Obama on gay marriage: Why now?

May 11, 2012

President Obama affirmed his support for full marriage rights in a Wednesday television interview, leaving many Post users asking the question, "Why now?"

There has also been much debate about the merit of allowing gay marriage and if it will be good for or destructive to the United States.

Brad Hirschfield discussed these topics and other ethical issues in the news.

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With the country almost equally divided about gay marriage -- 46% favoring it and 44% opposing it -- it's a topic which always gets a great deal of attention.  When the President of the United States changes his position on this very sensitive topic, it's a big deal.


But why did President Obama change his stated view from an "evolving one" to unqualified support?  Was he simply pushed into it by VP Biden's remarks on Meet The Press?


How do you feel about President Obama's actions?  what about gay marriage in general?  Is it right, wrong, and upon what do you base your answer?


Let's get started.


It appears the President did this to get the big donations from the gay community. Ethical? since his largest consitituency, but perhaps poorest, is not the gay community but the black community who was looking forward to his administration for generating jobs.

Yeah, it's all about that big "gay money".  Come now.  while there are certainly people in the gay community, and pro-gay marriage comunity who will give more becasue of the President's move.  Most of them were supporting the President anyway.  Not to mention that in light of taking a specific position on a divissive issue, the President will surely find it harder to raise money from many people.  It's why certain TV ad buys were canceled. 


Now let's get to some demographic math.  Black people, even if each and every Black voter supported the President, are NOT his biggest constituency -- they can't be.  Black people are a monority community (say 12% of the population), so a smaller percentage of the white community is still a much larger constituency than would be 100% of the black electorate.  President Obama is NOT the black president, he is the President of the United States, and he happens to be black.


As to jobs being a more pressing issue, I agree.  Of course, I am not a gay person looking to get married, so that is easier for me to say.  Even so, un-married with good job prospects strikes me as better than married without them.

I'm a Christian and homosexuality is not brought to attention in the New Testament, however, Christians do go to the Old Testament as a testament to God's ire toward it. If you don't mind, since you are a Rabbi could you tell me if the Jewish religion considers homosexuality a sin? Thank you.

The references, or understtod references to homosexualtiy in the New Testament are  not what you asked about, so I won't go there.  Suffice it to say that not all NT scholars would agree with your conclusion.


As to the Hebrew Bible, the issue is clear -- some forms of homosexual sex are clearly prohibited.  What they are and how that prohibition is understood varies from denomination to denomination. 


What is most important however, is that even according to the most conservative and or/traditional understandings of both the original prohibition in Leviticus, and in later rabbinic teaching, is that being gay is NEVER prohibited.


There is nothing wrong with being gay, there is nothing sinful in homosexual attraction, etc.  While that still leaves gay people in a terrible place, according to some understandings of the tradition, relative to sexual expression, it also demands that gay people be treated with respect, dignity, and love -- and not because it's the "nice" thing to do, but because it is there human right as people created in the image of God.

Why not now? If some folks think that the President's thinking is focused more on the upcoming campaign, I think that the timing is more based on how the US is viewed overseas and how we view ourselves. For example, if the US really wants human rights to be respected by its allies and potential allies, it should look homeward first to see if we can give our own citizens rights that we expect our allies to confer and protect on their citizens. To do otherwise tells our allies that we're hypocrites: Do as I say, not as I do. Your thoughts, Rabbi?

If all people agreed that marriage is human right, I would probably agree with you.  Whether they should or not, the fact is that they do not.  Not to mention that in most of the world, legalizing gay marriage is seen as a terrible idea.  So from that perspective little is to be gained or even appreciated regarding the President's timing.


I certainly DO agree that do as I do is the right way to go.  Of course, I also believe that the rule should be applied contextually i.e. when we can all do the same things, we should all be held to the same standards of behavior, but when real disagreements exist, there can be differences in how people express the same ethical values.


Consistancy IS important, but not when we becomes it's slaves.

Why now? Isn't it obvious? Follow the money. Prior to the announcement money from liberal gay rights activists was being withheld. After the announcement, the money comes pouring in, according to today's WashPo online. Let's remember he was for gay marriage (local Chicago election) before he was against it (state senate election) before he was for it again. Much like how he was for public financing of campaigns before he realized he could raise more money and became against it. Just another politically expedient flop flop that the MSM portrays as pragmatism.

Not sure how your "political expedience" is different from the MSM's "pragmatism".  While I assume you think the former is bad and the latter would be better, if you believed that's what it was, they are basically the same.


