As the U.S. Senate prepares to vote in a couple of weeks on whether to consider a constitutional ban on gay marriage, Americans are curiously quiet even though a majority oppose gay marriage.
A nationwide Gallup Poll last month found that 55 percent oppose same-sex marriage (down from 65 percent in December) and 42 percent favor gay marriage (up from 31 percent in December).
Maybe within the context of the Iraq war and disturbing news of beheadings - remember when the subject of "beheadings" never came up in conversation? - gay marriage is way down the list of urgent concerns. "Live and let live" has an irresistible ring to it in such times.
Or, perhaps the lack of interest is tied to the way the debate thus far has been presented. On the pro-gay-marriage side, advocates have proposed the issue only as a question of fairness, civil rights, love and validation. No fair-minded person wants to prevent another human being from equal protection under the law or the pursuit of happiness.
On the other side are mostly heard the voices of the religious right. Regardless of their sincerity, such voices tend to fall on deaf ears in a secular society. If people want preaching, they'll go to church. Moreover, some of the rhetoric from the pews is so strident and off-putting, even devout people may prefer other company.
There are plenty of good reasons to be skeptical about rearranging the basic structure of human society without invoking the "Radicals in Black Robes," who are trying to "force their distorted Homosexual Marriage views on 280 million Americans," as one Christian Coalition action alert recently put it.
Whatever one may think of homosexual marriage in the abstract, the idea that a redefinition of marriage will have "no effect" is laughable, but not funny. After the nosegay has faded, the issue is neither solely about love nor affirmation, but about serious legal consequences that all Americans may wish to consider before tuning out preachers or embracing gay activists.
For the sake of argument, let's stipulate that this is not personal - it's not about you, in other words - and acknowledge that heterosexuals have royally mangled marriage without any help from gays. Nevertheless, that fact doesn't mean that marriage is doomed or that expanding the definition of marriage to include homosexual unions will make marriage stronger. Or be harmless.
Of particular concern even for the nonreligious is the effect gay marriage could have on two of our founding principles - religious freedom and freedom of speech. Once the courts recognize gay marriage as equal in all ways to heterosexual marriage, then everyone else - including churches - has to recognize gay marriage as equal, too.
Any opposition will be deemed hateful by definition, and anyone who opposes gay marriage will be a hatemonger. Given that many religions and denominations teach that homosexuality is a sin, church attendance alone could suggest you're homophobic. To the extent that one believes or preaches scripture, one is a bigot.
Hence some of the deep concern among legal professionals, as well as theologians. A secular world that ratifies homosexual marriage would provide a legal foundation that would open the floodgates to civil litigation against religious leaders, institutions and worshipers.
In such an environment, churches might be sued for declining to provide their sanctuaries for gay marriages, for example. Ministers could be sued for hate speech for giving a sermon on moral behavior. Churches that protest homosexual unions could face revocation of their tax exemption status.
The delicate balance between church and state, in other words, is teetering on a high ledge at this moment. It's ironic that those who oppose churches' involvement in state concerns nonetheless have no compunction when it comes to the state dictating what churches can do. Even nonreligious folk should be concerned.
Either we believe in separation of church and state or we don't, but you can't have it both ways.
The July 12 debate is really a discussion about "cloture" - the process by which the Senate puts a time limit on filibuster, thereby allowing a bill to be voted on. In this case, 60 senators have to vote in favor of cloture for the Federal Marriage Amendment, defining marriage as between one man and one woman, to go to the floor for a full vote.
Many senators prefer to delay voting rather than make their position public before the November election. But advocates for the amendment predict that November may be too late, that if President George W. Bush loses re-election, the amendment will be dead and marriage as we know it will be history.