Sometimes, a controversial piece of social legislation tells us something profound about the modern world – but the political argument over whether to end the ban on same-sex marriages in religious buildings says more about the Tory party than about the society we live in.
We know where the public stands. Opinion polls show that most people favour tolerance. When Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Patrick McLoughlin and 16 other leading Tories signed the letter that appeared in a newspaper yesterday, arguing that "marriage should be open to all, regardless of sexuality", they were moving with the tide. Some denominations, notably the Quakers, are demanding to be allowed to conduct weddings for same-sex couples. Some priests already informally bless gay unions in church. Congregations which maintain that marriage can only mean the union of a man and a woman have David Cameron's promise that any legislation will ensure they cannot be forced to act against their beliefs.
Yet this thoroughly reasonable compromise is causing turmoil in the Tory party, up to 130 of whose MPs are reportedly intent on fighting it to the end. Naturally, those who do are at pains to deny that they are driven by prejudice or "homophobia". A combination of factors contribute to this furious opposition, from deeply held religious beliefs to a generalised resentment that the Conservative Party is not conservative enough. One of Mr Cameron's opponents accused him yesterday of being motivated by political calculation because he is hoping to pick up what might be called the Stonewall vote. Possibly. Or possibly this is what Mr Cameron genuinely believes, and some of those who attack him have made their own calculations about the loss of Tory support to Ukip, which sets its face against gay marriage.
As the former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, observed yesterday: "We live in the 21st century and must move on." Yet to move on is exactly what a large chunk of the Conservative Party seems determined not to do.