Will the middle say ‘I do’ to gay marriage?
May 11th, 2012
This piece was originally posted on Politico.
President Barack Obama’s announcement Wednesday in support of marriage for gay couples answered one key question: Where does he — and so his party — stand? Now the big question is: Are Americans in the middle ready to accept this?
That answer can be yes, based on our four years of extensive research into that precise question — if marriage supporters heed three crucial lessons about how the middle views this issue.
First, the “rights” frame is wrong. One word emerged during our nine rounds of research that described how Americans in the middle view marriage: commitment.
In fact, when undecided Americans were asked what marriage means to them, “commitment” came up four times as often as the word “love.” “Rights” never came up — not once. To folks in the middle, marriage is about making a promise to care for each other for a lifetime, through better or worse.
They often focused on the latter — because that is what makes marriage unique from other relationships. To them, marriage is about one thing: the obligation and responsibility that comes with making a public promise of lifetime commitment.
Second, the middle needs to know that gay couples want to join the institution of marriage — not change it.
In our polling, folks in the middle weren’t sure why gay couples want to marry. When asked why “couples like them” might want to marry, the middle’s answer grew out of their conception of the institution, with nearly six in 10 saying it is “to publicly acknowledge their love and commitment to each other.”
But why do gay couples want to marry? A plurality said it is “for rights and benefits — like tax advantages, hospital visitation or sharing a spouse’s pension.” Another 25 percent said, “I don’t know.”
Given that marriage advocates have long made their case by focusing on the rights and benefits of marriage, it only follows that many Americans in the middle are confused about gay couples’ motivations.
But this misconception is dangerous. Most couples don’t marry for tax advantages and visitation rights — they marry for profound reasons of love and commitment. Among those who felt gay couples want marriage for other reasons, their feelings toward marriage for gay couples were skeptical.
But this misperception is correctable. Our research found that when marriage supporters focus on gay couples wanting to make a public promise of lifetime commitment, the middle recognizes these reasons as upholding traditional marriage values — not changing them. And they are more likely to support marriage for gay couples.
Third, it is essential to answer concerns about religious liberty. Religion is a hurdle not a wall, and ignoring religious concerns doesn’t make the problem go away. In the recent victories in New York, Maryland and Washington state, supporters of marriage for gay couples included strong religious liberty protections in both message and policies.
For many voters in the middle, this is enough. As long as they feel their religious institution is under no obligation to sanction marriage for gay couples, they feel free to vote their conscience. Even a basic reminder that our First Amendment is the most robust in the world and guarantees that no pastor or priest will ever have to marry a couple he doesn’t want to marry can go a long way toward reassuring people concerned about religious liberty. Emphasizing the important protections for churches and religious organizations that have been included in state laws can help assuage any fears.
The president’s statement dealt with all three lessons. It could serve as a model of how to talk about marriage for gay couples to reach Americans in the middle.
He talked about his own personal journey on this issue in a genuine way that could resonate with others wrestling with it. He described how seeing committed gay couples in his life helped change his mind. He mentioned his concerns about religion but explained that he now sees religious marriage can be protected. And he emphasized that his support for marriage for gay couples stemmed not from a desire to provide rights but from seeing those couples’ commitment and fidelity.
If other policymakers and advocates take Obama’s lead, our years of research indicate that middle America will follow.