And given the consternation this move has caused among many in the President's inner circle, especially those taked with serious fund-raising, it's not clear that coming our in favor of gay marriage was either expedient of pragmatic.


Personally, I think it was simply a matter of not being percieved of as being behind the VP.  In other words, like the old conspiracy theory says, Humpty Dumpty was pushed!  President Obama was pretty comfortable sitting atop the wall of his "evolving views", but in light of Mr. Bidens comments on Meet The Press, he had to go all in.


While that is probably good for gay marriage in the short run, I am not sure if that will be true in the long run.  We are so divided about this issue right now, that it could cause real backlash from which it will be very hard to recover.


Sometimes fence-sitting is very principles and pragmatic position....

It's not clear how legalization of gay marriage would be harmful to the nation. No one is proposing that it dislodge straight marriage as a norm. I've heard two nonsectarian arguments against it - it would somehow discourage straights from marrying or even tempt them into homosexuality, and that children would be harmed if raised by gay parents. The former is simple fearmongering, and the second seems highly questionable based on the research. In fact, most arguments I've heard about the latter seem focused on preserving not the welfare of children but the paternal privilege of the fathers, with the real goal being preserving gender norms. Does this fit your experience?

If anything, I think that you are being too nice regarding some pretty stupid, if heartfelt, arguments against gay marriage.  You must be a nicer person than I am.  Of course, I could be damning you with faint praise!


As far as I can see, the only real arguments against gay marriage are purely theological in nature.  and in the interest of full disclosure, as an Orthodox rabbi, some of those arguments make a claim on me.  But that is a personal issue and should not be creating government policy.


One solution would be to get government out of the "marriage business" altogether.  Call all legally binding and (hopefully) committed relationships "civil unions" and let relgious institutions decide for themselves and their followers, what is and what is not a "marriage".

And just to throw a conspiracy theory out there (b/c every good chat should have one)... 1) Biden "gaffes", 2) Preezy "forced" to announce support, 3) "Preezy" goes to Clooney's house to hob knob with many of his LBTG fundraisers, 4) WaPo releases a hit piece (now being shown to have multiple sourcing errors) painting Romney as a gay bully 50 years ago. Still think Biden's gaffe was unintentional? And for the record, I support gay marriage and inclusion of "sexual orientation" in all non-discrimination laws. But that doesn't mean I don't find Obama's craven politicking on this issue, or the MSM's lapping it up, disgusting.

That's the "great" thing about conspiracy theories, they need no facts to support them.  They are not about the fact, but about offering ways in which people can buttress that which they already believe.  That, and that alone, is what your theory accomplishes.  If that makes you happy, go in peace.


Of course, the one thing about which you may want to think before "going", is that because of how conspiracy thoeries work, they also angage few people who don;t already share the theorist's beliefs, so they have little real impact.  Just saying.

If the anti-gay crowd decides that what Romney did was good, will he then suddenly remember this attack and claim that it was deserved ?

First, I hope that you are not conflating being anti-gay marriage with being anti-gay.  While i know that I will get hammered from both sides for this, the two are not necessarily the same.


I may favor legalizing gay marriage.  But simply because someone does not share that view, does not mean that they are hostile to gay people.  Drawing that conclusion is neither fair nor respectful to a great many people who are trying to hold togetehr competing claims about personal human dignity and their understanding of marriage -- both civil and religious.


If Romney comes out defending being part of a group that held down a classmate and forcible cut off his hair, I think he can kiss the presidency goodbye.  But let's be fair, he already said that if it happened that way -- and it's not clear that it did -- he would be very sorry.  Not to mention that the family of the now dead person in question has asked that neither he, nor his story, be used for politcal purposes.  Let's respect that wish.

Richard Cohen made the point that whatever Romney did in his teens, what really matters is how he regards those actions and if he learned anything from them. I found it disappointing that he doesn't remember the incident and that his apology was half-hearted at best. Would you agree that the truly ethical move would have been to own his mistakes?

Absolutely -- if that is waht happened.  There are competing versions of teh story and it's really not clear what did go down.


What I would have liked, would have been a clearer statement about the reality of bullying and how even decent people can and do participate in it.  This was a teachable moment in which Gov. Romney could have done much more without implicating himself.  Wish he had, but not sure it's such a big deal.  In fact, why and how do you think the story surfaced now?

The thing that bothers me most about this is not the cruelness of what he did. Teenagers can be cruel to each other. It seems clear to me though that he certainly must remember this attack which is too vivid to forget. If he simply apologized for being cruel to this boy, I'd feel a lot better about Romney. These half-baked, I'm sorry if anyone was offended apologies just don't cut it.

