Same-Sex Marriage and Our New Religious Politics

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Photo from Wikimedia

In the last week, two interesting polls have appeared, one from the Associated Press and the other from the Washington Post, on Americans’ reactions to the Supreme Court’s June ruling in the same-sex marriage case, Obergefell v. Hodges. Taken together, the polls reveal that America is more divided on the question than first appeared. And the polls reflect an unfortunate, new religious dimension in American politics.

Notwithstanding the widespread acclaim for the decision in the days following Obergefell, it turns out that many Americans do not favor making same-sex marriage a constitutional right. In the AP poll, only 39% said they approved of the Court’s ruling, while 41% said they disapproved. In the Washington Post poll, a bare majority, 52%, said they approved the Court’s decision, while 44% disapproved. These results are much closer than one would have expected, given the immediate media reaction to the ruling.

Now, the fact that many Americans disapprove of the Court’s decision doesn’t mean the decision is wrong. Constitutional law doesn’t turn on opinion polls. (As it happens, I think the Court’s opinion is wrong as a constitutional matter, for reasons I explain here). And one must be careful about reading too much into polls, especially polls that follow an unusual recent event. In time, public opinion may settle in favor of the Court’s decision, especially given the fact that younger Americans apparently support same-sex marriage in significant numbers. Besides, people could disapprove of the Court’s decision for reasons that do not directly relate to the merits. Americans are generally in a bad mood about the state of our country these days, and the polls may simply reflect that dissatisfaction.

All that said, these polls seem significant to me, for three reasons. First, they demonstrate that opposition to the Court’s decision is not a fringe phenomenon. Forty-four percent of the country is not an insignificant group. Dissenters may be reticent about expressing their opinion publicly—or, indeed, to pollsters, which suggests the percentage of opponents may be even higher—but they are not a trivial proportion of the population. America is apparently still divided on the question of same-sex marriage, and this division will doubtless make itself apparent in our politics. More on this below.

Second, the results hint that some people who oppose the Court’s decision may do so out of concern for religious freedom. In the AP poll, for example, 56% said that religious liberty should take precedence over gay rights, the implication being that people anticipate a conflict between the two. They should. At oral argument in Obergefell, Solicitor General Donald Verrilli himself acknowledged the potential for conflict, on questions like tax exemptions for religiously-affiliated institutions that oppose same-sex marriage.

Finally, there is an unmistakable partisan divide. In the AP poll, a large majority of Democrats gave priority to gay rights, while a large majority of Republicans said religious freedom is more important. The extent of the divide is truly startling. “By a 64-32 margin, most Democrats said it’s more important to protect gay rights than religious liberties when the two are in conflict,” the AP reports. “Republicans said the opposite, by 82-17.”

This polarization is worrisome. Up till now, America has been spared the bitterness of religious politics. Unlike some countries in Europe, we have not had clerical and anti-clerical parties. True, particular religious groups have gravitated toward one or another political party. In New England, for example, Irish Catholics were historically Democrats and mainline Protestants Republicans, a conflict memorialized in films like John Ford’s The Last Hurrah.

But we have never had secular and religious parties as such. Both parties saw religion, in general, as a good thing, and religious liberty as a fundamental American value. Tocqueville noticed this and found it refreshing. “In the United States,” he observed, “if a politician attacks a sect, this may not prevent the partisans of that very sect from supporting him; but if he attacks all the sects together, everyone abandons him, and he remains alone.”

Perhaps the political consensus on the value of religion is breaking down. More and more, one of our two major political parties is identifying itself as secular, and the other as religious. That’s not to say that all Democrats are secularists and all Republicans religious believers—of course not. Just ask the folks at Secular Right. And people could value religious freedom but believe other interests outweigh it in particular cases. Still, there seems a clear trend: religious freedom is becoming a partisan issue. That’s a very bad thing for America. You might even say it’s un-American. Let’s hope the trend doesn’t continue.

Slight, “The British Empire and the Hajj”

In September, the Harvard University Press will release “The British Empire and the Hajj,” by John Slight (St. John’s College, University of Cambridge). The publisher’s description follows:

The British Empire at its height governed more than half the world’s Muslims. It was a political imperative for the Empire to present itself to Muslims as a friend and protector, to take seriously what one scholar called its role as “the greatest Mohamedan power in the world.” Few tasks were more important than engagement with the pilgrimage to Mecca.

Every year, tens of thousands of Muslims set out for Mecca from imperial territories throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, from the Atlantic Ocean to the South China Sea. Men and women representing all economic classes and scores of ethnic and linguistic groups made extraordinary journeys across waterways, deserts, and savannahs, creating huge challenges for officials charged with the administration of these pilgrims. They had to balance the religious obligation to travel against the desire to control the pilgrims’ movements, and they became responsible for the care of those who ran out of money. John Slight traces the Empire’s complex interactions with the Hajj from the 1860s, when an outbreak of cholera led Britain to engage reluctantly in medical regulation of pilgrims, to the Suez Crisis of 1956. The story draws on a varied cast of characters—Richard Burton, Thomas Cook, the Begums of Bhopal, Lawrence of Arabia, and frontline imperial officials, many of them Muslim—and gives voice throughout to the pilgrims themselves.

The British Empire and the Hajj is a crucial resource for understanding how this episode in imperial history was experienced by rulers and ruled alike.

Terpstra, “Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World”

In August, the Cambridge University Press releases “Religious Refugees in the Early Modern World: An Alternative History of the Reformation,” by Nicholas Terpstra (University of Toronto). The publisher’s description follows: 

The religious refugee first emerged as a mass phenomenon in the late fifteenth century. Over the following two and a half centuries, millions  of Jews, Muslims, and Christians were forced from their homes and into temporary or permanent exile. Their migrations across Europe and around the globe shaped the early modern world and profoundly affected literature, art, and culture. Economic and political factors drove many expulsions, but religion was the factor most commonly used to justify them. This was also the period of religious revival known as the Reformation. This book explores how reformers’ ambitions to purify individuals and society fueled movements to purge ideas, objects, and people considered religiously alien or spiritually contagious. * Aims to explain religious ideas and movements of the Reformation in non-technical and comparative language. * Moves Jews and Muslims to the centre of the traditional Reformation narrative, and considers how the exile experience shaped early modern culture, art, politics, and cities. * Traces the historical patterns that still account for the growing numbers of modern religious refugees.