Does impatience sometimes stall, not spur, societal change?

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. Of all the wise words attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., these might be my favorites.

Advocacy is by its nature impatient. In a lifetime of watching advocates muster and bluster, often failing, sometimes succeeding, I’ve come to this somewhat paradoxical conclusion:

It is the more patient advocates who do the best job of coaxing the arc of the moral universe to bend a little faster.

Which brings me to the federal Defense of Marriage Act, lately overruled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

I’m surprised this leap of justice came quite this soon, but I always knew it would come. As the arc bent across America, same-sex marriage would become the law first on the coasts, then over much of the interior.

But I suspected advocates trying to rush the inevitable might end up only delaying it. Seeking to speed change through court cases, rather than seeking it patiently through elections, often backfires.

Just because you can find a good case and a friendly judge does not mean you can make society jump before it’s ready. Such victories are rarely stable.

They are always at risk in the next election, the next legislative session – and usually the response to a controversial ruling is extreme. That is the long, bruising history of abortion, and DOMA itself was such a Pavlovian reaction.

I used to argue with gay friends that civil union was the wiser, strategic waystation on the path to their ultimate goal. Begin to accrue some benefits and social acceptance through civil union, without tilting headlong at that loaded word “marriage.” They told me I was wrong, insensitive.

Maybe. But it’s nearly a rule of American history that when courts get far ahead of public opinion, their landmark rulings rarely stick. But when public opinion begins to move, judges jump in front of the parade and lead it to the promised land.

As more Americans got to see gay neighbors, co-workers and relatives living in peaceful civil union, it stood to reason that objections would decrease. I just never thought it would happen so quickly.

How quickly? Nearly one in seven Americans told one Pew poll recently that they’d shifted in favor of gay marriage in the last decade.

So, with DOMA, the court wasn’t racing ahead of the public. It was trying to catch up.

When the arc of the moral universe bends, sometimes it makes a rainbow.

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