It is dismaying yet hardly surprising that the first of five bills comprising the Common Ground Initiative as proposed by Equality Utah died quickly in a state senate committee this week. With the antediluvian social conservative forces once again flexing their muscles reminding state legislators that they’re taking charge of their minds and hearts, it will be a miracle of no small order if any of the Common Ground bills find a glint of sunshine in the legislative chambers. And, of course, the LDS church leadership has remained as tight lipped as possible — essentially reneging on its public statements following the Prop 8 campaign.
Equality Utah must rely on patience and the strength of gradual transformation. The Common Ground initiative will see light one day, likely sooner than what conventional wisdom around the state might suggest. The state’s legislature is hardly known for its long-term perspective. It consistently is easily tempted by short-term feelings of political victory. It deliberately ignores every accumulating shred of evidence that point incontrovertibly to a growing body of public support which says the time has come to reverse the course of policy regarding the essential civil rights attendant to a segment of the population that increasingly finds itself comfortable with the stabilizing institutions of contemporary society. At some point, the Gayle Ruzickas, Paul Sutherlands, and Chris Buttars will be relegated to the outermost sidelines — not in this election cycle nor the next but undoubtedly within the next following two rounds.
The passage of Prop 8 in California last November certainly galvanized this reactionary group, especially in wake of the broader electoral mandate handed to Obama. Just two weeks after the election, editors at the conservative National Review magazine sponsored a forum “Whither Conservatism?” in which attendees repeatedly supported the need for the GOP to continue pressing the fight against such social issues as marriage equality.
In December, Richard Cizik, the longtime moderate Washington lobbyist for the National Association of Evangelicals known for his ability to nagivate both major sides of the partisan aisle, was forced to resign over remarks in a National Public Radio interview with Terry Gross signaling his personal support of gay civil unions. The remarks that got Cizik into trouble?: “I’m shifting, I have to admit. In other words, I would willingly say I believe in civil unions. I don’t officially support redefining marriage from its traditional definition, I don’t think.” James Dobson, head of Focus on the Family, and Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, moved aggressively to force Cizik out of his post.
Further reinforcement came from Rich Lowry, National Review editor, in an end-of-the-year column where he mentioned how traditionalists such as the Mormons had been vilified and intimidated for their campaign. No surrender whatsoever:
“In a story about Hollywood’s outrage at Obama’s choice of Warren, Democratic political consultant Chad Griffin told the Los Angeles Times: Rick Warren needs to realize that he is further dividing us at a time when the country needs to come together. I think he needs to gracefully step aside.’
“Ah, yes, ‘gracefully step aside.’ That’s essentially what the cultural left has been asking traditionalists to do for 30 years now, to politely shut up while it goes about redefining the country’s mores. The answer must now be, as it has always been, ‘No way, no how.’”
No doubt, Buttars and his colleagues got the memo loud and clear. However, Utah’s residents may already have a change of heart that should give pause to Buttars et al. As noted in a Salt Lake Tribune editorial on Jan. 22:
“A poll commissioned by the Tribune of 500 registered voters found that 56 percent of respondents favor legal protections for same-sex couples, such as hospital visitation and inheritance rights and employment protections.
“The Equality Utah poll, conducted by the independent research firm Information Alliance of Ogden, sampled 600 Utahns and found support for making it illegal to fire workers (62 percent) or deny housing (56.5 percent) to persons because of their sexual orientation, while 63 percent favored providing gay and lesbian couples with hospital visitation, health insurance and inheritance rights.”
The findings are consistent with other polls around the nation that show, in particular, younger generations of voters — including evangelicals — accept homosexuality among their peers and follow it accordingly with support of civil unions and marriage equality. As writer James Kirchick, an assistant editor of The New Republic and a columnist for The Advocate, suggests, an increasing number of people see “no logical reason for a newfound appreciation of ‘family values’ to also include hostility to homosexuality.”
And, certainly the lessons from the Oscar-nominated film “Milk” and the critically acclaimed Lifetime TV movie “Prayers for Bobby” resonate with audiences far broader than what one might have expected 20 or 30 years ago. The threshold, I believe, is near when an increasing proportion of 21st-century voters will resist voting for a party or candidates stubbornly wedded to anti-gay politics. While one should not reasonably believe that the potential strength of the party’s political portfolio falls on any single issue, there are a good number of conscientious conservatives who aggressively question the wisdom of a political strategy predicated on a wedge issue in which the larger populace already has largely settled on a truce and assimilating solution in the so-called culture wars.
Equality Utah and, likewise, its supporters would do well to stay a dignified, respectful course — to keep alive the message of the Common Ground Initiative during the 320 days of the year when the Utah Legislature is not in session. The dialogue can be cultivated and enriched away from the irrationally-charged chambers of the state Capitol. And, please, no more treats to Buttars and his ilk. PR gimmickry like this never works in the shrewd hard-fought arena of politics.
At some point, Buttars and his colleagues, like those with vested interests of the national conservative movement, will have to, as Kirchick notes, “stand out of the way of what’s coming.” The nature of politics and electoral history favor that the seemingly immortal super-majority in the legislature inevitably will suffer a major defeat at the polls. If indeed the GOP in Utah and the LDS church believe that they can sustain themselves and survive these underlying tectonic shifts in public acceptance and affirmation, both entities will discover — likely belatedly — the need to work hard on finding their common ground with a freshly enlightened, empowered citizenry.
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