The extensive media coverage and pundit commentary about President Obama's public support for same sex marriage as an "equal right" for all in our nation, irrespective of gender, challenges the wisdom of offering further comment. We nevertheless offer our thoughts on the matter.
Last week, I first heard the news reports of the president's comments on same sex marriage while visiting Washington, DC. After actually watching and listening to his remarks during the interview at the White House conducted by ABC News' Robin Roberts, President Obama's comments provoked immediate thoughts about other related, as well as disparate, things; such as:
- The English scholar Joseph Campbell's concept of "the hero's journey" in literature. Campbell describes a "hero" as the person who goes out and achieves great deeds on behalf of a group, tribe, or civilization.
- Dr. King's various writing and speeches about the nature of moral leadership, especially his statement that: "On some positions cowardice ask the question 'Is it safe?' Expediency asks the question 'Is it politic?' Vanity asks the question 'Is it popular?' But conscience asks the question, 'Is it right?' There comes a time when one must take a stand that is neither expedient, that's neither safe, that's neither politic or that is neither popular, but he must take that stand because it is right."
- President Abraham Lincoln's 1863 "Emancipation Proclamation" ending slavery in the United States.
- Harper Lee's book To Kill a Mockingbird about a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, who was appointed by the criminal court in Maycomb, Alabama to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman during the Depression. The trial, and the eloquent defense by Atticus Finch described in the book, and later depicted in a movie, became a major part of the culture on race relations in America during the 20th century following Margaret Mitchell's earlier publication of Gone With the Wind
- The remarks of Rabbi Joachim Prinz, president of the American Jewish Congress, at the March On Washington, 1963 in which he said: "When I was a rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime, I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned under those tragic circumstances was that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful, and the most tragic problem is silence."
- President Lyndon B. Johnson's address to a Joint Session of Congress on March 15th, 1965 in connection with the proposed Voting Rights Act of 1965. Among the things he said was: "I speak tonight for the dignity of man and the destiny of democracy ... At times history and fate meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man's unending search for freedom.(describing the assault on African Americans, including young John Lewis, now a member of Congress, peacefully protesting the denial of their right to vote in Selma, Alabama ... The cries of pain and the hymns and protests of oppressed people have summoned into convocation all the majesty of this great government."
- Elizabeth Cady Stanton's leadership in getting, for the first time, the right of women to vote which was eventually enshrined and codified in the 19th Amendment to our Constitution in August 1920.
- The assassination of Harvey Milk in November 1978 in San Francisco as the first openly gay elected public official in the United States and the killing of Mathew Shepard because he was gay, near Laramie Wyoming in October 1998.
- The tireless, 24/7, sometimes "in your face," organizational work and media message of the LGBT community's insistence that that gay rights be respected and accorded all the equal protection of our laws and the right to share in all the rights in our society to which everyone else, who is not gay, is entitled.
- That it was America's first African American president and our nation's 44th president of the United States who openly affirmed the right of same sex people to marry in our country.
Most of the media and political commentators have framed President Obama's support for same sex marriage in terms of equality before and under our laws. This is short sighted and fails to recognize a more fundamental issue at play here.
Same sex marriage is not only about "equal rights" to marry whomever you wish in America. The rights underlying same sex marriage are fundamental -- and more importantly, they're about the power of love, the enduring power of love. It's about elementary fairness and decency in a democratic society. It's about the application of the age old "golden rule": treat others the way in which we want to be treated in turn.
A corollary to this in political leadership is that political leaders should love the people they serve. I am not talking about "romantic relationship" love. I am talking about the ethical basis for "loving" people different or engaged in a lifestyle different than that which political leaders have acknowledged or addressed in the past.
A just society neither encourages, discourages nor prohibits same sex marriage. Classic "libertarian conservatism" logically suggests that government should refrain from interfering or dictating who or what kind of person in our nation is qualified to give or receive love from another person in society.
President Obama recognized that we have moved beyond the 20th century issue of "what is the color of love" to the 21st century question of what is the gender of love. The president, like great leaders before him, appears to be reaching up to the moral arc of the universe to assure that it continues to bend toward justice. As such, he is leaving a legacy in which government does not dictate, proscribe or determine that same sex love, commitment and/or marriage is not entitled to the same respect and equal legal protections in our nation as opposite sex love, commitment and/or marriage.
Historians may argue that President Obama's speech in Grant Park, Chicago, as president-elect, on November 5, 2008 was his most important speech. Others might point to his acceptance speech on receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo or his speech on race, "A More Perfect Union," March 18, 2008 in Philadelphia when his candidacy was threatened by his relationship with Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the pastor of the church he attended in Chicago. I believe, however, that Obama words affirming same sex marriage will be cited by historians as seminal and defining of his presidency:
"I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same sex relationships, who are raising kids together; when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that 'don't ask, don't tell' is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I've just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married."
Those simple words are President Obama's updated 21st century version of Dr. King's prophetic view and hope for America expressed in his 1963 " I Have a Dream" Speech.
At that time, Dr King said:
"I have a dream one day... when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, 'My country, 'tis of thee, and sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring.'"
"And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
President Obama has made it clear that the right for gay/lesbian, bisexual and transgender people to marry the person they love enables them to be finally "free at last" -- to be included in the Dream that Dr. King had for America.
To preempt any criticism that I am suggesting that Dr. King would have favored same sex marriage, this is not what I am saying. I am saying, without fear of contradiction, that Dr. King believed in and was committed to the enduring power of love as expressed in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8:
"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. Love never ends. Prophecies will pass away; tongues will cease; and knowledge, will pass away."
Same sex marriage is ultimately and fundamentally about love; love of one human being for another.
Accordingly, for those religious evangelicals and others in our country opposed to same sex marriage and full equal rights for gay people in our society, the question they must pause and consider is my belief, unrelated to the views of President Obama, that God must really love gay people. Otherwise, why would he continue to create so many of them?
These issues transcend the question of whether or not President Obama publicly affirmed same sex marriage as an act of "political expediency" to gain votes. No one has ever claimed President Obama to be a "dumb" or "stupid" political leader. He can read and count just like any other politician. With 32 states having laws or amendments to their constitutions defining marriage to be between only a man and a woman, it is not likely that President Obama looked at announcing his support for same sex marriage as an act primarily of political expediency to gain votes during a national presidential election year. Like other great political statesmen before him President Obama understands that nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come. This is not political expediency. This is political astuteness and an acknowledgement of current political reality.