When President Obama announced his support for gay marriage, supporters and pundits declared it symbolic of a historic shift in American attitudes. But as the attention fades, the fact remains that voters in 31 states have rejected gay marriage and more are lining up to do so.
That leaves opponents of gay marriage to wonder if they're lagging behind history-in-the-making or leading it. Some say that, despite their convictions, they believe marriage between two men or two women will inevitably become law across the U.S. Others say that Obama's announcement strengthens their resolve, and will not slow the drive to protect an institution they consider vital to the nation's survival.
Backers of same-sex marriage often argue that, as more people see friends, family members and neighbors in committed gay relationships, misgivings fade. But opponents cite their own specific, personal experiences — as a missionary working with teens from single-mother households or a nurse treating a suicidal gay man — to explain their belief that the only way forward is for marriage to be limited to one man and one woman.
Many say that while their opposition to gay marriage begins with a reading of the Bible, it is confirmed by the challenges and observations of everyday life in a country whose values they see as crumbling. The politics of recent days, they say, will not change that.
That view is echoed in interviews with opponents from around the country, with some of the strongest conviction in states where gay marriage has been a hot issue.
In Minnesota, where a vote is set for this fall on an amendment similar to North Carolina's, missionary John Tolo said he'd long admired Obama for rising to become the nation's first black president. But he lamented Obama's stand on gay marriage as an unprincipled pursuit of campaign cash.
The president's stand contradicts the lessons of his own experience, said Tolo, recalling his own drug use and multiple sexual relationships after his parents divorced and, more recently, his work in a poor part of St. Paul.
In the Frogtown neighborhood, where Tolo's group has bought and is renovating an abandoned house that he says is a gathering point for teens, too many children grow up in households where there's "this fundamental breakdown of having a healthy father role model and a healthy mother role model," he said. "There's this major identity issue where men are just missing."
Tolo said that, while he supports the idea of some kind of legal recognition for same-sex couples, marriage is a sacred template for raising and caring for children as God intended. For government to try to broaden marriage risks undermining that, while infringing on the rights of Christians to define their own institutions.
"It's like saying Muslim women should no longer be allowed to wear burkas. To me, that's deeply offensive," Tolo said. "It's almost like the government wants to come and rewrite the Bible and, to me, that's a position that I don't think the government should take."
In North Carolina, Jennifer Cockerham's support for a gay marriage ban is rooted in a childhood spent in Bible Belt churches, warned against fornication and adultery. She said tornadoes and other cataclysmic events are a sign that God disapproves of the way Americans are living.
But with those beliefs as a foundation, Cockerham said certain experiences during her 23 years as a nurse cemented her opposition to gay marriage.
"My first encounter, personally, with a homosexual was when I had a patient who tried to commit suicide" after an argument with a lover, said Cockerham, who lives in Kernersville, N.C. "I felt really sorry for him because he had almost succeeded with the suicide attempt and I felt that he had so much more to live for than that particular lifestyle that had brought him there."
Visiting a daughter at college near San Francisco, she was dismayed by the openness of gay and lesbian couples.
"I know that made me feel uncomfortable and also made me feel concerned with the fact that they just needed the Lord. I felt they needed a heavenly father who could love them and teach them differently," she says.
On the night of the North Carolina vote, Cockerham stayed up until 1:30 a.m. watching reports of the results that were a fulfillment of her prayers.
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