanized to vote in large numbers, and will swing Republican, in the upcoming Presidential election.

In the days following Obama’s announcement, much was made of the African American vote in particular.  According to the Pew Research Center, "79% [of African Americans] say religion is very important in their lives."  Pew also found that African Americans are “markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, [and] frequency of prayer….”  In 2008, fully 99% of African Americans who cast a ballot voted for Obama but, before Obama’s announcement, only 41% believed that same-sex couples should have equal rights and privileges regarding marriage.

Statistics, however (and however ironically), are not always static.  In the few weeks following Obama’s announcement, reports suggested that public opinion is shifting at least enough to allay fears that Obama has lost important voting blocks.  The most reported-upon example is that the proportion of the black community that supports marriage equality has increased as many as 18 points, to 59%, according to a poll done by The Washington Post and ABC News (it should be noted that, while the findings are statistically significant, the results are tentative because the poll suffered from a small sample size of black respondents).

Also following Obama’s shift in view, and perhaps helping to legitimize that shift (or perhaps the legitimization has gone the other direction, depending on who’s report is being read), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) endorsed marriage equality.

As an interested observer to all of this, what has struck me most are the oft-repeated claims that Obama’s revelation has ‘started a conversation’ about marriage equality.  For people whose lives are affected by unequal treatment because of the manner in which our country’s religious majority views the LGBT community, this conversation wasn’t begun by Obama; it’s one they’ve been having for years.  It was their vocalization, both in their private lives and publicly, that has not only started this conversation but also pushed it to its present tipping-point.  In Obama’s interview, he stressed that his evolution of thought was brought about through compassionate consideration of openly gay people he knew, including parents of his daughters’ friends.  That is the conversation starter—people we know personally who are treated unjustly.  The conversation has been continued when people speak out against inequality at large public events like the Reason Rally, which not only helps members of the LGBT community feel comfortable coming out, but also highlights the injustices they suffer to our country’s politicians.

The conversation has been on-going—it was not begun by Obama—but certainly for many people across the country, Obama’s evolution of thought has changed the conversation’s dynamics.