Proponents of gay marriage will celebrate today’s statement by President Obama in which he put himself on the side of changing the traditional definition of marriage as a courageous stand that marks a turning point in the nation’s attitudes on the issue. But as with the case of his positions on human rights crises in Libya and Syria, the president was “leading from behind” as he is just the latest major figure in his party to jump on the gay marriage bandwagon. There is no question that support for greater acceptance of gays and even a willingness to contemplate some form of civil unions or gay marriage is widespread and not limited to the political left. Changing attitudes on the part of large sectors of the public who have more of a libertarian than a traditional approach have rendered Obama’s position more a function of the center than the margins.
The decision also reflects a belief among Democratic strategists that even the most divisive social issues work in their favor, because any debate on abortion, contraception or gay rights allows them to paint the entire GOP as intolerant. Just as they were able to turn a discussion about the way ObamaCare attacked the religious freedom of the Catholic Church into one about a bogus war on women, they may now think a gay marriage initiative will work the same way in convincing the people who voted for Obama in 2008 they must turn out to fend off the GOP this year. In making this statement in the middle of his re-election bid after years of dithering on the issue, the president is sending a signal he believes this is the sort of thing he needs to do to fire up his otherwise unenthusiastic base. Rather than a “profile in courage” moment, Obama’s gay marriage stand seems more like an attempt to rekindle the flagging passion of the “hope” and “change” fan base.
Acceptance of gays is now commonplace in much of American culture, especially in popular entertainment where the depiction of gay couples is not thoroughly uncontroversial. To the extent that this reflects the gradual dying out of prejudice against homosexuals, this is to be applauded. But the problem here is the consequent desire of some in government to impose their values on all Americans. Tolerance and acceptance of gays has often been translated into discrimination against religious institutions that differ on the legitimacy of same-sex marriage if not on the rights of gay individuals. That is why Catholic and some Orthodox Jewish agencies have been chased out of adoption services much to the detriment of children in need.
Once we strip away the political cynicism from the president’s statement what we find is an unbalanced approach that will, in the hands of all-powerful government agencies that Obama and the Democrats seek to make even more unaccountable, launch a new wave of discrimination against those who cannot for religious reasons accept gay marriage on these terms. It is on this point that many Americans who might otherwise be inclined to accept the president’s decision must demur.
As has been made apparent on many recent occasions when voters in states as diverse as North Carolina and California have been asked whether they wish to change the definition of marriage, the answer of the majority is no. Some may consider this a civil rights question in which the majority cannot be allowed to rule. But until this issue becomes one which cannot be employed to wage a kulturkampf against traditional religious believers, one suspects that many, if not most Americans will not be comfortable in throwing out existing laws. As Nate Silver notes in a blog post in the New York Times that supported Obama’s decision and considered it politically advantageous, though attitudes have shifted, as many Americans are strongly opposed to the measure as those who enthusiastically support it.
In this light, while it is possible the president’s statement will help with his base, a reasoned if low-key defense of traditional values will not hurt his opponent.