The Majority Report
BY Jonathan Rauch
November 19 2010 5:00 AM ET
Majority support does not necessarily make the “all accelerator, no brakes” approach ineffective, but it does change the cost-benefit calculation. Pushing on every front at once is no longer cost-free. Far from it: To the public, a shrill, aggressive majority appears bullying and menacing, not plucky and righteous. Worst of all, it looks oppressive.
Oppressive? Gays as oppressor? Am I kidding?
The irony is rich. Nothing gays have ever said or done to our opponents comes close to the harassment and stigmatization that homosexuals have endured (and, among the young, often still do endure). Still, gay rights opponents have been quick, in fact quicker than our side, to understand that the dynamic is changing. They can see the moral foundations of their aversion to homosexuality crumbling beneath them. Their only hope is to turn the tables by claiming they, not gays, are the real victims of oppression. Seeing that we have moved the “moral deviant” shoe onto their foot, they are going to move the “civil rights violator” shoe onto ours.
So they have developed a narrative that goes like this:
Gay rights advocates don’t just want legal equality. They want to brand anyone who disagrees with them, on marriage or anything else, as the equivalent of a modern-day segregationist. If you think homosexuality is immoral or changeable, they want to send you to be reeducated, take away your license to practice counseling, or kick your evangelical student group off campus. If you object to facilitating same-sex weddings or placing adoptees with same-sex couples, they’ll slap you with a fine for discrimination, take away your nonprofit status, or force you to choose between your job and your conscience. If you so much as disagree with them, they call you a bigot and a hater.
They won’t stop until they stigmatize your core religious teachings as bigoted, ban your religious practices as discriminatory, and drive millions of religious Americans right out of the public square. But their target is broader than just religion. Their policy is one of zero tolerance for those who disagree with them, and they will use the law to enforce it.
At bottom, they are not interested in sharing the country. They want to wipe us out.
A lot of gay people have trouble taking this narrative seriously, partly because in its more extreme forms it sounds so paranoid and nutty—as when Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, recently said, “If this case [overruling California’s ban on gay marriage] stands, we’ll have gone, in one generation, from 1962, when the Bible was banned in public schools, to religious beliefs being banned in America.” It would be a false comfort, though, to suppose that the gays-as-oppressors narrative can’t and won’t take root among moderates and thoughtful, mainstream conservatives—people like Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner, former Bush administration officials, who write, “If [gay] marriage is deemed to be a civil right—and if opponents are therefore deemed to be the equivalent of modern-day segregationists—churches may eventually be compelled to act in a way that complies with the spirit and letter of ‘anti-discrimination’ law rather than with orthodox Christian teaching.” Stated that way, the claim happens to be true. Nor must we suppose it is a mere stratagem, cooked up to scare open donors’ pocketbooks. It is a product of a genuine and widespread fear of marginalization and stigmatization on the cultural right—and it is all the more biting as a result.
In a messy world where rights often collide, we can’t avoid arguing about where legitimate dissent ends and intolerable discrimination begins. What we can do is avoid a trap the other side has set for us. Incidents of rage against “haters,” verbal abuse of opponents, boycotts of small-business owners, absolutist enforcement of antidiscrimination laws: Those and other “zero-tolerance” tactics play into the “homosexual bullies” narrative, which is why our adversaries publicize them so energetically.
The other side, in short, is counting on us to hand them the victimhood weapon. Our task is to deny it to them.