By Scott Tucker
Our first black president endorses a Confederate policy of states’ rights in regard to same-sex marriage. This is only one reason why Barack Obama’s “evolution” on same-sex marriage makes no sense without considering the wider and starker political devolution of the Democratic Party. Obama has not changed his long held position that each state still has the right to be an experimental station for or against marital equality, though most states now have some form of legal ban against gay marriage.
Obama has used both the language of evolution, suggesting the origin of species and the slow grind of geological time, along with the language of religious epiphany, suggesting moral enlightenment and amazing grace. Whether we take him at his word, or regard all that rhetoric as one way to buy time in two campaigns for the White House, there can be no doubt that Obama’s brand of cool, calculated and “centrist” politics has always contained a more messianic strain as well. Whether he delivers the message directly or by proxy, he is sizing up the audience and working on his own timeline. Vice President Joe Biden may have jumped a bit ahead of the script on gay marriage, but the more coded signals had already been sent to the public.
As reported by Olivier Knox on ABC’s OTUS News on April 18, “First lady Michelle Obama on Tuesday [April 17] put the Supreme Court at the core of President Obama’s argument for re-election, telling supporters that the vote in November could affect Americans’ security, freedoms and whether they can ‘love whomever we choose’—a reference to the fight over gay and lesbian rights.” In the same speech at a rally in Nashville, Tenn., Michelle Obama said, “This president has brought us out of the dark and into the light. I hope you are all fired up and ready to go.” Knox added, “Asked about similar statements in the past, the White House has denied that they reflect any newfound White House support for gay marriage.” Kristina Schake, the first lady’s communications director, stayed on message and reiterated the importance of the decisions of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court is the trump card played in the poker game of every big election, and is intended to be the last word in political “pragmatism.” No one gets the last word in politics, however, or not so long as we defend free speech and freedom of assembly. Using the Supreme Court as an argument for the re-election of Obama means nothing less than rewarding the very politician who signed away habeas corpus, and who has become a living pillar of the “security state.” As Steven Rosenfeld wrote in AlterNet in April, “What started under Bush and has continued under Obama are battlefield values that have been conflated with domestic policing. … Obama has begun to wind down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But he hasn’t begun to roll back the most extreme civil liberties abuses tied to the earliest phases of that war. Liberals expected otherwise from a constitutional law professor and candidate who campaigned against the excesses of the Bush administration.”
On May 9, in the first hours after Obama’s latest “evolution” on gay marriage, Glenn Greenwald wrote in Salon, “When it comes to assessing a politician, what matters, at least to me, are actions, not motives. If they do the wrong thing, they should be criticized regardless of motive; conversely, if they do the right thing, they should be credited.”
Not so fast—and not so simple. If a politician has kept personal and religious motives out of the open discussion of public policies, then we are free to speculate on “hidden motives,” but we must attend in earnest to the real evidence in the court of public opinion. That would be a fair trial, in precisely the sense Greenwald proposes, for the distinction he was making between motives and actions deserves consideration. Indeed, I remember the many times in the past when “progressives” would make the most regressive excuses for the public policies of Bill Clinton, and then they often argued that he might be a political whore but he had a heart of gold. The contents of the hearts of politicians matter to me no more than the contents of their stomachs. But when politicians make performance art out of their own motives, whether they do the right or the wrong thing, then it is too late to close the curtains on the public stage, or to rule out such evidence in court. Nor do I grant that Obama has simply done the right thing regarding gay marriage. He has done the wrong thing more consistently, and indeed more explicitly.
As Sam Smith wrote in Undernews on May 10, “Obama is the sort of guy who offers to split his Swiss cheese with you and then gives you the holes, while he takes the cheese.” Smith added, “His position, coming on the heels of the North Carolina referendum to add a ban on gay marriages to the state’s constitution is almost a precise replica of the position the post Civil War Confederates took.” For evidence, Smith posted a photocopy of an old passage from the North Carolina Constitution, before that state scrapped its anti-miscegenation laws:
“Intermarriages of whites and negroes forbidden. All marriages between a white person and a negro, or between a white person and a person of negro descent to the third generation inclusive, are hereby forever prohibited. Read three times and ratified in open Convention, this 11th day of October, A.D. 1875.”
