Is There Room for a 'Southern Point of View' on Gay Marriage?

In 1960, an Atlanta writer criticized lingering Southern support for segregation in The Atlantic—but today, both sides of the gay-marriage debate want to claim the mantle of the civil-rights movement.

Participants in an International Gay Rodeo Association event in Little Rock, Arkansas, in April 2015 (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

On May 17, 1954, the day the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education, Clarence Thomas was five years old. His home state, Georgia, reacted to Brown with outrage and resistance. In the years following the decision, the general assembly passed a law requiring the governor to prevent state funds from going to integrated public schools. Then-Governor Marvin Griffin declared that “no matter how much the Supreme Court seeks to sugarcoat its bitter pill of tyranny, the people of Georgia and the South will not swallow it.”

Sixty-one years later, things have changed. “While I believe that this issue should be decided by the states and by legislatures, not the federal judiciary, I also believe in the rule of law, ”wrote Georgia Governor Nathan Deal in response to the Court’s decision on same-sex marriage in Obergefell v. Hodges. “The state of Georgia is subject to the laws of the United States, and we will follow them.”

For the most part, this political passivity has been echoed throughout the South, and it’s a testament to how much has changed in America in the last six decades. Everywhere, there are signs that social conservatives are in retreat; even as some on the right retrench against gay marriage, the debate is centering more and more on individual rights, rather than institutional defiance. In Texas, Attorney General Ken Paxton announced that county clerks and judges can choose not to issue same-sex marriage licenses or conduct wedding ceremonies if they have religious objections to doing so. Though these clerks may face lawsuits and other legal challenges, “numerous lawyers stand ready to assist clerks defending their religious beliefs,” Paxton said. Before Obergefell, North Carolina legislators passed a law allowing clerks and judges to abstain from issuing all kinds of marriage licenses if they have a personal, religious objection to gay marriage. And a somewhat-similar bill has been introduced in Kentucky, following ongoing controversy over several county clerks who have refused to issue same-sex marriage licenses.

There’s an interesting twist of history going on here. In the lead-up to the Obergefell decision, same-sex-marriage supporters often invoked the language of the civil-rights era, comparing their fight for marriage equality to the fight to end legally protected racial discrimination. But in turn, some conservative, religious Americans—and particularly those in the South—are also calling back to that era in U.S. history to defend their beliefs. Derision toward the South is still common and hateful—take, for example, Michael Lind’s recent musing in Politico Magazine, “Some deluded Southerners still pine for secession from the Union. Yet no doubt there are also more than a few liberal Northerners who would be happy to see them go.” But the easy invocation of Southern backwardness is no longer so neat as it used to be.

Of course, there has never been a single “southern point of view.” In 1960, a white Atlantan named Eliza Paschall made that argument in The Atlantic, declaring she had no patience for those who were slow to reject segregation. In a piece on her state’s reactions to Brown v. Board, “A Southern Point of View,” she wrote, defiantly:

It is common practice among Southern spokesmen to refer to the “Southern point of view.” Our capitol in Atlanta resounds with speeches which say that all Georgians agree. And it is always stated or implied that what they all agree on is that our present system of a legally racially segregated society is best.

I am a Southerner. From my point of view … our schools are separate but not equal, and even if they were, legal racial segregation has no place in a democracy.

She argued that certain Southerners had become complacent in their thinking on racism, particularly those liberals who claimed to oppose segregation but nonetheless called for gradual social change driven by the citizenry, rather than federal government. And indeed, when the Supreme Court ruled in Obergefell last month, there were echoes of this in arguments against the decision. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, for example, said in a statement, “The people of Alabama also voted to define marriage as between a man and woman.  I always respect the people’s vote, and I am disappointed that the Supreme Court has disregarded the choice made by the people of Alabama in its decision today.” As Justice Antonin Scalia, a non-Southerner, put it in his dissent to the ruling: “To allow the policy question of same-sex marriage to be considered and resolved by a select, patrician, highly unrepresentative panel of nine is to violate a principle even more fundamental than no taxation without representation: No social transformation without representation.”

But perhaps the most remarkable dissent belonged to Clarence Thomas, the black Georgia-native who came of age in the time of massive Southern resistance to social change. This is a man who benefitted directly from the overthrow of the Jim Crow South, who likely would not have been able to marry his white wife if not for the 1967 Supreme Court ruling in Loving v. Virginia, which ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional. But the right to gay marriage, Thomas wrote, is nothing like the right to interracial marriage; in his view, this comparison is “offensive and inaccurate.” Anti-miscegenation laws were created to support and perpetuate the institution of slavery, he argued, and after the Civil War, they became a standard tool of white supremacists. “Laws defining marriage as between one man and one woman do not share this sordid history,” he continued. “The traditional definition of marriage has prevailed in every society that has recognized marriage throughout history.”

“No social transformation without representation.”

Instead, he argued, this ruling will threaten a different liberty: that of religious belief and exercise.  “The majority’s decision short-circuits [the political] process, with potentially ruinous consequences for religious liberty,” he wrote. “In our society, marriage is not simply a governmental institution; it is a religious institution as well. ... It appears all but inevitable that the two will come into conflict.”

Thomas’s point about the history of marriage is debatable, but he is offering a different kind of Southern point of view, one that rejects accusations of bigotry leveled at those who oppose same-sex marriage. This is also not an exclusively Southern perspective, of course: Although opposition to gay marriage is strongest in the South, most of the bakers, florists, and other vendors who have raised religious objections to providing services to gay weddings live outside of the South. There are also many, many people in the South who support same-sex marriage.

But the coming, post-Obergefell legal battles over religious liberty will test whether there’s still room in America for dissent on gay marriage. One camp might argue for a perspective like Paschall’s: Her 1960 Atlantic essay was a call to end the apologia, to embrace civil rights in a region that had doggedly rejected them. A modern-day version of this essay might call for an end to same-sex-marriage opposition, shaming those who believe that homosexuality is a sin.

But Paschall’s essay was also, inadvertently, a call for pluralism. Her own political views evaded simple categories: She was a liberal and a feminist, but later in life, she collaborated with Phyllis Schlafly to campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment. In her Atlantic essay, she criticized her neighbors not just for their prejudices but for failing to engage with the people they opposed: “Week in and week out, at luncheon meetings, we salute the flag and pledge ‘liberty and justice’ for all,” she wrote. “We do not have to meet the eyes of the Negro waiters, who are standing in the back, for our eyes are looking forward at the flag.”

Today, this will be different. County clerks will have to meet the eyes of those couples they refuse to marry. Bakers will have to decline those with whom they do not wish to celebrate. “People in our neighborhoods will not only not agree with us on the definition of marriage as the union of one man and one woman, representing Christ and the Church,” said Russell Moore, the head of the advocacy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. “They won't even understand it in some cases.”

Perhaps the better question: Will Americans even try?