The Battle For America’s Soul

In apocalyptic times, people look first for a saviour.

On paper, it looks like the United States is limping into its 57th presidential election in bad shape. Taxes are high, debt is the dirty word that no one can deal with, the mainstream media is less diverse than ever, and the Occupy movement has been shouting loudly for almost a year now that the effectiveness of democracy has collapsed under corporate lobbying. There are ongoing wars with ideologies that can not be won. The value of the dollar is decreasing, and the price of living is going up. The incidences of mental health problems are multiplying exponentially, and the response is behaviour-leveling drugs, more and more, for longer and longer. Education is expensive, and even the idea of housing has long switched from places to live to financial commodities, and are now talked about with terms like ‘markets,’ with values that rise and fall like stocks, even though they never get more or less fit for purpose. Unemployment looms like death.

The ship is sinking, and there’s only so long the holes can be patched with borrowed money.

From a logical perspective, then, it could seem like a strange time for the issue of gay marriage to be prominent on the agenda of American politics. As issues go, it is dwarfed next to the ominous future of America’s economy, as its financial clout drifts ever more obviously towards Asia. From a political perspective, however, it is almost the perfect time for it to take center stage, just the same as any other passion-inflaming but comparatively trivial issues on the election agenda, like abortion, the legalization of cannabis, or the teaching of Evolution in schools.

Why? Because they are neat and divisive little distractions. Why else would Obama have recently come out on National Television in support of gay marriage, changing his supposed position and broadcasting it publicly, though changing nothing in the law-books? Why just a gesture, why such calculated timing, and why now, in election year, and with a religious-pandering opponent who strongly opposes it? It is not a coincidence, of course, but a political move. It hints a bit at the true hollowness of the next election, of the political situation, of the future of America.

We’ve had CHANGE now, and it looked the same.

The election battleground will not be dominated by competing “solutions” for a system on its last legs, if indeed they could exist at all, but loud squabbling over who claims to hold the reigns over morality.

In some ways, the prominence of gay marriage as a political issue is a deeply American phenomenon, because the country seems so continuously stretched between two powerful, and sometimes opposing, ideologies. On one hand, it proclaims itself the champion of democracy, with idolized historical documents ‘guaranteeing’ the freedom and equality of all those who call themselves citizens. On the other, the Church remains a powerful financial and political force, its loose membership a decisive chunk of the electorate (the majority, probably) with an agenda that sometimes runs actively parallel to the Constitution. In a democracy that lives under the heavy blanket of an influential media, it is clear that any issue so clumsily suspended between traditional religious values and the professed egalitarian identity of the state is going to be a precarious one for those seeking power to navigate. Never mind the race and gender of the candidates, even avoiding the issue of religious beliefs is as close to political suicide now as it ever was, despite the supposed separation of Church and State.

No issue exemplifies this better, I think, than gay marriage, especially if Romney is not just vote-baiting in the wake of New York’s liberal-celebrated shift on the issue by suggesting a federal amendment to the Constitution to ban it entirely. The battle-lines have been drawn for a deeper war: does America want real, modern equality, or state protection for its Christian values? It can’t have both.

Romney has made his position clear: he wants to save America’s soul. Obama has played it more politically. He wants young votes again, and his recent words are a nudge to the college campuses, but words are all they are. When pressed, he will mumble something inoffensive and safe about letting the individual states decide. Paul will do the same, of course, though he’ll mean it and be ignored.

With the sides on the issue of gay marriage so polarized, it could seem from an outside perspective like a decisive point in the LGBT movement, but I doubt it. What is more likely is that the issue will be bandied around as a political tool, for easy leverage over angry voters who can be bought by their moral convictions, and the safest bet for all parties will be a complicit stalemate, no change, all the time happy in the knowledge that whatever time is spent debating it is not time spent on issues that can’t be debated. The delay will not falter the gay community’s utter strength and resilience — they know from history that they’ll win.

The curious and frustrating thing about the progress of the gay rights movement, after all, is how little it has to do with gay people, and how much it has to do with straight people’s dogma, and the willingness of people in general to use state power and the legal system to impose their morality on to others. The issue of gay marriage, especially, comes down to little more than the government being far more involved than it should be in the private affairs of its citizens. This is a fundamental problem of democracy, and of big, swollen governments like America’s especially, that will not go away quietly or easily. In the meantime, the progress of equality will continue to be slow but sure, reinforced as always by the young and liberal continuing to fill the democratic gaps left by the old and stubborn.

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