I was glad to see President Obama come out in favor of same-sex marriage last week. Don’t get me wrong—I oppose same-sex marriage myself. But I was glad to see the president’s new candor on display.
Throughout his administration he has acted like a supporter of same-sex marriage, but he has spoken like a man who didn’t have the nerve to own up to his true opinion. It must feel good to be saying what he really thinks. I know I feel better. We can have a fair contest now, in which everyone’s cards are on the table.
One of the president’s cards is that he arrived at his support for same-sex marriage not despite his Christian faith, but because of it. He specifically cited the Golden Rule taught by Jesus in the gospels. I will not turn my attention here to whether the president has offered a coherent, or even plausible, account of the Golden Rule as it pertains to the marriage issue (but here are two good treatments, in my view). I want to note instead how much damage is done by the president to one of the favorite arguments of supporters of same-sex marriage.
The mere fact that the president claims to have religious reasons—specifically Christian reasons—for supporting same-sex marriage has occasioned some interesting triumphalism in recent days among those who agree with him. Time magazine’s Amy Sullivan had a piece in the pages of the Post that the editors gave the accurate descriptive headline, “Obama’s case for gay marriage shows that invoking faith isn’t just for conservatives anymore.” House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi reportedly said that “my religion compels me” to be for same-sex marriage. (Pelosi has a problem the president can sidestep since, as a Catholic, she is not really in charge of saying what her religion compels her to do in this matter.) The Post’s Lisa Miller praised the president for relying on his faith, although she coupled this with the rather curious assertion (based on what, is a mystery) that the president has set sail from the barren shores of mere Scripture to find his way. The New York Times recently observed that there are plenty of religious people and organized churches on either side of the issue.
So what is the damage that I think has been done to the arguments for same-sex marriage? Well, one of the endlessly repeated arguments of the advocates for this revolution in the meaning of marriage is that the defenders of the only meaning of marriage ever known in human history (that it unites men and women to form families) are “imposing their religion” on people who disagree with them. This is supposedly un-American, unjust, unconstitutional, unconscionable—un-you-name-it.
The criticism goes something like this. Many supporters of the traditional, conjugal understanding of marriage are religious people. They frequently employ religious arguments, or act on religious motives. When they argue in ways that do not rely explicitly on their faith, their opinions suspiciously overlap with what their faith has always taught them. It may be that what they call “moral” arguments are actually just religious arguments in disguise. And if they are really enacting, in public policy for the whole society, norms that they derive from or support because of their religion, then they are either “establishing” a religion in violation of the separation of church and state, or they are acting “irrationally” and have no “rational basis” for their view, since everyone knows “faith” and “reason” are entirely separate domains. Hence the supporters of traditional marriage are violating either the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, or the requirements of due process and equal protection, or both.
As I have explained elsewhere, this criticism is shot through with errors about the Constitution’s requirements, logical fallacies about the relation of morality and religion and of faith and reason, and general thuggishness. That has not prevented it from being popular with same-sex marriage advocates, and even some judges in Iowa and California.
Here I will content myself with observing that every one of these wrongheaded criticisms is exactly on point as a criticism of President Obama and all other supporters of same-sex marriage who rely in any way on their faith, as they understand it, to justify their support. If the people of California can be faulted for “imposing their religion” on their fellow citizens by passing Proposition 8, then it is equally true that President Obama is “imposing his religion” on his fellow Americans when he says, as he did last week, that laws preventing same-sex marriage are unjust to gay couples desiring to get married. If he is not imposing his religion on anyone, neither is anyone else.
I think “you’re imposing your religion” is an incredibly bad argument against President Obama’s view. But then I have always thought it was an incredibly bad argument against the defenders of the conjugal tradition. Will those now praising the president because of his faith-based view now renounce this bogus argument when it is aimed at the other side, as it has been for years? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.
Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.