Robert Novak, the columnist and primary exegete of U.S. political thought, began a column last month as follows:
Sen. Trent Lott looked like a supporter of Rudy Giuliani’s presidential ambition when the former New York mayor visited Lott’s home state of Mississippi recently. But in private, he warned Giuliani about roadblocks in his presidential path.
Lott, who likes and admires Giuliani, told him that the New Yorker’s support for abortion, homosexual rights, and gay marriage are heavy burdens for a Republican to carry nationally. Giuliani protested that he never supported same-sex marriage, only civil unions. Lott advised that in Mississippi, they don’t see any difference between gay marriage and civil unions.
That difference may not amount to anything at all in Mississippi, but it means a great deal in other parts of America, Connecticut serving as laboratory of the week.
Everything happened in Connecticut last week.
Begin by reminding ourselves that Connecticut is one of the left-leaningest states in the Union. A decade ago the legislators got so apprehensive about any possibility that Roe v. Wade, via repeal or modification, might diminish in the protection it provides for those who want an abortion, they went so far as to pass what one might call preemptive legislation. The act said that if Roe v. Wade were repealed or modified, Connecticut would automatically pull from its shelves the freshly enacted contingency law which gave full sanction to abortion. Preemptive legislation of that kind can of course serve to soothe jitters on the subject. In the spirit of covering all bases, Connecticut might pass a law saying that in the event the 13th Amendment is repealed, Connecticut will nevertheless continue to prohibit slavery.
What caught the eye last week was a bill in Hartford to okay civil unions between gays, temporized by an amendment to that bill which ordained that “marriages” would continue to be understood as unions between a man and a woman. This is a difference that apparently isn’t noticed in the State of Mississippi.
It was heavily noticed by the legislators in Hartford, and conflicting understandings of its significance were advanced. The primary bloc supporting the legislative amendment to the effect that a civil union is not a marriage was motivated by apprehension that orthodox Connecticut voters might be vexed at the suggestion that gay unions would vitiate the heterosexual composition of marriages.
But those who had pressured for gay unions weren’t all of them enthusiastic about the amendment. Their position is that to affirm the difference between the two has the sylleptic effect of depreciating civil union, by reminding you that it is not to be confused with marriage.
The quarrel, in Connecticut, continued in another quarter. The Episcopal bishop of Connecticut has himself authorized gay marriage and has supported the ordination of the gay bishop in New Hampshire. Six Episcopal pastors flatly refused to follow their bishop’s instruction, and he has retaliated by threatening to remove from them their church keys. The question of the elasticity of orthodoxy will be referred to the annual global meeting of Anglican leaders, but it isn’t certain what is that council’s authority, or by exactly what doctrines it should be guided.
Meanwhile, in Oregon, a court ordered rescinded nearly 3,000 marriages effected in one county, which had flouted a statewide law. The court ruled simply that the county did not have the legal authority to act independently, so that the quarrel became one of jurisdiction, not of political consensus, let alone doctrinal authority.
We have at work an extraordinary exercise in democratic adjustment. How to acknowledge gay rights while still honoring what many think of as the structural meaning of marriage? And that quarrel abuts — as in the contentious Episcopal parishes in Connecticut — upon religious faith. In the hubbub, there needs to be protection for those who are guided by their faith, the desolate communion that needs exegetes wise enough to explain to them what exactly the Connecticut legislature is trying to say.