Can we talk for a moment about the American sense of humor as it pertains to gays?
I know it’s not the most burning issue of the day. Everybody’s worked up this week about President Donald Trump’s impending impeachment and his latest foreign policy outrages, and the televised Democratic presidential candidates debate, and all the big shots lining up to testify before Congress on the Ukraine business.
But in the midst of all this turmoil, we got a chance for a good old national laugh the other day, and I hear some people worry that maybe it was a laugh at our own expense – or at least Elizabeth Warren’s expense.
You heard about this, right?
Warren, the Massachusetts senator who’s among the leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, was asked at CNN’s forum on LGBTQ issues how she would respond to anyone who told her, “I’m old-fashioned and my faith teaches me that marriage is between one man and one woman?”
You could see the twinkle in Warren’s eyes as she formed her response. And the twinkle revealed a marvelous piece of American history. It said: We don’t have to be uncomfortable about this subject anymore. We don’t have to hem and haw about our feelings. We don’t have to reach for ancient biblical admonitions in order to frame our answer.
Not anymore, we don’t.
“Well,” Warren said, “I’m going to assume it’s a guy who said that. And I’m going to say, ‘Then just marry one woman – I’m cool with that.’”
That answer alone was pretty cool, but then she upped her little joke with an even better one.
“Assuming,” she said, “you can find one.”
And here’s where we come to questions about political wins and losses when it involves sexuality.
By the afternoon following Warren’s remark, her little joke had generated more than 12 million views on Twitter. Laughter resounded across the country. But mixed with it was a warning from political pundits: religious people might be offended, and this could cost Warren at voting time.
Polling by the Pew Research Center says 61 percent of Americans support same-sex marriage. That includes 74 percent of millennials and 44 percent of Republicans. Those are numbers calculated to give any politician the courage to take a stand, and maybe even make jokes.
But for all the cultural distance America has covered over the past decade or so on sexual issues, this is about more than numbers.
Recall the premise of the original question: “My faith teaches me …” about marriage and sex. In other words, was Warren’s joke dismissive of some people’s religious beliefs? And was she offending people who may agree with same-sex marriage, but don’t like the tone of condescension toward people of faith?
Maybe, but ultimately even faith has to respond to evolution. And thankfully in America, we’ve had a cultural evolution involving sexual minorities finally enjoying the same rights and same respect as all other human beings.
Would we tolerate anyone saying, “My faith says a white person shouldn’t marry a black person”? Hopefully not. Nor should we hinder any person’s right to love and to marry.
Religious faith has its place in the world – a revered place, to millions, including a former Sunday school teacher named Elizabeth Warren.
But the beating of the human heart has its revered place as well. And just as America’s secular laws have belatedly acknowledged the rights of gays, religious beliefs are changing as well.
And here and there, it’s not such a bad thing to tell a joke about it, just to cool everyone’s fevered brows.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).