I totally agree about if/then apologies.  Of course, I also know that when full-throated apologies are offered, ones in which offenders of any sort assume real responsibility for their past bad acts, they are typically torn apart by the media and the public.


If we want a culture in which people make full and clear apologies, then we all need to learn how to accept those apologies, not take advantage of the vulnerability which they create for the one offering them.

Under your view of getting the government out of the marriage license business, how would you react to a religious institution recognizing a polygamous relationship as a "civil union"? Is that a bridge too far for you (I'll confess that it would be for me)? If not, should that "civil union" get the same tax and other legal benefits as any other "civil union"?

Polygamous marriage is a bridge too far for me, at least for now.  Of course, for most of human history, that what people would have said about monogamous marriage!  That's why I said, for now.  Yes, that's a bit glib (if accurate), no I don't see it happening, and yes, there are many reasons to oppose it -- polygamous marriage.



This is one of those issues that we look back on years from now and wonder how we ever forbid gay people to marry. No one is forcing priests / pastors / rabbis to perform the service. But if a couple goes to a GOVERNMENT courthouse, who is the government to say that they can't get married. Obama either just figured this out or finally told the truth to the American public.

"Truth" can be a funny thing, for exactly the reaosns you mention -- it looks different at different times in history even if at any one of those times it is thought of as absolute and unchanging.  What "truth" will make the one in which you believe, look crazy?  If the answer is none, then you are as entrenched and absolutist as those you oppose.


Historical triumphalists come and go, and they all end up looking at least a little silly, even when the conclusions they supported ended up becomming dominant.  Try and remember that when you talk with people who don't share your views on this issue.  They may not be right, but they are probably not as wrong as you think, either.

Why do you think that there's a difference between being against gay marriage and being anti-gay? I don't see how believing that people's love is only sanctionable by the state, and only sanctioned by God, if it's heterosexual love could be neutral or positive toward the people who have that love. That's not a dis, it's a confused. What are you saying?

I am simply saying that figuring out how to hold together long-held traditions with new realities is not so simple.  People can feel that marriage is limited to one group while still being open to honoring those they feel are not within that group.

Is that great for gay people who want to be married?  Of course not!  It just means that decent people can disagree about one element of gay inclusion without being "anti-gay".  being "pro" or "anti" anything should never be an all, or nothing-at-all deal.

The politicians and media are in an implicit partnership to distract American voters from the truly important issues and focus on things like this, on which one doesn't need much background info to form a strong opinion. Our real issues on which we SHOULD be having debates are the unsustainable budgets for defense and pensions. But there's no way for the politicians to tell people what they want to hear about that, or the news to print stories people will like reading; so they distract us with this circus of a trivial issue.

I think your partnership theory is off, but we agree about what the more imprtant issues really are, and the fact that the social issues typically generate more heat than light -- with the exception of this chat, of course!

What distinction does Obama make between marriage and civil unions that would cause him to endorse marriages rather than civil unions?

Simple, many people don't want their relationships classed differently simply by virtue of who the partners are.  Of course, that is exactly why some people DO want civil unions and fight gay marriage.  Everybody is looking for sanction and blessing from others, independant of the actual rights and liberties that both relationships could confer.


We say that we are talking about rights, but that is clearly not all that is at stake.  Perhaps if we could at least be honest about that, we could find some better solutions.

At first I wasn't too impressed by Obama's announcement. I didn't really buy this whole "evolving" business. Why did it take so long for him to evolve? Did he not see any similarities between gay marriage and interracial marriage - of which he is a product, and which used to be illegal in Virginia as recently as 1967? To me, it was obvious gay marriage should be legal. But it's a brilliant move to show people how to change their views. To show that it's not a rigid division of us and them. You're not born supporting gay rights, you can evolve. Let's hope people follow his lead.

You have offered a wise commentary on the importance of evolving views.  In fact, we should all have at least one hot button issue on which we are willing to have evolving views -- from either the left of the right.


One note of caution on evolving views though, before we wrap up.  When people talk of evolving views, they often have a clear sense of the position which is the upright and fully evolved human in that classic image of the "ascent of man" -- and it's always the position they have reached. 


For a truly evolutionary approach, try imaging that whatever view you hold today, it's not the peak of evolution, but the "pond scum" from which views we cannot yet imagine will eventually arise.

That's it for this week.  Thanks, as always, for great questions and comments.


Don't forget to find me on Facebook and follow me on Twitter @Brad Hirschfield.


'Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by Beliefnet.com, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see www.bradhirschfield.com.
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