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What happened here? Three observations about Minnesota’s marriage vote

Ironically, MN United created exactly what the original supporters of the amendment said they wished for — a conversation about marriage — and the outcome was defeat of the amendment.

Opponents of the amendment wrote something new in the playbook of LGBT rights.
MinnPost photo by Terry Gydesen

Minnesota voters made history when we were the first in the nation to reject a proposed constitutional prohibition of legal recognition for the marriages of same-sex couples. Back in 2011, when conservative legislators proposed the amendment, they said it was time for citizens to have a “conversation about the definition of marriage.”  Now the election is behind us. The conversation is at a pause. Time to look back and reflect. What were the main talking points? Did media coverage convey the conversation well? What were the undercurrents on which the public debate seemed to turn?  

David Booth
Photo by Thomas Dunning
David Booth

Viewed in hindsight, the campaign was a spectacle of transformation. On one side: a public-relations consultant from California with a string of victories behind him; legislators insisting on the right of some citizens to vote on the rights of others; black-gowned clergy. On the other side: a surprising coalition of business leaders; politicians of every ideological stripe; religious leaders from many different faith traditions; veterans who said they had not put themselves in harm’s way so as to shrink the range of American freedoms; armies of volunteers at phone banks; seas of orange and blue yard signs.

Minnesota for Marriage, the official campaign to pass the amendment, offered revisionist histories of marriage and tendentious social science. It warned of impending loss of religious freedoms, decline of civilization, and harm to children.  Though its claims were roundly discredited, it repeated them throughout the campaign.  Other supporters appealed to “the biblical definition of the family unit.” But they ignored serious debates within religious communities about biblical interpretation. And they were undeterred by reservations about whether “biblical definitions” should be codified in secular law. 

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Opponents of the amendment wrote something new in the playbook of LGBT rights.  In previous elections, advocates of marriage equality emphasized equal rights and fairness. Having learned from past electoral failures, Minnesotans United for All Families, the official campaign against the amendment, chose a different strategy. MN United centered its appeal on personal stories of same-sex couples who yearn to marry for reasons pretty much like the reasons different-sex couples want to. The appeal was concrete and personal. The centerpiece of the “no” campaign was a vast network of personal conversations, where amendment opponents engaged undecided voters in conversations about the personal costs to gay and lesbian neighbors of being denied equitable legal recognition.

Ironically, MN United created exactly what the original supporters of the amendment said they wished for – a conversation about marriage – and the outcome was defeat of the amendment.

When I look back and try to make sense of this spectacle, three patterns stand out: 1) the insistence of amendment supporters that the amendment was not discriminatory; 2) the role of progressive religious faith in motivating opposition to the amendment; and 3) the abstractness of many “yes” arguments, which ignored the concrete reality of families headed by same-sex couples. 

We’re not discriminating!

The amendment itself was an exercise in what John Stuart Mill called the “tyranny of the majority.” The ballot question gave the majority a chance to decide whether a minority possessed the same right of legal recognition that the majority took for granted. Amendment supporters tried to obscure this unhappy reality by insisting they sought merely to secure a “definition” of marriage. They suppressed the fact that the main effect of the “definition” was to deny equal legal recognition to a tiny, vulnerable minority of their neighbors. 

Minnesota’s LGBT citizens have known decades of employment discrimination, school bullying, exclusion and legal disability. Though they do indeed form loving, life-long bonds, these bonds lack the legal benefits and responsibilities of legal marriage. The amendment’s sole purpose was to render this particular legal disability permanent. 

Nevertheless, amendment supporters were at pains to deny that the amendment was discriminatory. This was a remarkable rhetorical ploy. 

Archbishop John Nienstadt of the Minnesota Archdiocese of the Catholic Church was typical. He argued vigorously against legal recognition for same-sex couples. He voiced Catholic positions that trivialize and belittle the bonds between loving same-sex partners. But he wanted it known that the amendment was “a positive affirmation, not intended to be hurtful or discriminatory to anyone.”  

In a similar mood, one legislative supporter of the amendment assured me “we can love and respect our GLBT sisters and brothers AND stand up for marriage between one man and one woman.” When I briefly described the harm the amendment would do to actual same-sex families, he denied that “defending traditional marriage” was intended to be, or was in fact harmful. 

Amendment supporters even took a further step: They claimed they were the ones who risked harm in the outcome of the question. In particular, they often asserted their freedom of religion and expression would be in jeopardy if the amendment failed. 

Television ads produced by Frank Schubert for the “yes” campaign played to these fears. They warned of harm to the liberty of religious people should the amendment fail. Children would be forced to study gay marriage in primary grades, and parents would be powerless to stop it. Businesses would be sued because of their objections to same-sex relationships. Religious charities would be forced to close. 

Every claim in Schubert’s ads was investigated and discredited. But he did not back down from the strategy to rouse fear and emphasize a sense of injury on the part of amendment supporters. 

The sense of victimization reached a high point when Pastor Brad Brandon, a faith leader with Minnesota for Marriage, implied that if the amendment failed, religious conservatives might be silenced by courts or legislators. He even suggested a comparison to the Nazi suppression of Christians who opposed their regime. He quickly offered both a retraction and an apology for that comparison, but he didn’t retreat from the suggestion that social conservatives were the ones with something to lose. 

