When President Obama was asked at a press conference this past week whether he wanted to clarify his confused stance on gay marriage -- refuse to defend the Defense of Marriage Act one day, refuse to endorse marriage equality the next -- he answered that he "was not going to make news on that today." Many people suspect that Obama really does favor gay marriage (he said as much years before running for president), but that his cold political calculation is that a public statement in support of the freedom to marry could hurt him in the 2012 election. Last week, one might have been forgiven for thinking that Obama's record of political achievements, from healthcare reform to Don't Ask, Don't Tell repeal, warranted giving him the benefit of the doubt.
July 4, however, casts Obama's position in a new light. Independence Day is a day commemorating the boldness of our founders, whose Revolution was anything but a foreordained victory. Despite the substantial risks to them personally -- up to forty percent of colonists were opposed to independence and King George would surely have beheaded each and every one of the Declaration of Independence's signors for their treason -- they chose July 4, 1776 to stand up for their deepest held values.
July 4, in other words, is a day for making news.
Some people are beginning to question whether Obama's political calculation is correct on its own terms. With polls now showing gay marriage to have majority support and one key faction of the Republican coalition -- the Wall Street crowd -- now favoring equal rights, Obama may be forsaking a potent wedge issue he could use to split the opposition. Perhaps these critics are right, although Obama is probably focused on how coming out in favor of gay marriage would impact voters in swing states like Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania.
Yet from the perspective of July 4, this kind of political balancing looks petty. The issues at stake in the gay marriage debate are too important, too central to our identity as Americans, to leave to an electoral abacus.
The Declaration of Independence famously announced that all people are "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." Gay people in America, however, cannot fully enjoy these rights. They don't have the "liberty" that heterosexuals have to enter into state-sanctioned unions and start families with the people they love. The overwhelming majority of heterosexuals recognize that marriage is central to their self-fulfillment and contentment, as evidenced by the joys associated with wedding days and the continued embrace of marriage even among those whose previous efforts ended in divorce. Simply put, the freedom to marry is a cornerstone of the pursuit of happiness.
The founders did not recognize the importance of gay marriage -- or even the nature of homosexuality itself -- but that shouldn't prevent us from insisting upon marriage equality. The story of the unalienable rights identified by the founders is one of continual expansion to include more and more people deserving of those liberties. When Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner, wrote the Declaration, its promise was denied to the vast majority of people on our shores: women, slaves, free blacks, and Native Americans. Over the past two centuries, however, we've found that American ideals are only made stronger by including an ever larger portion of We the People.
Today we stand at a crossroads. Will we allow gays and lesbians to finally become full partners in the American experiment, or will we continue to repress and discriminate against them?
That is the question Americans, especially President Obama, must ask. Like the founders, we should not determine the answer by looking at polling results or pondering how it will affect the next election. We should ask instead what our answer means for our core principles. We should ask how we can live up to the spirit of '76.
On July 4, merely to ask the question is to know the answer. Mr. President, your countrymen are waiting.