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Posted at 02:13 PM ET, 05/10/2012

Taking Obama, or politicians, at their word

Why did President Obama decide to support same-sex marriage, publicly and for the first time on Wednesday? The day after, there are plenty of opinions, so take your pick.

His timing was forced by Vice President Biden’s weekend endorsement
President Obama speaks during an interview with "Good Morning America" co-anchor Robin Roberts in this still image taken from video released Wednesday. During the interview, Obama said he believes same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. (HANDOUT - REUTERS)
(unless you believe as some do that Biden’s move was a calculated slip of the tongue orchestrated by a Machiavellian White House).

Or he had to appease the gay fundraisers working to raise money for what promises to be an expensive, nasty and hard-fought presidential campaign against Mitt Romney and his deep-pocket Wall Street backers.

Or he is trying to renew enthusiasm among the young voters crucial in 2008 and even more important in 2012.

Or he approved of same-sex marriage all along and – ever mindful of the political consequences -- was waiting for polls to show a more accepting public.

Or he’s a fan of ABC’s Robin Roberts and decided it would be fun to deny the scoop to any White House correspondent with a catchy one-syllable first name -- think Chip, Jake or Chuck.

OK, I made that last one up.

To see everyone with a computer or a microphone weigh in on Obama’s “true” motives was to realize that when it comes to scrutinizing politicians, the last thing we care about is what that politician says.

For many months, journalists have been wondering what the president thinks about same-sex marriage, parsing each word out of his month, almost mocking his explanation of an “evolving” stance while that evolution was taking place before our eyes: ending “don’t ask, don’t tell,” endorsing civil unions, supporting repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act.

In his conversation with Roberts, Obama traced his thinking, how he tried to reconcile the marriage traditions of his Christian faith with the words of its golden rule. He talked about discussions around the dinner table with his wife and two daughters, whose world includes same-sex couples and their children.

He worked out his thought process, how he traveled from one place to another, in his heart and in his head, and came to a decision that he had to express without fully knowing what the political fallout would be.

Maybe sometimes, a politician simply means what he says. Obama favors equality, but because of custom, faith and so many other reasons, he had a difficult time saying out loud that he approves of and supports same-sex marriage.

I never thought that much about the issue because it didn’t affect my daily life or my marriage. My friends in same-sex relationships knew that if they decided to get married, I would be there, celebrating with them and dancing at the weddings. Taking a public stand is not the same as loving your friends.

But then North Carolina decided to add a question to its Tuesday primary ballot: “yes” or “no” to amend the state’s constitution to declare marriage between one man and one woman the only recognized and valid domestic legal union.

Never mind that on Wednesday, same-sex marriage would still be against the law in the state. (In this case, after the amendment passed overwhelmingly.) The vote took the law one step further and became a symbol, as well, of faith and government and whether this was the next front in America’s civil rights struggle.

I knew how I would vote from the start. As a person who tries to see life through the other guy’s point of view and as an African American, I am physically unable to push a button or pull a lever for anything that would discriminate against anybody – not going to happen. My views on same-sex marriage were not so clear.

Though faith congregations over a wide spectrum of denominations fell on both sides of the issue of Amendment One, my Catholic Church – with videos, mailings and sermons – campaigned enthusiastically for it. Bishop Peter Jugis, leader of the diocese of Charlotte, told me in an e-mail: "There are definitely very serious clashes taking place in our society regarding very important moral and social issues.  The Church wants to be involved in the discussion."

I listened and understood, but still heard exclusion in the message that clashed with my understanding of “love thy neighbor.” It didn’t make me turn away from the church’s mission and service. I participated in the food ministry for the homeless that spent a day and night each week in the parish. But sitting in the pew, letting the sermons wash over me, I wondered if I really wanted my weekly offering going to the diocesan full-court publicity press.

As I attended forums – as a journalist and a citizen – hoping to understand the legal ramifications of a ban that promised to affect civil unions and unmarried heterosexual couples, I heard people sincere in their belief that marriage is what the Bible says it is clash with same-sex couples raising children and making homes together. Each wanted validation that would not come.

Like some African Americans who stood on both sides of the debate, I bristled a bit at comparisons to the civil rights movement and the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, when the Supreme Court struck down states laws banning interracial marriage. Race and gender are different things, I believed. Both fights are about civil rights, but are they part of the same fight?

While activists on either side were so certain of where they stood, others weighed mixed feelings.

In my conversation with Dwayne A. Walker, pastor at Charlotte’s Little Rock AME Zion Church in Charlotte, I saw his struggle. Was homosexuality nature or nurture? He said he didn’t know. And no, he said, he would not marry a same-sex couple in his church, one that didn’t sanction same-sex marriage. But the N.C. marriage amendment went further than he was willing to, so he told his congregation to examine it carefully before voting. He warned of “unintended consequences.”

When LGBT activists compare themselves with the civil rights marchers of the 1960’s and I hesitated, Walker said he understood: “People are passionate about their identity and don’t understand why other people won’t accept it.” You can see why this guy’s a pastor. Everyone wants to take his or her place in the line of Americans with full and equal rights. As Martin Luther King found inspiration in Gandhi, others would look to a movement that transformed the laws of America. 

It always seemed to return to the word “marriage,” a sacrament that has come to mean much more than standing in a courthouse line. If only the state would just confer civil unions on everyone and let churches sort out the marriage thing, I reasoned. But you can’t go backward.

Is that what made Obama take a step forward? I have no idea. You didn’t think I would join the list of psychics I chided, with one eye on the Oval Office and the other on the next column?

The weight of a presidential election is not something I carry on my shoulders, so any comparison I make is far from perfect. But thoughtfully considering a lifetime of belief before making a decision that has an impact on the lives of others isn’t easy -- for anyone.

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3

By  |  02:13 PM ET, 05/10/2012

Tags:  Obama, same-sex marriage

 
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