It's nice to think that in a democracy, public policy will soon follow public opinion, with same-sex marriage becoming the norm, not the exception. But that's not how democracy works in a big, diverse federal system. On this emotional issue, the citizenry is divided, and marriage laws as well as politics will reflect that division for a long time to come.
The good news is that changing sentiments have already begun to alter the traditional conception of wedlock. Five states and the District of Columbia now allow gay marriage. Another 13 offer civil unions or domestic partnerships with some or all the benefits of marriage, according to Lambda Legal.
But the resistance is still strong and broad-based. The recent jump in support for same-sex marriage, Gallup notes, came entirely from Democrats and independents. Among Democrats, support now stands at 69 percent, with 59 percent of independents agreeing.
Republicans have not changed their minds. Only 28 percent are in favor -- the same as last year.
Realistic conservatives can't expect to prevail in the long-term battle for hearts and minds. Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, recently said, "We're losing on that one, especially among the 20- and 30-somethings: 65 to 70 percent of them favor same-sex marriage. ... We've probably lost that."
Public support for gay rights is even higher on other issues. Some two-thirds of Americans support granting gays access to civil unions. An ABC News/Washington Post survey last year found that 75 percent of Americans think openly gay individuals should be allowed to serve in the military -- including a majority of Republicans and white evangelicals.
Yet the two parties remain at odds over the issue. Although Democratic officeholders have been cautious in embracing same-sex marriage, they generally favor civil unions, at least. Barack Obama lifted the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays.
The 2008 Republican national platform, by contrast, asserted "the incompatibility of homosexuality with military service" and endorsed a federal constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.
The current crop of presidential candidates is almost unanimous in sticking to that hard line. The notable heresies: Former Utah Gov. John Huntsman signed a civil-union law, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas voted to repeal the military ban.