Good News for the American Evolution
How the Respect for Marriage Act reveals how dynamic American political perspectives can be ... even in Wyoming
The other day, my sister and I sat next to my 87-year-old dad in a doctor’s office while a young Latino medical assistant typed my dad’s vitals into the computer. I was browsing through the Jackson Hole Daily when Gramp looked over at the page I had opened. The headlines called out “a watershed moment,” citing uber-conservative WY Senator Cynthia Lummis joining 11 other Republicans supporting legislation enshrining federal recognition of same-sex and interracial marriage. I don’t recall his exact words as he pointed his index finger at the article, but the gist was this:
“I don’t have any problem at all with that. I don’t have a problem with who anyone chooses to sleep with, or even giving them equal rights. People should be able to do what they want, it’s no one’s business.” Then, raising his voice to a quiet shout, he turned his wagging finger toward my sister and me and pronounced, “But there’s absolutely no way they should use the word ‘marriage.’ That word should only be used for a man and a woman.”
Not missing a beat, my sister quipped,
“Well, it sounds like you do have a problem with same-sex marriage.”
The young medical assistant’s back was to us, so I’m unsure how he reacted. I just sighed and turned the page.
A few days ago, during my evening commute, I was psyched to hear Domenico Montanaro’s story Biden signs Respect for Marriage Act, reflecting his and the country's evolution on NPR. It was refreshing to learn that on the topic of interracial and same-sex marriage, American public opinion has shifted at an unprecedented rate.
The shift in opinion on same-sex marriage:
In 2004, just 42% of Americans (19% of Republicans) said they supported same-sex marriage, according to Gallup. Today, support comes from 68% of Americans (43% of Republicans), according to an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.
The shift in opinion on interracial marriage:
In 1958, according to Gallup, just 4% said they approved of marriage between black and white people. American’s remained split on the issue through the 1990s, but by 2021, approval hit 94%.
Biden’s shifting views:
In his story, Montanaro outlines how President Biden, who has a grandchild who identifies as LGBTQ, is being lauded by some as the “most pro-equity president in history. Biden’s views on marriage equality have evolved dramatically, even outpacing American public opinion. In 1973, as a young senator, he expressed concerns about the security risks of having homosexuals in the military, and in the 1990s, along with a majority of senators, cast votes that cut off funding from public schools "encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative." In 1996 he voted for the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that defined marriage as between a man and woman and, in doing so, blocked federal recognition of same-sex marriages.
As late as the 2008 presidential campaign, as Obama’s running mate, Biden stated neither he nor Obama “supported redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage.” The turnaround came in 2012 when Biden spoke out ahead of President Obama in advocating for same-sex marriage — on national television:
“Marriage is about ‘who do you love?’” Biden said on NBC's Meet the Press. "And will you be loyal to the person you love? ... whether they're marriages of lesbians or gay men or heterosexuals?"
“I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties. And quite frankly, I don't see much of a distinction beyond that.”
Ten years later, in what some might consider a slow evolution, others a complete “flip flop,” and still others a miracle, Biden’s signing of the Respect for Marriage Act passed by congress mandates that all states should recognize same-sex marriages and effectively repeals DOMA.
Social evolution depends on our cognitive ability to RETHINK
On my quest to challenge as many beliefs of my own (and others) as I can, I’ve been inspired by Adam Grant, a psychology professor at the University of Penn’s Wharton School. Author of the NYT bestseller Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know. I first heard him speak on the Knowledge Project Podcast #112, Why you Need to Rethink Everything You Can.
Grant effectively argues that there are cognitive skills that matter more than intelligence (the ability to think and learn). In our rapidly changing world with unfettered access to information (and dis-information), we need the ability to rethink and unlearn; the ability to forgo the comfort of conviction and listen only to opinions that make us feel good and to embrace the discomfort of doubt, the ability to consider ideas that make us think hard. Rather than raising our fists when we disagree, we should shake hands with these learning opportunities.
Biden, and my dad, are both uber-intelligent men who grew up in a time when homosexuality (as it was called then) and interracial marriages were viewed as either a sin, a crime, or both. These deeply held beliefs based on moral rhetoric are hard to change, and I applaud them ... even when, in the case of my dad, there are some irrational threads of antiquated morals they still cling to.
When a politician changes their mind, the most critical pundits treat this as a weakness, as something to challenge, as a threat to re-election. I’ve always thought that politicians who are the biggest threat never change their minds. I’m more likely to vote for someone who has flip-flopped on an issue; it shows they are a thinking being, not a rhetoric robot. As a local politician, I try to go into every meeting with an open mind and heart and try my best to embrace the uncertainties around facts on complex issues.
True evolution and constructive social change will only come when we stop thinking like preachers defending our sacred beliefs and lawyers proving the other side wrong.
The shift in support for same-sex and interracial marriage rights over the last few decades reveals how dynamic American political perspectives can be, despite the media telling us we are irreparably divided. When you feel like Washington is stuck in gridlock, remember that if radical ideological change can happen in Wyoming, it can happen anywhere.
What deep-held beliefs are you rethinking or have you revised? Why? How?
A New Year’s Resolution, anyone?
Stop pushing so hard ... open up ... breathe insight. Give in ... to the shifting light. Step back ... lean in. Reconsider ... rethink, then keep up the fight to discover what’s right.
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