Less than two months after gay marriage dominated headlines and national discourse during the Supreme Court’s oral arguments over Proposition 8 and the Defense of Marriage Act, homosexuality has yet again snagged the spotlight. Jason Collins, an NBA player and free agent, officially came out this week, making him the first openly gay player in any of America’s major sports leagues. On ESPN’s Outside The Lines Monday, Chris Broussard traded the the basketball arena for the political arena, invoking the unholy trinity of “homosexuality… adultery, [and] fornication.”
Broussard argued against the gay “lifestyle” from a common intellectual wellspring—traditional Christianity. He anchored his opposition in scripture and the types of church teachings generally held by many evangelical denominations in the U.S.. African Americans, who according to Pew score higher than average on religiosity pretty much across the board, tend to adhere to religiously conservative views on homosexuality and gay marriage, views that divide blacks from the mainstream Democrats. Seeing this schism, some conservative Republican strategist naturally might think they see some low-hanging fruit for the political picking in the elections of 2014 and 2016. If they are prudent, however, Republicans will do their foraging elsewhere, because that fruit is simply not ready to be plucked.
Ninety-five percent of African Americans voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and 93% voted for him in 2012. What changed? Not much, according to the exit poll numbers. But on the issue of gay marriage, everything changed, including Barack Obama. Between August 2008, in which he affirmed, “Marriage is the union between a man and a woman,” and 2012, Obama famously “evolved” on the issue. Before the 2012 election, he finally and firmly began supporting gay marriage. If maintaining the traditional definition of marriage were of primary importance to African Americans, we ought to have seen a real dip in black support during the election. The damage? Effectively zero. Why?
Primarily because African Americans have been evolving on homosexuality right along with President Obama. Indeed, across the country, support for gay marriage rose from 39% in 2008 to 51% in 2012, an impressive shift in a relatively short time frame. Likewise, over the same period, black support for gay marriage rose from 26% to 40%, an even larger leap than the country generally.
The generational juxtaposition is even starker. Millennials support gay marriage at a staggering rate of 70%, and as more and more reach voting age, their culturally conservative parents will probably find their fellow holdouts’ percentage of the electorate shrinking quite rapidly. All of which suggests that for both African Americans and the country as a whole, opposition to homosexuality is a major generational issue with minor partisan implications, rather than the other way around.
Even if the issue of homosexuality were less of a political bump in the road and more like a landmine for Democrats, it is unlikely that Republicans will be able to create enough contrast on the issue to attract many would-be-converts. The Republican “family values” dam is leaking all over the place, with many prominent Republicans—most famously Senator Rob Portman of Ohio—coming out in support of gay marriage. If the GOP decides to double down on its cultural conservatism, it will risk not only generating generational whiplash, but also sparking a civil war within its own ranks.
So yes, African Americans still lag behind the rest of Americans when it comes to supporting the gay community. But sooner rather than later, those who drag their feet will be digging in their heels, eventually losing their footing entirely as they are swept along in the tide of history.