There is a lot of evolving going on in the US these days and no, the dolphins at SeaWorld have not suddenly sprouted opposable thumbs. The evolution is instead taking place in the minds of members of Congress, with long-held beliefs about same-sex marriage being jettisoned quicker than you can say “the polls are moving in one direction and there are less than two years until the midterms elections”.
Politicians of both stripes are suddenly, er, coming out for marriage equality – and in many cases evolution has had a significant role to play. Vice-President Joe Biden started the ball rolling last year when he declared his support for same-sex marriage rights; he was followed by President Barack Obama, who said his view had “evolved”.
Since then a trickle has become a torrent: Rob Portman, a Republican senator from Ohio senior enough to be vetted as Mitt Romney’s running mate, last month became the most prominent member of his party to drop his opposition. His change of heart was triggered by his son revealing that he was gay. Lisa Murkowski, a Republican senator from Alaska, said her views on same-sex marriage were also “evolving”, adding: “It’s important to acknowledge that there is a change afoot in this country in terms of how marriage is viewed.”
Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, took the same route. Tim Johnson, a South Dakota Democrat, chimed in, saying his beliefs had also “evolved”, while Mark Kirk last week became another Republican to switch: rather than citing an “evolving” view he put his change of heart down to a near-death experience after he suffered a stroke.
Even the biggest beast of cable television news has jumped on the bandwagon. The pugnacious Bill O’Reilly, a Fox News host never afraid of high-volume verbal jousting, said same-sex marriage proponents had a “compelling argument”. Opponents, he added, needed to do more than “thump the Bible” – a change from his previous position.
What is going on? The Supreme Court hearings on the challenges to the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s ban on same-sex marriage suggest barriers to legalisation will fall eventually. Growing public support for same-sex marriage is another factor: the latest poll by the Pew Research Center shows 49 per cent of Americans approve of same-sex marriage, with 44 per cent disapproving.
This number is significant, not just because it shows that the swing in support for same-sex marriage has been swift, but because – as Jon Stewart pointed out on The Daily Show this week – more Americans have an “evolved” view on same-sex marriage than actually believe in evolution. Forty-six per cent of them think the human race was created in a single day within the past 10,000 years, according to a 2012 Gallup poll. It is unclear how many of them will eventually evolve this view.