Things looked good early in the evening November 3 for those who opposed Maine’s Question 1 — the referendum to overturn the state legislature’s redefinition of marriage as between two consenting adults rather than between a man and a woman. As the first state to pass such a law through its legislature without a court order, Maine represented a potential turning point for the movement. If Question 1 were defeated, it would provide further momentum and show that a legislative strategy could succeed. By contrast, a majority of voters in Maine voting to pass Question 1 would be a devastating blow not merely to same sex couples in Maine, but to the movement as a whole.
The “No On One” folks had run an excellent campaign. Unlike the campaign against California’s Proposition 8 last year, which was slow to recognize the substantial resistance to same sex marriage opponents would tap, the No On One folks ran a substantial ground game, ad campaign, and mobilization strategy. Voter turnout was heavy, which was thought to favor No On One, and early returns — from urban areas — looked very good.
Then things went sour. Enthusiasm on both sides was very high. Rural districts went overwhelming Yes on One. By the end of the night, it appeared that a majority of voters in Maine had rejected the state legislature’s effort to eliminate discrimination in marriage. You can read Adam Bink’s liveblogging (which I find heartbreaking in its straightforward reporting) here. Nate Silver (who had predicted defeat for Question 1) has some analysis here, including speculation on the possibility that there may be a “Bradley Effect”-type phenomena wrt same sex marriage. Others blame Obama for declining to invest his own political capital. But whatever the reason, the loss on Question 1 in Maine creates the possibility of what I call an “Elijah moment” — based on Kings I 19:1-14 — for the many people who have invested so much of themselves in the movement to provide the fundamental right of marriage to all.
More below . . .
OK, this hurts for me personally in two ways — although my personal disappointment in the outcome cannot even begin to approach that of folks directly impacted, and especially those who invested their heart and soul in the campaign. The first is the substance itself. I do not subscribe to the view that those who oppose gay marriage are irredeemably racist evil people no better than those who would ship gay folks and Jews and cripples off to concentration camps for liquidation. I recognize the complexity of human behavior and know that there’s lots of ways to look at this and slice it.
But as I made clear earlier, I consider this a fundamental human right. The freedom to love as one chooses, marry as one chooses, form the family one chooses, is as essential to my mind as the right to worship as one chooses. Someone who wants to see the U.S. a Christian nation ruled according to his or her version of the Bible is not an antisemite to my mind. Nor do I consider such a person evil — though I would not fair well in that person’s ideal world. But we disagree on a fundamental principle, and a country with a majority view disagreeing with me on a fundamental principle is not pleasant.
Second, I am personally disappointed because I have been a staunch advocate of the use of legislative initiatives and the process of democracy rather than the use of court cases to achieve the goal of equality for same sex couples. This not only comports with my personal opinions of the rule of law, the proper role of the judiciary, and why those things are important. I also believe that the strength of democracy is that it provides the means to legitimize and solidify social change and culture change. While the advantage of losing a legislative fight instead of a court case means that you can come back and try again, it also shows just how many people are “not ready,” and may never be “ready,” to regard same sex marriage as “normal.”
It is small comfort to recall how radical and dramatic is the culture change that same sex marriage is. It was only a generation ago when homosexuality was defined as a mental illness and to be discovered as homosexual would result in loss of employment and social ostracism. It should be unsurprising, especially since one can find many pockets where this social attitude lingers, that the final step in recognizing sexual orientation as a non-factor in one’s value as a human being and full acceptance of the right of adult individuals to form the families they chose should face such stiff resistance. I believe that even a lost campaign raises consciousness and awareness, forces people to confront the basis for their resistance, and requires them to recognize those denied marriage as real people (whom they know in many cases) rather than as an abstraction. Historically, nothing as broken down resistance to new ideas over time than the constant back and forth of the political process and requiring people to engage time and again with issues they would rather simply let be. My Great Grandmother and her sisters in arms chaining themselves to the gates of Gracie Mansion and getting arrested time and again until Women’s Suffrage became the law of the land knew what it took to change people’s minds about something ingrained so deep it was assumed as much a part of the natural order of the world as the Sun rising in the east. In the end, time favors this social change, even if it means outliving the deep resistance of many who grew up when homosexuality was “the love that dare not speak its name.”
