Thursday, May 10, 2012

Bullseye! Obama & the Equal Freedom to Marry

Yesterday, for the first time, President Obama announced that he now fully supports same-sex marriage, moving beyond his previous partial support limited to same-sex civil unions.  

Some analysts see this as a move to the left, playing to his Democratic base.

In fact, this is a move to the American center.  Just consider the core values at issue here: liberty, claimed by the right as their most cherished principle, and equality and social justice so dear to the left. At the end of the day, we are talking about the freedom of two consenting adults to enjoy the same equal rights as everyone else to marry and use the word "marriage" legally, regardless of their minority group.  So liberty and equality are both at issue.  

Religious taboos and prejudices aside, in terms of political values, this falls smack in the middle.

In this respect, same-sex marriage is much like the more severe issues of slavery and civil rights, in that, what was at stake at the heart of those issue too, were the core American values of both liberty and equality.  

Now, obviously slavery and the wide-spread suppression of civil rights for a large minority appear far more violent and heinous abuses, harming far more people in a more bloody and pervasively damaging manner, than the denial of just one set of rights – marriage equality – to a small minority.  But the principles and dynamics are similar.

Like same-sex marriage, slavery and civil rights were both highly contentious issues at the time they came to a head (1860's and 1960's respectively).  In each case, Christians were vocal leaders on both sides, with the distinction that reforms were opposed by traditionalists who looked to the Bible and past social traditions of inequality to support slavery and bigotry, while reformers similarly looked to the Bible, but also, most importantly, to the message of freedom and equality in the Declaration of Independence to support their cause.  

Despite the violent controversy, within just a few years after each crisis, the center of American opinion had entirely shifted to a new consensus on these issues.  The center shifted so quickly for one simple reason: the new consensus in each case (anti-slavery and pro civil rights) was indeed entirely in line with the basic values of the Declaration of Independence: freedom, equality, humanity, justice.

Same-sex marriage is also entirely in line with these basic values from the Declaration of Independence, the ur-text proclaiming core American principles.  Christians are on both sides of this issue as well.  Again, it is also opposed by the same kind of traditionalists, who look mainly only to the Bible and social traditions to support the notion that some folks are inferior, and do not deserve equal rights.  Here too, the reformers look both to the Bible and the Declaration of Independence in support of the equal freedom to marry.

The outcome, predictably, will be the same as in the struggles over slavery and civil rights, because the values behind the equal freedom to marry are core, central, American values.  Year by year, support for marriage equality is steadily growing for the simple reason that it is already well centered in the core American values of liberty and equality.  Therefor, it will see growing support, year by year, from courageous, clear minded people, not just on the left, but crucially, on the right, too.

By taking a stand for FULL freedom of marriage equality for same-sex couples, not just the neo-equality of civil unions, Obama has just stepped away completely from the forces that oppose freedom and equality for minorities, and placed himself squarely in line with the founding fathers, Lincoln and Martin Luther King in advocating the extension of freedom and equality even to small, historically despised minorities.  That is right at the center of American values.

Further, he has done so in nuanced way that fully respects the principles of Federalism and religious liberty.  In an email yesterday, he fleshed out his new position a bit more:
"I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines. But I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them."
So Obama is not proposing a federal law creating federal gay marriage, which would be an overreach, but merely respecting the rights of states to decide the issue without being overridden by the federal government.  That is, in fact, a more moderate, federalist position – clearly more in line with the wishes of the founding fathers – than the so-called "Defense of Marriage Act" which rides roughshod over states rights.  

Reader's of this blog will know am a certainly no member of team Obama, and quite willing to take him to task for fake centrism and bad policy.   But let's give the man his due: he just hit the bullseye on this one, dead center.  

[Pause here for a moment of appreciation.]  

Too bad however, he does not do this, for real, more often.  Too often Obama's policies do not balance American core values, but rather push equality, humanity and social justice at the expense of liberty.  Republicans often do the exact opposite.  Both would do well to craft new policy options (such as Green Energy Tax Cuts or Pro Bono Health Care Reform) that balance and promote liberty, humanity and equality all at once, without sacrificing one for the other.  

During its short history, the United States has faced four major political showdowns over the question of individual rights where liberty and equality were both at stake: the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Suffragette and the Civil Rights movements.  In each of these cases, forces that favored traditions opposed the logical extension of core American values were soundly trounced, shown the door and ultimately rejected as essentially un-American.  This next showdown, over the equal freedom to marry, tho' on a smaller, less violent scale, is not going to be any different.


  1. Obama seemed to hedge on declaring his support for same-sex marriage, and only when he was pinned down did he put his opinion forward- my guess he was holding back because of how many votes he would suffer from giving his opinion. Pretty lame. In 25 years this issue will be as irrelevant as support for slavery is now. The wheels of freedom turn as stuck in the mud of history!

  2. What you call a "small minority" for gays as opposed to you a "large minority" for blacks is a bit of a false comparison. I have heard reports that the homosexual community is upwards of one in ten making it far more than a small minority and cutting across gender and racial lines. In that sense it makes this minority even more discriminated against (and representative) than perhaps any demographic block in either political or cultural terms. The inability of Obama to simply have had the courage to state what he believes earlier only shows his absolute cowardliness and lack of character. I would call it playing politics with peoples lives and aspirations. This is not, and should not be a political issue framed on a scale from left to right. There is no center - just the obvious declaration that each and every person has the right to publicly declare and legally affirm their desire to be together and not worry about the offense it causes to "traditionalists," homophobes, and people who deign to proclaim that they are the spokesperson for this fictitious, cruel, and omnipotent being they call god.

    Overall a well considered article, but I do think you missed a huge "political showdown" in American civil rights and that is the Suffragette movement of the early 20th century. There have always been monied interests and moralistic windbags attempting to control and abridge the rights of others. Whether to keep power or to satisfy their own sense of self importance. It finally took awhile to wedge this one out of Barry, but it is positive it is now out on the public table, a bit cynical if it is only for getting some votes or conversely to make Romney look more like the narrow minded, limited, invertebrate that he is. I would agree with you that this issue is really already settled by the Bill of Rights and accepted American ideals, but it takes awhile to wrest the moral skeleton away from the religious nuts and bring it into a more rational and inclusive light of common justice, equality, and fairness.

  3. 10%? Maybe for urban areas or if you inclde people who simply experimented once or twice. For overall population usually from 2% - 4% self identify as gay or bi. Study results vary:

    You are right about the suffragette movement, though I tend to see that as part of the civil rights movement. Same dynamic.

  4. Thanks, Sir Richie, for your suggestion on the suffragettes, which I just included in my post. The nice thing about a blog post is that you can edit AFTER you publish. As a result, I find my posts definitely improve over time. Each post I write is definitely stronger, better written three days after I publish that it was at publication.

    As to Obama's courage or lack thereof, you have a point. However, I expect a certain pragmatism from politicians. Still they deserve cheers when they get it right... even if Obama lags behind even conservatives like Dick Cheney and John Bolton on this. But come on, he is the first President to come out in favor of same sex marriage. That is worth a pat on the back.