Riff Raff, by Michael Tilley
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The odds are that Arkansas legislators supporting an effort to reinforce Arkansas’ ban on same-sex marriage and seek the impeachment of a Pulaski County judge who ruled the ban unconstitutional will be on the wrong side of history. And if trends continue, that particular side of history may be less than one full generation away.
According to a recent Pew report, support for same-sex marriage has risen in the past 10 years – coincidentally, the same length of time that Arkansas’ Amendment 83 banning same-sex marriage has been in place. From 2004 on, “there are substantial differences in opinions across generations,” noted the Pew report.
Overall, the polling conducted by the Pew Research Center since 1996 shows a clear shift in opinion about same-sex marriage. In 1996, 65% of Americans opposed such unions, with only 27% in support. By the year 2004, opposition fell to 60% and support rose to 31%. In 2010, 48% of Americans surveyed by Pew opposed same-sex marriage, and 42% were in support.
The tide shifted in 2011 when 46% of Americans surveyed by Pew supported same-sex marriage and 45% opposed. In the 2014 survey, 54% of Americans surveyed said same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, and only 39% of Americans opposed same-sex unions. Among Millenials and Gen Xers, support for same-sex marriage is even stronger than the combined survey results.
It may not be coincidental that the shift in opinions related to gay marriage comes as fewer Americans attend church. Another Pew report shows that 39% of survey respondents in 2003 attended church at least once a week. That dropped to 37% in 2013. Americans who “seldom/never” attend church was 25% in 2003, with that number rising to 29% by 2013.
Religion has certainly been a driver – if not THE driver – of political power and policy for centuries. There are enough books and research to fill the average U.S. mega-church relating to how biblical language has been transformed through the centuries to fit the various political necessities of Popes, European monarchies, colonial governments and others seeking to control policies and populations. The discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton and many other scientists were typically refuted – with several discoverers and their families exiled or executed – by religious leaders using scripture. Why? Because such discoveries often were in conflict with religious teachings.
Religion has been at the core of most U.S. historical political debates, especially with social issues or civil rights. Slavery, the rights of non-property owners to vote, the right of women to vote, the right of women to own property, prohibition, segregation and many other social policy debates have had a decidedly religious element. This is especially true with same-sex marriage rights.
Biblical scripture (“servants to be obedient to masters” – Ephesians) was quoted to support slavery, and in the book of Timothy, Paul said it was a sin for slaves to not obey even non-Christian masters. Prior to the Civil War, church leaders used these and other quotes to not only support slavery, but to claim that abolitionists were speaking against teachings of the Bible. With words that would ring similar today, pre-Civil War church and political leaders claimed that efforts to end slavery were pushed by groups and other countries who wanted to end the American experiment.
One of the oft-quoted scriptures used by Southern and Northern religious leaders to defend slavery, comes from Genesis 9:25-27: (25) “Cursed be Canaan! The lowest of slaves will he be to his brothers. (26) He also said, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Shem! May Canaan be the slave of Shem. (27) May God extend Japheth’s territory; may Japheth live in the tents of Shem, and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.”
It was argued at the time that the black population is a descendant of Canaan and therefore slavery was supported by scripture. Old and New Testament Scriptures noting the need for a “pure Israel” and that Christians should not be “unequally yoked” were the basis for learned men and women – including U.S. Presidents – of American History to defend racial segregation. Those same bible verses were also used to oppose interracial marriage.
Passages in the New Testament books of Corinthians and Romans appear to be certain in the denouncing of homosexual acts, with Romans 1:27 noting: “Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
Century-long debates continue about the accuracy of Greek language translation throughout the modern Bible. Some theologians believe scriptures denouncing unnatural sexual acts were focused on the abuse of young children by men and women and not a judgment on relations between consenting adults.
Following World War II and with the rise of the Soviet Union, support for limiting the rights of blacks, women and other minorities saw religious arguments mixed with claims that progressive views on race and civil rights were Communist attacks on the Judeo-Christian heritage of the United States. Again, expanded civil rights were assigned to efforts to weaken and destroy the United States.
Back in present-day Arkansas, opinions on same-sex marriage may be changing. In 2004, 75% of Arkansans voted for Amendment 83, the amendment that banned same-sex marriage. A January 2014 Talk Business-Hendrix College poll found among 520 likely Arkansas voters that 50% continue to oppose same sex marriage.
No one can write with certainty about what the next few Arkansas election cycles or state or federal judicial rulings will deliver with respect to laws on same-sex marriage. What is more certain is that historical perspective and quantifiable generational trends suggest that same-sex marriage in Arkansas will be a non-issue sooner rather than later.