None of this changes the bitter disappointment at discovering how much further there is to go. And again, my pain and disappointment is a pallid shadow of what gay and lesbian people — whether they live in Maine or not — are likely feeling now.
Even the passage of Washington State’s “everything but marriage” referendum does not help. If anything, it makes it worse. Barely 51% of the electorate of a major coastal state is willing to confer everything short of the ultimate imprimatur of acceptance. “We’re willing to do everything but actually acknowledge your relationship is ‘normal’” is perhaps useful practically, but an extremely bitter thing to live with on a daily basis.
This creates what I have come to call an “Elijah moment” for the same sex marriage movement. As related in Kings I 18:1-19:14, Elijah performed the miracle on Mt. Carmel, showing the priests of Ba’al as worshipers of a false god impotent before the Lord. The people of Israel — even the wicked King Ahab — responded with a fervent embrace of God and Elijah ran miraculously before Ahab’s chariot. But when Ahab told his queen, Jezebel, she brushed the miracle aside, flipped Ahab back to idolatry, and sent word to Elijah that nothing he did mattered and she would send soldiers forth to kill him.
With a word, Jezebel had utterly undone what Elijah had done.
Elijah is crushed. He lapses into a state of utter and unresponsive depression. He goes to the desert to lie down and die. An angel appears before him and gives him food and tells him to eat. In classic depression mode, Elijah takes the food, eats without protest, and lies back down again to die. God then sends him on a journey through the desert and when Elijah arrives at a cave God speaks to him: “Why hast thou come Elijah?” Elijah responds: “I have done exceedingly zealously for the Lord of Hosts, for the children of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your altars, and murdered your prophets until only I am left, and now they seek my life as well.”
Then the Lord said: “Go forth from the cave and the Lord shall pass before you.” And a great wind arose, with a force so mighty that it shattered stone, but the Lord was not in the wind. And when the wind passed there was a great earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. Then there passed a mighty fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, a still small voice.
And when Elijah heard, he turned from the mouth of the cave and covered his head with his mantle. And the Lord asked “Why have you come Elijah?” And Elijah repeated the same answer, word for word, “I have done exceedingly zealously for the Lord of Hosts, for the children of Israel have abandoned your covenant, destroyed your altars, and murdered your prophets until only I am left, and now they seek my life as well.”
This is Elijah’s terrible moment. He has invested himself completely and utterly in his cause — a cause that is righteous and just. He has done everything he possibly can. He has literally performed miracles and shown his enemies to be utterly wrong by the very tests to which they agreed to be judged.
And none of that mattered.
For every person who invests himself or herself in a cause, there may come such an “Elijah moment.” The bitter moment of discovering that even when you do everything right, even when the cause is so important and central to everything you believe and to your conception of the universe and how it should work that “failure is not an option.” When you look at everything you did and know that not only is there nothing else you could have done differently, but that you exceeded what it was ever reasonable to believe you could accomplish.
And in the end, it didn’t matter.
For Elijah, it was soul crushing. God shows Elijah the parable of the still small voice, the reminder that in the end it is not force or might or miracles which can bring people to do what is right. Miracles or force that shock and awe, or in our modern society court cases and social pressure, may temporarily change someone’s outward behavior. But it is only when a person hears the still small voice calling them to their better nature can a person genuinely change within and accept a new truth. But Elijah cannot bear it. It is not that he does not recognize the still small voice of the Lord. He hears it. But he can no longer bear the terrible burden of not merely living among a people who close their ears to the still small voice — but who refuse to listen. And so Elijah turns away. He literally covers his head to hide himself from the voice of the Lord and repeat again to God “I have done exceedingly zealously, I have given my all, and all my efforts have been in vain. I cannot bear to go on.”
I suspect for many who have given of themselves and invested themselves in the fight for recognition of marriage to the one you love as a fundamental right, this is an Elijah moment. From personal experience, I can say that it is a bitter thing. But I can also say that — after a time — it is possible to do what Elijah could not. It is possible to hear the still small voice again and bear the burden it places upon you, to come back out from under your cloak, dust yourself off, and go back to fight another day.
And for those of us for whom this was not quite so devastating a loss, for those of sufficiently removed that we can immediately look ahead to the next fight — perhaps even more passionately fueled by anger — give those who feel despair their chance to heal. It is as necessary to grieve and recover from such a devastating blow as it would be from the loss of a loved one.
Stay tuned . . .