In fact, amendment supporters had (and have) little to lose. No matter the legal status of same-sex unions, the heterosexual majority continues to enjoy the right of marriage, along with the social prestige and affirmation that comes with being a majority. Moreover, the First Amendment right of religious communities to decide what unions to bless (or not bless) remains intact no matter what marriage laws the state enacts.  And of course nothing impinges on their right to express moral disapproval. 

Perhaps it comforted supporters to insist they were not discriminating. But voters apparently concluded that denying one small group the rights and benefits the majority enjoys was indeed discrimination. And they rejected it. 

Religious progressivism and religious conservatism

The changing role of religion in debate about LGBT rights was also noteworthy. Since the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan forged an effective alliance between political and religious conservatives, it has been convenient to equate “religion” with social conservatism. But the equation doesn’t hold up. Throughout American history, religious faith has motivated progressive political positions as much as conservative ones. 

That certainly proved true in Minnesota’s marriage conversation. Media coverage emphasized the role of “Catholics and evangelicals” supporting the amendment. The implication was that opponents were less religious. That was a problematic implication. 

First, though Catholic and evangelical leaders did support the amendment, many other religious communities came out in faith-based opposition. MN United intentionally sought religious allies. In the end their coalition included over 100 communities of faith and over 600 religious leaders in many traditions. Many religious communities organized phone banks, where volunteers gathered in church basements, synagogues, and elsewhere to call neighbors and talk about how faith motivated their support for marriage equality. These faithful people affirmed the goodness of life-long, loving bonds between committed same-sex partners because of (not in spite of) their religious convictions. 

And second, “the Catholic Church” was no monolith in the debate. Minnesota’s Catholic community was divided by robust lay dissent from the official position of the Archdiocese. Catholic leaders, starting with Archbishop Nienstadt, led an energetic (some said heavy handed) effort to approve the amendment. They invested large sums of money. They instructed priests and parochial school teachers about how they in turn should instruct parishioners and students. Several faculty of the Catholic University of St. Thomas published opinion pieces asserting Catholic natural law theology in defense of “traditional marriage.” The archbishop forbade priests from expressing dissent over this basic position. 

But many lay Catholics opposed the amendment. “Catholics for Marriage Equality” (C4ME) coordinated efforts to articulate and publish Catholic reasons to support marriage equality. Yard signs boasting “Another Catholic Voting NO” were a common sight. Though no exit polls that I know of measured Catholic voting patterns on the amendment, national polls suggest that up to 70 percent of Catholic laity support marriage equality. So the story of the Catholic community in Minnesota’s marriage conversation was not that “the Church” supported the amendment. The story was that official Catholicism supported the amendment, while large numbers of lay Catholics (and some dissident priests) did not. Faith-based concern for justice led many to oppose what they saw as the injustice of the amendment. 

Minnesota’s long conversation appears to be a milestone concerning religion’s role in debate about LGBT equality. It is no longer possible to construe debates about same-sex marriage as pitting “religion” against secular advocates of equal rights. Religious communities themselves are engaged in rapidly evolving theological argument. There are ongoing conversations within religious communities about the interpretation of scripture, about the nature of human beings, about the purpose of loving relationships in the ultimate design of reality. 

In effect, Minnesota voters decided they did not want to take one group’s particular religious view and enshrine that in civil law at great cost to the religious views of others. 

Empathy and realism

Finally, Minnesota’s marriage conversation was notable for the abstractness of amendment supporters’ arguments. This contrasted with the realism and empathy on which MN United relied. 

Data from the 2010 Census suggest there are already more than 10,000 Minnesota households headed by same-sex couples. They enact all the daily realities of marriage: They join in love; they share mutual care in good and bad times; they raise children; they do the laundry; they plan for the future; they stick it out through thick and thin.  These are marriages in every sense but the legal sense. MN United asked voters to see the reality of these families, and to respond with empathy for the real love that forms them, and the real harm done to them by the denial of legal recognition. 

Minnesota for Marriage countered with abstractions, the most persistent of which was the claim that voters should deny legal recognition to same-sex couples “for the good of the children.” Amendment supporters repeatedly asserted that “common sense and social science” show that children do not fare well in households headed by same-sex couples.  From that assertion, they concluded that the state should withhold the benefits and protections of legal recognition from households that are in fact headed by same-sex couples.  (They never acknowledged the harm done to children whose families are denied legal recognition.) 

Experts in social science and child welfare stepped forth in large numbers to discredit the supporters’ vague claims about child welfare. It turns out the only social science the amendment supporters could cite was flawed and tendentious; moreover, the supporters drew unsupportable inferences from the studies they did cite.  Methodologically responsible social science shows the opposite of what amendment supporters claimed: Child welfare is affected by love, stability, and security, not by the sex of parents. 

Where amendment opponents focused on the welfare of real families with real children, supporters focused on what they regarded as a theoretical ideal of children living with biological parents. Amendment opponents addressed the immediate harm done to children in LGBT households by denying them the security and benefits of legal recognition. Supporters overlooked that entirely in abstract advocacy of an ideological ideal. In the end, the realism and empathy of the “no” campaign won out over the abstractness and lack of sympathy in the “yes” campaign. 

What’s next

In coming months legislators may debate whether to grant legal recognition to committed same-sex couples who wish to marry. Opponents of marriage equality will probably offer the same arguments that proved unpersuasive in the conversation leading up to election day. But they will no longer be able to say that the citizens support discrimination against same-sex couples and their families. 

We had a long conversation. We took a vote. Discrimination did not prevail. 

David Booth is an associate professor of religion at St. Olaf College in Northfield.


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