Obama’s Evolution–and Mine

Recently the President of the United States weighed in on a social question unlikely to help his campaign but likely to improve his stock in the area of moral decision-making: Should gays and lesbians have the legal right to marry? He has previously endorsed civil unions, which even his opponent Mitt Romney seemed to do when he claimed in a 1994 letter to the pro-LBGT Log Cabin Club that his leadership would “establish full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens.” But marriage, even polygamous and sibling marriage, is a concept almost universally interpreted sociologically and historically as a sanctioned and often sanctified relationship between members of the opposite sex. As such, changing from accepting civil unions to accepting gay marriage is not an insignificant metamorphosis. Obama has stated that his thinking on the question was “evolving,” a term mildly derided by those who wrongly interpreted it as equivocating. But I fully understand his term, as my own view, which is not affected by the glare of a political campaign, has also evolved. Such an evolution, even had the President failed to take that last, huge step of endorsing gay marriage, reflects a mind willing to undertake moral questions and the internal wrestling they involve. Such wrestling, at least on this question, may be alien to both the gay man who cannot see how others should have any say in his marriage choices, as well as to the conservative who considers his values to be under assault. Neither of those individuals is likely to struggle with this moral question; their positions are hardened and intransigent. For the gay man, the central moral issue has to do with his equal rights; for the conservative, the central issue concerns the inviolable sanctity of marriage between a man and a woman.

But for others, the lines are not so clearly drawn. In my own evolution, I have never had a problem with civil unions, but gay marriage did seem to contradict all the history and sociology that I know. It seemed an oxymoron: marriage by definition was a man-woman relationship. I was attached to traditional marriage by . . . tradition. And tradition should not be tossed aside carelessly. Nor are overdrawn analogues between the gay rights movement and the civil rights movement wholly persuasive; after all, gays as a group were never owned as slaves, nor did their status deprive them of their right to vote. But there are parallels, and the biggest one is the fundamental question of fairness and equal rights. And on that foundational question, the answer seems pretty clear: gay marriage is a legitimate rights question, and equal rights dictates that gays should be free to marry just as anyone else should be. Perhaps a more salient analogue would be marriage between men and women of different races. How many now, beyond the Kluxers, would make that illegal? And what would be the opposition to it, other than sheer racial prejudice and bankrupt illusions of racial purity?

The closest thing we have to a moral absolute in this world is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It is difficult to reconcile this highest of moral admonitions with opposition to gay marriage. How can I deny to others what I take for granted for myself? There is also the simple question, as my wife has reminded me, Who would it hurt? Well, of course it would hurt the sensibilities of those opposed, just as the right to vote for blacks and later for women offended many whites and men, respectively, who regarded suffrage as their personal property. But those offended whites’ and men’s rights were not infringed, whereas denial of gay marriage does infringe on the rights of gays.

In April of 1963, Martin Luther King was jailed in Birmingham, Alabama. Many local pastors seemed to acknowledge the justice of his cause, but disapproved of his protests, imploring him to go slow, hoping that in the fullness of time his objectives might be achieved without confrontation. In a famous and lengthy letter, he courteously but forcefully explained to them why that course was not acceptable, noting that “the time is always ripe to do right.” So while there is little denying that the President was called out on his evolving view by his own Vice-President who endorsed gay marriage two days before in answer to a question, Obama could have claimed that he was still evolving. But just possibly, like King, he concluded that it is never the wrong time to do the right thing. His Vice-President’s forcing the issue does not diminish his own wrestling, nor the subtlety of a reflective mind capable of, and at least equally importantly, willing to confront moral questions which he found not amenable to simplistic rhetorical bromides. Given that at the time of his statement, a referendum in the campaign “battleground” state of North Carolina was overwhelmingly rejecting gay marriage, Obama’s taking a stand on an issue not likely to help him politically was a small but notable triumph of moral integrity over political expediency.