President Obama yesterday announced that “personally” he is in favor of same sex marriage. Of course, nothing a president does is exclusively personal: The job comes with a bully pulpit. But, it is worth noting that he did not announce any new policy yesterday, has not proposed federalization of the issue, etc. It is also worth noting that the metaphor of a “bully pulpit” – it is not a “bully lectern” – suggests that in some sense the President, being head of state as well as head of government, has a unique role in leading a nation that is still very religious.
For several years now, my liberal friends have been disappointed in my unwillingness to embrace the cause of same-sex marriage. Now, I suppose it is my conservative friends who will be disappointed that I remain unwilling to see the issue as one of earth-shattering significance. I do not doubt that this is a key moment in the culture wars, and today that phrase rings especially true: the two sides on the issue of same sex marriage live in different cultures and you can see this in the way they discuss the issue itself.
On the left, same sex marriage is about equal rights. On the right, the issue is about preserving the traditional definition of marriage. As Catholics, of course, marriage is first and foremost a sacrament, one which is deeply bound to ideas about the complementarity of the sexes and the fecundity of the marital union.
Against my friends on the left, I continue to believe that marriage is a deeper socio-cultural reality than can be captured by any application of a doctrine of rights. Listen to friends you know who have been married for forty or fifty years and you will notice that they do not discuss their marriage in terms of rights. In all Western cultures, of course, marriage is deeply embedded in our laws and so, yes, marriage as an institution has come to confer specific legal benefits on those who are so joined. I have always believed that civil unions could achieve the goal of providing equal rights and that it was no offense to anyone if our society continued to distinguish marriage, and even privilege it, keeping it tied to its historical and theological roots, which certainly predate the modern nation-state. You do not have to be a bigot to think that so central a cultural institution as marriage should not be lightly altered.
Against those on the left who are also gay rights activists, I have long lodged a further complaint. It is somewhat surprising to me that marriage became the cause celebre of the gay community. I would have thought that passing the Employment Non-Discrimination Act would have a greater effect on more members of the gay and lesbian community. And, it is shameful that many gay political activists, mostly white, affluent males who have good health insurance, have essentially abandoned the fight for more funding to combat HIV/AIDS. Don’t take my word for it: Go to the website of the Human Rights Campaign Fund. You can find mention of the fight against HIV/AIDS but you have to really look for it, and when you find it, the first thing mentioned is not combating a disease that now afflicts mostly poor minority populations but a comment thanking President Obama for lifting the ban on HIV-positive immigrants and visitors entering the country.
Against my friends on the right, I must say that all the loose and heated talk about a “threat to marriage” rings hollow. In our culture today, our compatriots, and many co-religionists, do not mean by marriage what the Church means by marriage. It has been that way for sometime. No fault divorce laws were a threat to what we mean by marriage, certainly more so than the actions of a sliver of the population who, ironically, seem to be the only people talking about lifelong, monogamous commitment these days. And, while I have never studied the issue from a social scientific perspective, nor from a historical one, anecdotally it seems to me that declining and stagnant wages over the past forty years, forcing most middle class families and all poorer ones to become two-earner households, has eroded our notion of family life and marriage more than the push for same sex marriage will. That stagnation in wages is coincident with the decline of union organizing, but where is the conservative who is willing to say that the free market, the much celebrated market, has changed the meaning of marriage in our lifetime more than Andrew Sullivan has?
The Church must also acknowledge that it has helped to bring our culture to this moment. Had the bishops been willing to embrace civil unions a decade ago, we might not be having this fight about marriage. That train has now left the station. But, the fault goes deeper. About a decade ago, when the issue of same sex marriage was first gaining currency, a bishop asked me, “Is this about feeling accepted?” I could not fail to point out that if our Church had done a better job making gays and lesbians feel accepted, we might have had a chance to explain, in a non-confrontational and loving, familial way, why what the Church means by marriage must be reserved to members of the opposite sex. Again, the train has left.
It is important that the President, in the coming days and weeks, resists the temptation to turn his announcement into any kind of federal action. It is also important that the courts stay out of this issue. The political process, with its painful, lengthy, onerous, tedious requirement that we American persuade one another, is a preferable route to take. The Supreme Court’s intervention from on high in Roe v. Wade short-circuited a debate going on in many state legislatures, debates that might have yielded laws that more closely reflected Americans’ ambivalent views on abortion than what we have now. Indeed, that short-circuiting of the political process is one of the major reasons the abortion debate is till as contentious as it is, almost forty years after Roe.
It is also important that the President, and those who support same sex marriage, make clear that while all anti-gay bigots undoubtedly oppose gay marriage, not all of those who oppose gay marriage are bigots.
It is important that the leaders of the Church think long and hard on this issue. I believe that every dollar spent on fighting same sex marriage at the polls is a dollar wasted. The trajectory of public opinion on this issue is clear. How then should the Church respond? One idea was suggested to me the other day: The Catholic Church should decline to have its priests confer civil marriage at all. This is the final instance in which a priest functions as a magistrate of the State, a vestige of times past, and it no longer does anything good for either side. Such a move would allow us to focus on what we mean by marriage and also point out, to gay and straight alike, that the ambient cultural definition of marriage has long since come to mean something different from what we mean. “If we do this now, it removes the Church from a rancorous debate in which she is perceived as imposing her views on half the American people, and the gesture -- if explained correctly -- will be seen as gracious,” my priest friend explained. “If we wait until we're forced by a law suit in a state where same sex marriage is legal, it will be seen as a humiliation and a further sign of our irrelevance.” I think he is exactly right.
I do not begrudge the celebrations of those who found in the president’s words something to celebrate. I also do not begrudge the attitude of the black man who told the Washington Post, in explaining why he will not be voting for Obama come November, “I’d love to be supportive to my president…I have to be loyal to my God.” You may disagree with the man’s theology or his politics, but let no one say an unkind word about the man’s faithfulness. I am happy, truly happy, for my gay friends who have married and hope they will find happiness and fulfillment in their lives. I am happy, too, to belong to a Church that continues to propose a view of marriage that sees it as linked both to our celestial callings and our fundamental instincts about the complementarity of the sexes, an analogy for the relationship that is “betwixt Christ and His Church” as the Book of Common Prayer has it.
In short, the president’s words yesterday may be cause for celebration to some and for disappointment to others. Their political significance remains to be seen and at least the President gets high marks for courage as it is far from clear that there is a political upside to this issue for him. Indeed, if I was forced to make a prediction, I would predict that his embrace of same sex marriage will hurt him in key swing states. But, his words did not inaugurate a brave new world and they did not foretell the apocalypse. Twenty years hence, they will provoke a yawn. I wish we could get there faster than twenty years.