Sunday, May 13, 2012

When Honesties Collide

Jennifer recently asked our daughter for her opinion on what the president said last week about same-sex marriage.  "Oh my god mom, I am so sick of that.  It's all over Facebook.  It's like all people are talking about.  It makes me sick."  That is how my daughter responded before mentioning that she thought people in love should be able to marry regardless of their gender.

I agree with my daughter, although it does not sicken me to experience the intense debate over this historic moment.  The much-hated liberals, rightly I think, are portraying it as a matter of civil rights.  The Left is praising the president, of course.  The conservatives are spinning it as Obama playing politics in a way that is out of touch with mainstream America.  More honest conservatives are connecting their opposition with their religious faith.

Last Sunday vice-president Joe Biden abruptly announced that he was "absolutely comfortable" with the controversial idea of gay marriage.  This was just before North Carolina (who will host the Democratic National Convention later this summer) voted to join the ranks of some 30 states and ban marriage as a legal bond between couples of the same-sex.

This forced president Obama to hurriedly reconsider how to posture himself on this issue in the upcoming election.  It all happened over the course of about six days.  This seems to me to be a rare moment of (perhaps calculated, perhaps not) honesty about a deeply decisive issue.

I have been critical of Obama for being dispassionate, technocratic, and without any real guiding principles during these past four years.  Even with his signature domestic program, the Affordable Health Care for Americans Act, he weaved and waffled to the whims of others trying to form a consensus that just wasn't possible.  The Act ended up largely written by others.  Obama's plan was not crafted under his close supervision.  He didn't really have much to do with the specifics.

Coming out in favor of gay marriage is a historic moment of distinctive political honesty about a civil rights issue that is in line with Obama's liberal nature.  His support for same-sex marriage is not surprising.  Still, he called his decision a result of an "evolution" of consideration.  In truth, the evolution was toward becoming honest with himself and with the American People.  Conservatives disagree with the "civil rights" assessment but I find their reasoning lacking because it is limited by religious preference.

By a slim margin, the majority of Americans support same-sex marriage.  This is a major shift in the culture of our nation over the past 15 years or so.  With that in mind it is easy to see how Obama's controversial announcement is, as some conservatives claim, simply playing politics.  But that doesn't take away the bravery and honesty of the moment.  In what will likely be a close election year, it is always safer to straddle the fence of such issues in order to build the largest coalition of voters as possible.  Obama's honest and definitive announcement is therefore a gamble no matter how anyone wants to caste it.

Setting politics aside, however, all the reasons to oppose same-sex marriage are religious ones.   There are no reasonable ethical or legal arguments against gay marriage.  There is nothing about the sexuality of marriage that threatens the constitutional rights of Americans.  That is an undeniable fact.

Therefore the gay marriage issue is fundamentally and unintentionally all an expression/critique of morality in our culture.  Therefore the honest pursuit of liberal civil rights and conservative morality collide.  That is the polarity of the situation and it could possibly place great urgency on this presidential election.

How this will ultimately affect the election is yet to be seen.   I'm not convinced that the issue will deflect attention away from the economy but the politics might work in Obama's favor.  Or not.  This issue might turn out to be mean nothing by November.  As explosive as it seems, gay rights isn't exactly at the forefront of the minds of most Americans.  Maybe everybody is like my daughter and just sick of it.  Everybody just needs to get over it.

Whether or not it flies as a lasting issue, it is the right thing to do.  I applaud Obama for coming out of the closet on the issue even if Joe Biden did place the president in an awkward position in order to "enable" this to happen.  The president is apparently not upset with Biden even though the veep did apologize for going wildly off-message.  Now we are in new political territory and both core supporters of the Left and the Right should be more energized making this election all the more interesting to watch.

The Christian militancy (for that is exactly what it is, self-righteous religious advocacy for a theocratic government) against gay and lesbian citizens should be met head-on.  Not because a slim majority of Americans support same-sex marriage, but because any political argument based solely on religious perspectives is inherently all about joining church and state, which is something our Founding Fathers took great pains to plainly separate.

So, when Romney reacts to the Obama announcement he is being a religious president.  He is playing in a moral realm not an ethical or legal one.  He becomes the same Neanderthal candidate as Rick Santorum was.  Romney's position seems to be "evolving" as well, but in the opposite direction.  At first he thought gay couples had a "right" to adopt children but those children should not be allowed to be reared in the family atmosphere that only marriage can bring.  This is an untenable, naive position.  So, now it is Romney's turn to waffle and wander vaguely through the realm of ethical principle.  The Plastic Republican nominee-to-be is showing his wax museum disingenuous soul. 

Some might contend that our system of ethics is founded upon morality.  I agree.  But, ethics is founded upon a number of other things (fairness, openness, tolerance) and is not necessarily the prerogative of the religious.  That is why our Founding Fathers, though religious men, kept political power away from religious faith.

This is an opportunity for liberalism to shine just as it shined in the great civil rights movement of the 1960's.  The energy of being right and being opposed by passionate yet archaic political thought grounded solely in conservative religious doctrine can be powerful.  But, once again, I'm not sure the average voter will care so much about it in a few months, after this has run its course through the news cycle.

It would be ironic if this year, with the economy consuming so much of our attention, and if the stock market doesn't just collapse between now and November, the election might not be about the economy, stupid.  Voters might be galvanized about more than an anemic economic recovery and a major shift in healthcare.  That might mean all this is just Obama playing politics after all.  Using a divisive political issue to project the attention of the voters elsewhere.  This is obviously a risky situation, however.  Swing states like North Carolina might now be more likely to lean toward Romney if Obama cannot somehow turn issues like gay rights into a mobilization for his re-election.  In swing states this could hurt Obama more than help him.

For the risk Obama is taking I have to believe this is not a clever political calculation.  It is, rather, a moment of direct personal conviction from a president that has expressed few such moments in the last four years.  I welcome the situation.  Obama is right.  Biden forced him to become who he truly is.  And now this election could at least in part be about taking human liberty to the next stage in our society.  There is no legitimate reason not to do so.

But, that does not mean Obama will win this round of the debate.  So, which is it going to be for now?  The honesty of the ethical liberals or the honesty of the religious conservatives?  It is a competition of worldviews.  The stuff that makes worlds collide.

Late Note: On May 31,  the First Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional.  This is a major win for same-sex marriage in the US.  It is also a major victory for States Rights.

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