During a discussion with a friend the other day, he asked me a question I couldn’t answer. Why, he wondered, did so many other Western democratic countries accept same-sex marriage before the United States? We still have states fighting tooth and nail against the tide of recognition, while in other parts of the modern world, the fight has been over for more than a decade.
I actually asked myself the same question back in 2005, when Spain recognized same-sex marriages. How did it happen that the country best known for the Inquisition recognized same-sex marriage before we did?
The Netherlands was first, recognizing same-sex unions in 2001. In addition to Spain, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Luxembourg, Norway, Portugal and Sweden have all followed suit. Last year, Britain joined the growing list.
It isn’t just Europe, either–last year, New Zealand became the first country in the Asia-Pacific region to legalize gay marriage. South Africa did so back in 2006.
We Americans pride ourselves on our devotion to individual liberty and human rights, but we haven’t exactly been pioneers on this issue. (Or, come to think of it, on other issues involving acceptance–let alone celebration–of diversity.) Of course, there’s that durable Puritan heritage that continues to fight–often successfully– with the Enlightenment roots of our governing philosophy.
The U.S. is an outlier among western democratic societies when it comes to religion. (Ironically, given Puritans’ constant efforts to pass laws privileging religion, sociologists tell us it is our lack of a state-endorsed religion–our Enlightenment freedom to choose–that is largely responsible for Americans’ persistent religiosity). Since most opposition to same-sex marriage is based on religious doctrine, that’s my best guess at an answer.
Any other theories about why we lag the rest of the west?