Politics is an amoral enterprise. That is not to suggest politics has failed to produce what many would consider moral outcomes.
Abraham famously wrote to Horace Greeley on Aug. 22, 1862, and made clear his abiding commitment to preserving the Union: "If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."
Though there are a plethora of quotes that indicate Lincoln was personally opposed to the notion of slavery, we see, at least by 21st century standards, Lincoln's willingness to participate in the amoral art of politics, rendering any moral outcomes as ancillary.
But one month later, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation would serve as one of the cornerstones for America's public morality, but was originated in an amoral political paradigm.
In 1963, President Kennedy, with re-election on the horizon, was placed in a similar position on civil rights. In spite of his desires to stay within the amoral confines of politics, the police dogs and high-powered fire hoses attacking unarmed civil rights demonstrators, and a governor willing to physically block black students from entering the University of Alabama demanded more.
Before he was ready politically, Kennedy addressed the nation defining civil rights as a "moral issue."
Historically, American presidents tend to choose the moral outcome when the amoral option will no longer suffice.
It is unclear if President Barack Obama felt the amoral paradigm would no longer suffice, but after two years of evolving, the president publicly stated his support for same-sex marriage.
In 2008, candidate Obama provided both sides of the Prop 8 divide fodder for their robo calls. In a single statement Obama said:
"I think [Prop 8 is] unnecessary. I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage."
But last week Vice President Joe Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan placed distance between themselves and the president's evolving position. The vice president stated on Meet the Press he was "absolutely comfortable" with the idea of gay marriage. The next day, when asked if he thought same-sex couples should be married, Duncan said unequivocally, "Yes, I do."
In the aftermath, the president's position on same-sex marriage was evolving into the worst-kept secret in town.
The president has done more to advance the cause of LGBT equality than any of his predecessors. His first term achievements include:
• Ordering the federal government to extend key benefits to same-sex partners
• Signing the Matthew Shepherd and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act into law
• Implementing the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"
The president's declarative statement certainly qualifies as his "profile in courage" moment. To take on one of the hot-button social issues less than 24 hours after North Carolina -- a state he was hoping to win again that will also host the Democratic Convention -- voted overwhelmingly in opposition of same-sex marriage was indeed courageous.
Those who cite the 30 states that have voted to limit marriage to heterosexual couples ignore that the results merely demonstrate how easy it is to disavow the constitutional principles the nation has embraced when they become inconvenient.
The president's support raises a fundamental question for the nation: Does the Constitution guarantee equal protection under the law to all its citizens?
Should the president take a political hit for supporting the 14th Amendment for all Americans, it would only prove George Bernard Shaw was right: "Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."
Byron Williams is an Oakland pastor and syndicated columnist. He is the author of the forthcoming book: 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website 1963hopeandhostility.com
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