The Liberal State and the Gay Marriage Debate: Lessons from American Catholic Thought

The 2012 election cycle marked the first time that any state had approved a measure to permit same-sex marriages by popular ballot, with measures endorsed by voters in Maine, Maryland, and Washington reflecting a steady increase in public opinion favorable to gay marriage over the past ten years or so. President Obama announced his personal endorsement for giving gays and lesbians the right to marry one another during an interview with ABC News in May 2012, and, several months later, the Democratic Party became the first major party in American history to endorse gay marriage in a political platform.

Already galvanized by their opposition to the Obama Administration’s mandate requiring employers to provide birth control coverage in their health insurance policies, opposition to same-sex marriage was in many instances spearheaded by the Catholic hierarchy. Indeed, its opposition to gay marriage (along with abortion) is often seen as the Catholic Church’s principal contribution to contemporary American public life. But I want to suggest that the Church has more to contribute than this, and that in fact is the most significant contribution American Catholicism has to make to the debate is a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between morality and civil law—one that allows citizens with different moral views on controversial issues to engage one another respectfully in the public square.

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