Most Americans oppose gay marriage--polls generally suggest somewhere around 60 percent say they don't agree with extending marriage to homosexual couples. But most Americans-- to roughly the same extent--oppose amending the Constitution to make gay marriage impossible. A January ABCNew/Washington Post poll put it at 58 percent.

What gives? The numbers suggest that the issue touches Americans in significant ways. Marriage involves love, sex, children, intimacy, and care--all things Americans experience personally (unlike, say, tariffs), and about which they develop strong opinions. True, gay couples share these experiences; they can adopt (or, given the wonders of modern science, have) children, just as it is true that heterosexual couples can be childless. But try explaining that to someone who believes (and the majority of Americans seem to) that the mystery of sexuality was created by a God who believed that children should be brought into the world through an act of passion by a man and a woman deeply in love.

If they do not like the idea of gay marriage, why are so many Americans so resistant to amending the Constitution to prevent it? The Bible, that same believer will insist, was written by God, but no one claims He wrote the Constitution. While it has assumed an Scripture-like reverence, the Constitution is a political document written by real people in human time. It outlines a perfectly usable, if difficult to realize, process for its own amendment, and it has been amended from time to time on matters as morally serious as slavery. Surely, if we can change it to prohibit drinking alcohol, we should be able to change it to prohibit something people consider even more sinful. So why don't we?

One interpretation of the paradox is that opposition to gay marriage, while broadly shared, is not very deep. The president of the United States appears to buys this interpretation. If a politician wants to signal opposition to something while letting his or her inside-the-beltway audience know the opposition shouldn't be taken literally, the politician calls for a constitutional amendment. Out there in the sticks, the theory goes, his followers say he must really care. In more sophisticated circles everyone knows that the process of actually passing a constitutional amendment is so cumbersome that no one will be called upon to do much about it until the controversy fades away.

In his recent State of the Union address, Mr. Bush took an even weaker route, suggesting a constitutional "process"--as if he did not want to be pinned down to something as a specific as an amendment. The decision by the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts that rejected civil unions as an alternative to gay marriage increases the pressure from the president's conservative Christian base to support an amendment, and he will almost certainly sharpen his language in response. But the fact that the majority of Americans are unenthusiastic about elevating this issue to constitutional status will likely sway him more.

But that's politics. What about what we believe? Americans are not avid readers of their Constitution. Many would have a hard time identifying the 14th Amendment as the one that ended slavery by guaranteeing no person should be deprived of due process of law. Yet this may be exactly why Americans do not want to see their opposition enshrined as a matter of constitutional permanence. In a way that doesn't require knowledge of constitutional theory, they see that a marriage amendment would add intolerant clauses to a document famous for its tolerance.

The Constitution is not only a text; it is a symbol, and all Americans, religious believers especially, appreciate the power of symbols. No one wants graffiti written on the Lincoln Monument; even the most zealous anti-gay marriage proponent might have second thoughts about changing a written monument so closely identified with Lincoln's leadership. Like any sacred text, the Constitution is not really of this world. Marriage, children, and sex very much are. To blend the two is to mix the sacred and the profane in uneasy ways.

By coincidence, Americans are finding their feet on this issue at the start of a national election year. Increasingly the Republicans are perceived as the party willing to take risks, whether those involve the financial burdens of future generations, or the possibly higher costs of an Iraqi war. In such an environment, the Democrats have appeared as the more conservative party, calling for balanced budgets and overseas caution.

That same topsy-turvy dynamic can now be applied to cultural issues. The great irony of America's puzzling attitudes toward gay marriage is that while they give the Republicans the opportunity to paint Democrats as out of sync with mainstream values, they also give Democrats the chance to pain Republicans as radicals willing to tamper with sacred things. If gay marriage becomes an issue in 2004--it is hard to imagine how it could not--it will be interesting to watch the traditionally liberal party speak as if the Constitution were untouchable while the traditionally more conservative one urges it be changed to keep up with the times.

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