We are also forced to consider Obama’s mixed motives whenever he insists that “God’s in the mix” of the politics of marriage, for the president has repeatedly placed his personal faith in the public square. His explicit references to Christian faith as a personal guide to his “evolution” on gay marriage cannot be stricken from the public record. God was in the mix when he opposed same-sex marriage during his first campaign for the presidency, and God’s still in the mix now that he has changed his mind and seeks a second term. Either the mind of God changed on this subject, or the mind of a believer has received a prophetic revelation about Original Intent. Just as the prophets of the main branch of the Mormon church changed their minds about polygamy, so the president has now edited and revised any divine revelation he had previously received on same-sex marriage. Is that good news? Only if you think the Bible, and not the Constitution, is a founding document of the republic.
On April 2, 2008, Obama stated, “I’m not in favor of gay marriage” when he was interviewed on “Hardball with Chris Matthews.” When asked to be more specific at a candidates forum held at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California on Aug. 16, 2008, Obama said that “marriage is the union between a man and a woman” and added “now, for me as a Christian, it’s also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.” Warren was also invited to give a public prayer at Obama’s inaugural, and that caused enough protest that a gay Episcopal bishop was invited to give a much less publicized prayer at the same event. Splitting the difference was indeed the Clintonian method of triangulation, and Obama beat both Bill and Hillary at their own game.
In the vice presidential debates of Oct. 2, 2008, Biden stated, “Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that.” When the public battle over Proposition 8 erupted in California, a coalition of Christian conservatives was crusading against gay marriage, and quoted those campaign statements by Obama and Biden on many thousands of glossy brochures mailed to homes all over Los Angeles, including my own.
The evangelical tradition in American politics remains strong, and when it does some real good (as during the civil rights movement) even those of us with strong secular convictions have kept the peace within the wider congregation. But when it does deep and lasting harm (as in recurrent censorship crusades, in campaigns to outlaw abortion, and in belligerence toward sexual and gender diversity), then certain pundits belabor what is perfectly obvious: namely, that the sincerity of the most fervent among the faithful is real.
When push comes to shove, “Christian soldiers marching as to war” had better encounter resolute resistance from people of all faiths and of none. Many bullies in both local and national playgrounds got their earliest encouragement not only from their homes, but also from bully pulpits in the most conservative churches. When the far right attacks artists and writers seeking audiences, or women seeking abortions and reproductive freedom, or gay people seeking elementary equality—then the democratic left must respond at the points of attack, whether or not career Democrats consider our rights and our lives “wedge issues.”
On May 9, in an interview with Robin Roberts of ABC News, Obama said, “I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” The rest of his words were barely heard by many of his political friends and foes, but they remain on the public record. Obama framed his personal endorsement of gay marriage in terms of moral condescension and social conformism, including references to “members of my own staff who are in incredibly monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together.…” But we can be sure that married gay people with or without kids will be quite as human as married straight people, and therefore they will not all be virtuosos of monogamy. And when they do have affairs, the first person they confide in might not be their moralizing boss in the Oval Office, who is by all accounts a much more zippered guy than Bill Clinton.
Obama went on to claim that “when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf,” then he thinks they deserve the right to marry too. But when Obama thought of Bradley Manning, a soldier brave enough to break ranks against war crimes, he said last year, “He broke the law.” This president thereby tilted the scales of justice when Manning had already done hard time in prison but had not yet gotten a proper day in court.
If the sterling examples of gay monogamy and military duty had not yet made the case for gay marriage, Obama also noted the persuasive power of his daughters at the dinner table: “You know, Malia and Sasha, they have friends whose parents are same-sex couples.” Then Obama told the reporter that he and Michelle are “practicing Christians” and “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.”
Does the road to Damascus lead to the road to the White House, or is it quite the other way around? The sincerity of Obama’s faith is a metaphysical question, and properly belongs between himself and God. But he has advertised his religious and personal motives in the context of public policy, so his mixed motives are undeniably part of Obama’s rhetorical arsenal in the midst of another presidential campaign.
