Even in the heart of the Bible Belt, it is impossible to ignore that the winds are beginning to shift on gay marriage.
That was highlighted by a direction change from a high-profile Republican in another state last week and polling data from the denomination that has more members in Arkansas than any other organized religion.
Ohio Sen. Rob Portman wrote an op-ed for The Columbus Dispatch, telling readers he had changed his position of opposing gay marriage to supporting it. Portman was considered to be on the short list of potential vice presidential picks this past year and is the first Republican senator to openly support gay marriage.
"I have come to believe that if two people are prepared to make a lifetime commitment to love and care for each other in good times and in bad, the government shouldn’t deny them the opportunity to get married," wrote Portman. "That isn’t how I’ve always felt. As a congressman, and more recently as a senator, I opposed marriage for same-sex couples. Then something happened that led me to think through my position in a much deeper way."
What happened was Portman’s college-age son told him two years ago he was gay. The senator explained how dealing with his son as a loving father caused him to rethink his stand on the issue. His past opposition to gay marriage was grounded in his faith, which he had to reconcile with what he said quickly became a real "dinner table" issue for his family.
Portman’s metamorphosis is a phenomenon happening across the country as the winds begin to shift on the issue. A new study from the Southern Baptist Lifeway Christian Resources found that 58 percent of Americans see homosexuality as a civil rights issues just as they see age, race, or gender. Only 29 percent disagreed while 12 percent were not sure.
In addition, the survey found that 64 percent believe that legalizing gay marriage is inevitable while only 24 percent believed otherwise.
The shifting perceptions on the issue highlight the difficult position politicians on both sides of the aisle find themselves in as they deal with the issue. But in Arkansas, the winds have not shifted nearly as profoundly. At least not yet.
The state constitution specifically states: "Marriage consists only of the union of one man and one woman." This Amendment 83 was passed in 2004 by an overwhelming 75 percent of the voters.
Recent polling data shows that has not changed much since the amendment passed. A Talk Business poll last summer in the 4th Congressional District found that 69 percent oppose same sex marriage while 26 percent support it.
But even in the Bible Belt, the issue is one that should be addressed with sensitivity, treating others with dignity regardless of one’s view of marriage. A social conservative group called the Traditional Values Coalition unfortunately gave an example of how not to do that. With all the sensitivity of a schoolyard bully, the group compared Portman’s son to a drunk driver, offering a satirical statement from the group’s director saying he had reversed his position on drinking and driving after his son admitted to drunk driving.
That kind of response is not beneficial to anyone.
Perhaps Portman offers us one of the best solutions. Although he states that his position has changed, he holds that the nation needs no federal mandate or court ruling forcing all states to allow gay marriage. Instead, he suggests it should be left to individual states. The voters of Arkansas likely would approve a different standard than those in Massachusetts.
Arkansas’ view may change with the shifting winds, but change is better accomplished at the ballot box and not through the courts.
Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.