In May, North Carolinians overwhelmingly approved the passage of Proposition 1, an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage between a man and a woman as the only legally valid domestic union. But while the outcome seemed utterly predictable, the percentages weren’t. More than 60 percent voted yes, even though polls showed that perhaps 54 percent of North Carolinians approved of same-sex marriages. Still, that’s the North Carolina way: You appear progressive and think left but vote right. Now, what might all this mean for our state’s residents?
1. First, Proposition 1 “raised people’s awareness.” Their consciences, too. Although overly emotionalized, the debate before and after passage brought into focus an issue typically more hushed than discussed, more avoided than asserted here in the mountains other than in Asheville. If you want to understand that distinction, just read the letters to the editors of newspapers throughout Western North Carolina and contrast them with the ones in Mountain Xpress and the Asheville Citizen-Times. Asheville, it seems, isn’t like the rest of the mountain region — or, for that matter, North Carolina as a whole. Yet Proposition 1 also energized evangelical voters and marked a pivot to the far right in state politics. Moderate Republicans like James Holshouser and Jim Martin have simply disappeared from the state’s political landscape.
2. Remember Jesse Helms. No one knew North Carolina’s electorate better than ol’ Jesse. The longtime U.S. senator had perhaps three fundamental beliefs that guided his political career. First, he liked to be called “Senator No,” believing there was more political capital to be gained through negativity than through actually passing legislation. He voted against almost everything he could. Second, Helms thought that even though he typically trailed his opponent during most of the campaign, he could always scratch out a win by playing one or two cards at the very end.
Which brings us to the third of his beliefs. Helms felt only two issues mattered to most North Carolinians — schools and families — and two groups threatened them: blacks and homosexuals. Those were his two trump cards. Helms wanted schools to be privatized and homosexuals to be marginalized. There were no gays in his blue heaven. Always, always remember that when you consider Proposition 1 and other recent political events.
Oh, one other thing: Helms thought that only an amendment to the federal Constitution banning same-sex marriages would ultimately protect the issue from the courts. That’s really the next step, now that 31 states have passed same-sex constitutional amendments, and that’s what Proposition 1 is all about. Jesse Helms’ ghost still haunts the issue today.
Nonetheless, the courts, whether presided over by Democrats or Republicans, will ultimately decide the issue, and that’s why several gay couples chose to publicly announce their engagements just after Proposition 1’s passage. As in the 2003 case Lawrence v. Texas, in which a very conservative Supreme Court struck down every sodomy law in the nation, these folks are laying the groundwork for the next round.
3. Ultimately, Proposition 1 will hurt both marriage and religion.
Today, the institution of marriage is on life support, if you believe statistical evidence concerning illegitimate births and divorce. Heterosexuals pretty much try to avoid it, whereas gays are eager to embrace it. A punitive Proposition 1 will do little to help a growing social acceptance of divorce and broken families.
Religion? The toxic mixture of religion, politics and government produces not only fewer rights for all but less tolerance for the unorthodox. Remember Henry VIII’s problems with marriage and the papacy? You also see bizarre results such as the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas boycotting and protesting the funerals of slain war heroes because the military allows homosexuals to serve.
Historically in North Carolina, when religion has become involved in politicized issues like evolution, prohibition and homosexuality, there’s been a noticeable drop in both church attendance and public respect for ministers. Mistakenly taking public support for Proposition 1 as a mandate, preachers like Charles Worley of Maiden, N.C., used the pulpit to advocate “killing all gays and lesbians” by putting them behind an electrified fence until they “all die out.” The state’s Worleys subvert their own cause.
Beset by declining attendance, irresolute church hierarchies seeking scapegoats, reduced Bible study in homes and falling Sunday school enrollments, Christian churches in America have lost the allegiance of at least 40 percent of the population over the last 50 years, some sociologists estimate. New Age churches have made up perhaps 5 percent of that decline.
“Each generation must renew its spiritual assets if the integrity of the nation is to survive,” Margaret Thatcher famously declared in 1986, lamenting that her generation hadn’t done so. “I don’t go to church anymore, and I don’t care” became the mantra for the young. Yet transmitting religious beliefs from one generation to the next requires a bit of insistence, effort, time, understanding and supervision. How much easier it is, as Thatcher understood, to try to legislate morality through contemporary issues like abortion, contraception — and marriage amendments.
— Milton Ready, a retired UNCA history professor, lives in Mars Hill.