Columnists > Voices

Who's to say?

Before too long, there's good reason to fear that relativistic question will settle almost every philosophical difference

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2003," Dec. 13, 2003

There's nothing statistically valid about my polling efforts-but I still like the down-to-earthness of my very informal twice-a-year surveys. I just go next door to the handy Wal-Mart, stand at the main entrance, and collar a few of the folks coming and going. It's easier on the Monday after Thanksgiving, because the crowds are ample. If someone wants to ignore me, that's fine; there are plenty more who are willing to talk.

This morning, I wanted to ask folks about homosexual marriages. My hypothesis at the beginning of my survey was simply that the big push to legalize marriages between homosexuals is a very un-Wal-Mart idea. Just as Wal-Mart didn't become the nation's biggest retailer by putting stores in the suburbs of Boston, so the recent decision of the highest court in Massachusetts isn't especially a reflection of the social preferences of the blue-collar folks who crowd into Wal-Mart's big blue-and-gray boxes.

"Goodness, no!" said Martha, the first woman I stopped. She was fortyish and feminine. "It's one thing to give gays the freedom-the quiet freedom-to do what they do. But no way should we go on and let them call it marriage. Just mark me down as being unalterably against that foolishness."

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And out of 30 responses, Martha's was most typical. "I want to be tolerant," Ronnie echoed. Then he grinned. "But don't push me too far," he added. "As my grandma used to say, 'Don't spoil a good inclination.'"

"There's just too much we don't know yet," said Verona, whose two teenage daughters rolled their eyes a bit while listening to their mom and me talk. "How can we possibly predict what's going to happen to kids in gay homes? Doesn't it take 20 years, or maybe even a generation or two, to see what the effects are going to be?"

And whatever positive PR the homosexual community may have derived from the nation's major media over the last quarter century, AIDS and other health issues still color the public's thinking. "Just when we're told again that AIDS is speeding up, not slowing down-that doesn't seem to me to be the right time to tell gays it's OK for them to marry each other," said Robert.

In fact, a solid two-thirds of those I chatted with opposed the idea of legalizing homosexual marriages. And of that group, you couldn't help being impressed with the emphatic nature of their opposition. On both counts, my findings weren't much different from recent national polls. Americans at large have responded to recent court rulings by increasing-both in number and in annoyance-their resistance to homosexual marriage. In fact, advocates of the homosexual agenda have worried openly that they may have unintentionally provoked a backlash by pushing for too much too fast.

But that is hardly the whole story-both in my Wal-Mart survey and in the national statistics. Ginny, a young mother with two toddlers, seemed altogether true to her generation when she told me candidly that while she couldn't begin to understand anything as "weird" as gay marriage, neither was she the type to stand in the way if that was what they wanted. Indeed, only two people out of the 30 I talked with seemed ready, on principle, to suggest that homosexual marriage is itself a good thing. But a full third of my sample were eager-their own preferences notwithstanding-not to be seen as judgmental or standing in the way of other people's styles and inclinations. Most tellingly, this smaller group tended to be significantly younger than the majority still willing to stand its ground.

"Really, now," Al tried to persuade me. "How can anybody be sure what the best approach is? Haven't human beings tried just about every combination? Who's to say what might prove to be the best answer? Who am I to tell somebody else what's right and what's wrong?"

Al's friend Gina twisted the knife a bit. "Traditional male-female marriages aren't doing so well, either," she reminded me. "Maybe we just need to evolve on to some new family models now. I hear lots of people worry about the loss of tradition-but I'm not so sure how much I like what tradition has given us."

Short-term, I think, the Wal-Mart wisdom is that conventional marriage-between one man and one woman-is safe in America. For now, the homosexual community may indeed have overreached. Their elitism may have backfired, and blue-collar values will prevail.

But probably not for long. Apart from God's grace, the ratios of those two main schools of thought will change. Sooner than we can imagine, the national motto by which we'll settle every difference will be that dismaying question: "Who's to say?"

Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.


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