You don’t have to be Christian to know the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do to you. In fact, scholars note that it is the one precept common to all major faith traditions. But in his interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts on Wednesday, President Obama cited the Golden Rule as found in Matthew 7:12 when describing the role his Christian faith played in leading him to support same-sex marriage.
“When we think about our faith,” he explained, “the thing at root that we think about is not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it’s also the Golden Rule. . . . Treat others the way you would want to be treated.”
Announcing to the nation that he thinks that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry wasn’t the first time Obama has linked his Protestant beliefs to his support for specific policies. In his address at the National Prayer Breakfast this year, he credited his faith for inspiring policies as diverse as funding for medical research and eliminating tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans. “Living by the principle that we are our brother’s keeper [and] caring for the poor and those in need,” Obama said, are values “that have defined my own faith journey.”
American politics is rife with religious rhetoric — but in the modern era, it has almost always been deployed on behalf of conservative positions. Religious communities helped rally support for the North Carolina ballot proposition prohibiting same-sex marriage and civil unions, which passed Tuesday. No less an evangelical icon than Billy Graham appeared in print ads statewide to urge its passage, under the message: “The Bible is clear — God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.” Liberal politicians, on the other hand, have tended to ground their positions in secular arguments, and often warned that Republicans were endangering the separation of church and state.
Obama cited several reasons for his support for gay marriage, including conversations with U.S. troops, his family and his staff. But his assertion that his views on same-sex marriage come from — not despite — his Christian faith marks a shift in U.S. politics. Democratic politicians now unabashedly cite religion when making their case, and GOP leaders sometimes find themselves in the unusual position of justifying — rather than merely stating — their religious claims. That’s something that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), who has cited his Catholic faith as a basis for the massive spending cuts in his proposed budget, has learned recently. Politicians from both parties now make explicitly religious arguments for opposing positions.
There was a time not long ago when the discussion of religion in politics centered on liberal causes — think of the civil rights movement or opposition to the war in Vietnam. When the religious right exploded onto the political scene in the late 1970s, however, many Democrats concluded that the introduction of religion into political discussion was a conservative act.