President Obama has come out in support of gay marriage today in an interview with ABC news. Well, that’s not quite right. He actually was in support of it back in 1996 before his position then “evolved” toward opposition. Today the dissembling ended, which may be good for the president’s conscience, but what importance it should hold for the rest of us I fail to see.
President Obama, for all his accomplishments, is not a moral theologian, a religious leader, or even (whatever some have thought) a prophet. He is a politican responding, reasonably enough, to political pressures. The impatience of the well-connected and wealthy gay lobby in the Democratic party forced the president’s hand. To call his move “courageous”—or to call “oppressed” the gay citizens whose outsize purchasing power and political influence has propelled their cause—is a long stretch indeed.
The courageous stand would have been to buck the ossifying, self-complimenting elite consensus and come out strongly for marriage, but Obama, here as on most matters, very sincerely agrees with the establishment. The correct opinion is not always the courageous one, and when it comes to gay marriage the President’s view is neither.
Beneath this political circus, of course, a real moral and philosophical question lies. What is marriage? Is it merely a way of signaling our social approval of committed love between any ordering of two (or more) people? Or is it a definite institution ordered toward the rearing of children and defined by permanence, exclusivity, and sexual complementarity? I think the latter. President Obama, barring further evolutions, thinks the former.
My advice to the president is that he lead those who agree with him in arguing civilly, that he examine the views of his opponents without resorting to charges of bigotry or bad faith. This is not a plea; it is a warning. If the Democratic party decides to declare war on religious institutions and private citizens who recognize the natural truth of marriage, it will have a very messy fight on its hands.
Of course, Americans do not want to offend their gay friends and family members. But nor do they want to see religious groups and other actors—Catholic charities, Pentecostal soup kitchens, the Boys Scouts of America—bullied into silence. If believers take a courageous stand—if they refuse to simply comply or shut down but instead force the state to shut them down—Americans’ tentative (and still minority) support for gay marriage will begin to fracture.