Everyone thought he would wait until after the election. After all, same sex marriage is still a wedge issue in most of the country. With just over half of Americans now supporting gay marriage, and with many religious conservatives already distrustful of the President, most did not think his administration would rock the boat on such a volatile issue.
But earlier today President Obama rocked it anyway telling ABC News:
“I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.”
The full interview will air Thursday morning on Good Morning America. Watch the relevant clip here.
So, what are we to make of this sudden turn of events? Over the last few years President Obama has said that his views on same sex marriage were “evolving” along with the rest of the country’s. But why has he chosen this moment to offer an all out endorsement? Here are three things to consider:
1. Obama had already lost the religious vote. Over the last year the administration has made a number of decisions that has alienated religious voters, most notably the matter of non-church religious institutions having to cover contraception in employee health care plans. The decision upset the Catholic Church in particular, and an endorsement of SSM is only going to anger a block of voters already unlikely to vote for Obama. In other words, he’s got nothing to lose.
2. Obama needs his base of young people and progressives more than ever in 2012. Surveys show that young people are far more open to gay marriage than their parents’ generation. They are unlikely to turn against the president for this endorsement. In addition, Obama progressive base, including the LBGT community, has been frustrated with the president’s lack of action on a number of fronts. With his popularity slipping, Obama needs his base’s enthusiastic support come November. His full endorsement of this key progressive issue is likely to do the trick. In other words, he’s got everything to gain.
3. Obama needs to keep the focus of the campaign off of the economy by any means necessary. No doubt the president’s team hoped to run their campaign on the back of a resurgent economy. While things are definitely not as apocalyptic as when Obama took office in 2009, the recovery is showing signs of slowing down–exactly what Mitt Romney needs in order to sell his “smart business guy” brand to the American people. For the last few weeks, the White House has been pushing Obama’s foreign affairs prowess and courage for taking out Osama Bin Laden. With the anniversary of OBL’s death now passed, a new issue was necessary to take the focus away from the limp economy that is dragging down Obama’s reelection bid.
The question is: will Republicans and religious conservatives take the bait? Will they stay on message and hammer away on the weak, even non-existent economic recovery–an issue on which President Obama is genuinely vulnerable? Or will they swerve into a cultural crusade that might fire up their base but ultimately turn off the moderate swing voters necessary to win in November?
Remember, as it stands the marriage equality issue is being addressed by the states, not the federal government. It is unlikely that Obama, or any other president, will see legislation come across his desk in the next 4 years on the subject. And while some states are passing legislation blocking gay marriage, as we saw in North Carolina yesterday, the legal foundation for such laws is growing weaker and weaker. I’ve spoken to a number of conservative legal scholars about the subject, and I’ve always heard the same thing: the church lost the battle over same sex marriage three decades ago. How, you ask? Because the church was silent when state after state passed no-fault divorce laws. These bills essentially removed the state from any interest in preserving or defining marriage. No fault divorce laws defined marriage as an agreement between two individuals that may be entered or dissolved as the individuals desire without state interference or prejudice.
Now some states are trying to reinsert themselves into marriage by defining who may and may not enter into it. But the courts are saying “Sorry, too late.” The state abdicated that role years ago and cannot discriminate who may marry based on gender. Marriage is a contract between two individuals–any individuals–and not the state.
I recap this history only to remind you that the marriage battle is over. It is only a matter of time before the remaining states see SSM laws pass their legislatures or bans are overturned by their courts. Rather than fighting same sex marriage, the church ought to be looking at the next issue on the horizon–protecting religious liberty. If SSM is to be the law of the land, how can Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and others participate in the drafting of these laws in a manner that protects their freedom of conscience and worship? How can we fairly extend marriage rights to our LGTB neighbors while maintaining the First Amendment rights of Americans with religious beliefs that
oppose same sex marriage? This is the important, and hopefully more mature, public conversation church leaders ought to be having.
But, if conservatives, including those in the church, want to make same sex marriage the defining issue of 2012, I’m sure the Obama campaign will be happy to comply. Anything to ensure the focus isn’t about how to revive the economy–a battle that is still far from settled.
UPDATE** Obama talks about his Christian beliefs and same sex marriage:
“[Michelle and I] are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that’s what we try to impart to our kids and that’s what motivates me as president, and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I’ll be as a as a dad and a husband and hopefully the better I’ll be as president.”
Read more at Christianity Today.