Once again, state voters — this time in Maine, hardly a conservative stronghold — have voted down same-sex marriage. Leaving what she thought would be a victory party after last week's balloting, an emotional Cecelia Burnett said, "I don't understand what the fear is, why people are so afraid of this change."
That's a big part of the problem for those on the gay-marriage side: They cannot imagine why, aside from bigotry, anyone would disagree with them.
To be sure, anyone on the traditional-marriage side who doesn't understand that denying marriage to same-sex couples imposes a serious burden on them is either willfully ignorant or hard-hearted. The thing is, empathy should go both ways.
Leaving aside that there undoubtedly are significant numbers of people who vote against gay marriage because they flat-out don't like gay people, there are serious and important reasons to vote against same-sex marriage — and these deserve to be taken seriously.
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For starters, gay marriage represents a cultural revolution, a fundamental redefinition of what marriage means.
Until the past 10 or 20 years, no society had ever sanctioned marriage between same-sex partners. It was unthinkable outside of a small radical fringe.
That's not an argument against gay marriage, but it is an explanation for why gay marriage remains unpopular in this country. Culture precedes politics.
Gay-marriage backers often say that civil rights shouldn't be submitted to a popular vote. If blacks in the Jim Crow South had depended on a majority vote to gain their civil rights, justice would have been a long time coming. That makes sense to people who see no moral or philosophical difference between race and homosexuality. But it is by no means clear that the two categories are interchangeable.
Which brings us to another reason majorities oppose gay marriage: the belief that its supporters are all too willing to force their own particular view of marriage and its meaning on an unwilling society.
It's simply not true that their viewpoint is neutral. To believe that same-sex marriage is the equivalent of heterosexual marriage is to accept that the essence of marriage is fundamentally different from what it has always been.
Perhaps society will embrace that new understanding — but that's exactly what it is, and traditionalists should not be faulted for intuiting that the moral and cultural implications of this shift are likely to be far-reaching and imperfectly understood. At a time in which the traditional understanding of marriage, its duties and its obligations has been breaking down under a variety of cultural assaults, it should surprise no one that most voters are afraid of radical change.
And thoughtful traditionalists understand that legalizing same-sex marriage might bring about restrictions on freedom of speech and association, particularly for churches and religious organizations.
None of this is a case per se against gay marriage, for which a strong moral argument certainly can be made. It is rather to say that with gay-marriage proponents racking up loss after loss in state balloting, they would do well to quit falling back on the self-serving "bigotry" excuse and do what they (quite justifiably) ask of their opponents: imagine what this issue looks like through the eyes of people not like themselves.