I must underscore the very words that were most often edited out of the immediate news cycle by lachrymose pundits, by “nonpartisan” national gay organizations and by frankly partisan “progressives.” If we take Greenwald’s advice to distinguish motives from actions, then these words have the actual effect of reinforcing bigotry and discrimination:
“I have to tell you that part of my hesitation on this has been I didn’t want to nationalize the issue. There’s a tendency when I weigh in to think suddenly it becomes political and it becomes polarized. And what you’re seeing is, I think, states working through this issue—in fits and starts, all across the country. And I think that’s a healthy process and a healthy debate. And I continue to believe that this is an issue that is gonna be worked out on the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what’s recognized as marriage.”
Historically, and indeed legally, that is false. In Loving v. Virginia, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 1967 that a Virginia law forbidding marriage across racial lines violated personal liberty and the constitutional principles of the republic, and this ruling left no doubt that the right to marry was indeed “a federal issue” that would overrule all racial restrictions on marriage that still remained in the laws of the states. The ACLU had raised 14th Amendment claims in defending the plaintiffs, Richard and Mildred Loving, and the Supreme Court substantially ruled in their favor on those grounds. On June 12, 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the Loving decision, Mildred Loving issued this statement:
“Surrounded as I am now by wonderful children and grandchildren, not a day goes by that I don’t think of Richard and our love, our right to marry, and how much it meant to me to have that freedom to marry the person precious to me, even if others thought he was ‘the wrong kind of person’ for me to marry. I believe all Americans, no matter their race, no matter their sex, no matter their sexual orientation, should have the same freedom to marry. Government has no business imposing some people’s beliefs over others. Especially if it denies people’s civil rights. I am still not a political person, but I am proud that Richard’s and my name is on a court case that can help reinforce the love, the commitment, the fairness, and the family that so many people, black or white, young or old, gay or straight seek in life. I support the freedom to marry for all. That’s what Loving, and loving, are all about.”
In a starkly different sense, marriage also became a federal issue when the Defense of Marriage Act was passed by a large bipartisan majority in Congress, and when Clinton signed it into federal law in 1996. At that time no state was granting marriage licenses to same-sex couples, but DOMA explicitly (and for the first time in this country) ruled out federal recognition of any same-sex marriage that might be conducted at the state level. DOMA, which defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman, also gave momentum to local campaigns to alter state constitutions in the same direction.
DOMA remains on the books, though Obama has instructed the Justice Department not to enforce or defend it, and a federal appeals court ruled a section of it unconstitutional May 31. The Republican leadership in Congress has declared it will sue the Justice Department to require the enforcement of DOMA. This is the bipartisan scorched earth policy all over again. The Democrats collaborate with Republicans in setting forest fires, and then “progressives” arrive at election time with the usual message of Smokey the Bear: “Only you can prevent forest fires.”
Why did Clinton sign DOMA? Of course, the devil made him do it. Clinton’s habit of blaming all bad shit on others extends, by the way, to blaming Colin Powell for assuring him that the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military discrimination bill would not really do what it was designed to do: discriminate. That policy was finally repealed by Congress in 2011.
Obama’s fervent loyalists of all sexual persuasions just want to cherish the moment, the rosy afterglow of his announcement that he now finds gay marriage consistent with flag, faith and family. Thanks for nothing is what I said then, and what I still say now. When I removed myself from the group hug of many “progressive Democrats,” one reader of Truthdig left a note calling me an “ingrate.” True, and thanks very much—but only in the strict partisan sense that I owe no loyalty to their party, and that I will certainly vote against the candidate of their choice. My gratitude goes instead to people who never had to “evolve” in order to defend the most basic human rights, and who are also determined to extend democracy into the realm of the economy.
Though I gladly grant the significance of a president endorsing gay marriage for the first time in public, I cannot grant Obama the moral and political credit that his party now demands. The credit belongs by moral right and historical evidence to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender movements, including our efforts over the decades to secure equality of kinship. The significance of Obama’s words May 9 can be only continuous with all the events that came before and will still follow. Otherwise each news cycle destroys both personal memory and the wider horizon of history, and all of social reality is reduced to disparate parts and sensational first impressions. Just as the “single issue” of same-sex marriage illuminates many other features in our political landscape, so the career of a single politician must be drawn against the background of the corporate state.
An opponent of gay marriage holds a sign outside the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y., not long before the legislature of that state sided with gay couples.