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Same-Sex Marriage and Interracial Marriage: What Do Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln Have in Common?

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In 1996, as a candidate for the Illinois State Senate, Barack Obama expressed his "unequivocal support for gay marriage." Then he changed his mind. Since bursting onto the national stage, he has repeatedly insisted that he opposes gay marriage.

Indeed, only a day after last week's decision in Perry v. Schwarzenegger, which held Proposition 8 unconstitutional, the President's spokesman reminded the public in no uncertain terms that "the President does oppose same-sex marriage."

At the same time, though, President Obama does support "equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians" -- as long as they are not married. That is, he supports civil unions. O.K., but why does he oppose same-sex marriage?

The President has suggested that his religious beliefs have shaped his views about same-sex marriage. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, he explained: "I'm a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman."

Did Mr. Obama's religious beliefs change between 1996 and 2008? If so, I'd be curious to know how and why. (I understand, of course, that this should be none of my business, and I feel somewhat creepy even posing the question. But if the President is, in fact, relying even in part on his religious beliefs to justify official government policy, then he has made it my business.)

On examination, I'm not clear what religious beliefs he is invoking. In The Audacity of Hope, Mr. Obama wrote that he "was not raised in a religious household." Indeed, he described his mother as quite detached from religion, his father as a "confirmed atheist," and his stepfather as "a man who saw religion as not particularly useful."

Of course, people often find religion later in life, and as Mr. Obama tells his story, he found religion in his twenties when he worked with black churches in Chicago as a community organizer. Through that experience, he came to understand "the power of the African-American religious tradition to spur social change." This is surely good, but one might suppose that "spurring social change" in the twenty-first century might well include the support of same-sex marriage.

It is not so simple, however, because religion and same-sex marriage frequently don't mix, so perhaps this isn't the sort of "social change" he had in mind. It is interesting, though, that on July 4, 2005, the United Church of Christ -- the denomination with which Mr. Obama identified for some two decades in Chicago -- became the first mainline Protestant denomination officially to embrace same-sex marriage.

Be that as it may, the President's religious beliefs are hardly a legitimate basis for official government action. And Mr. Obama the teacher of constitutional law surely knows this as well as anyone. But if his personal religious beliefs are not the foundation for his opposition to same-sex marriage, then what is? Surely, he owes the American people a candid and reasoned explanation of his position. This is, after all, one of the most profound civil rights issues our nation is grappling with during his presidency.

Cynics might suggest that, as a liberal, Mr. Obama privately supports same-sex marriage, but, as a politician, he publicly opposes it. After all, a majority of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, and a president who took the side of the minority on this issue would be taking a political risk. And, besides, the president is supposed to follow the views of the majority, especially on legal and moral issues, right?

This brings me back to the President's family. Mr. Obama's parents were lawfully married in Hawaii on February 2, 1961. I use the word "lawfully" advisedly, because in 1961 twenty-two states made interracial marriage a crime and more than 90% of the American people opposed interracial marriage. Fortunately for the President, his parents did not bow to the prevailing prejudices of the time.

Like most presidents, President Obama is fond of invoking Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps on the issue of same-sex marriage he is merely following Lincoln's lead. In his 1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln firmly declared: "I am not, nor ever have been in favor of [allowing black people] to intermarry with white people."

This may be relevant in several ways. First, it suggests that politicians must consider politics. They cannot throw themselves on the sword of being right. At times, they must rather be president.

But second, as Lincoln noted, he had never been in favor of interracial marriage. That is not the case for Mr. Obama with respect to same-sex marriage. Mr. Obama changed his mind.

Third, at the time Lincoln made his statement, virtually no one supported interracial marriage. That is not the case today with same-sex marriage. To the contrary, the same-sex marriage position today is well within the mainstream of responsible political thought. Indeed, the most recent CNN/Time public opinion survey for the first time shows Americans divided 50-50 on whether gays and lesbians should have a right to marry. Had President Lincoln come out in favor of interracial marriage in 1858, he would have been regarded not only as radical, but as insane. For President Obama to endorse same-sex marriage today would be seen not as radical or crazy, but as principled and courageous. It would be a brilliant example of presidential leadership.

Someday, perhaps twenty-five years from now, the former President's grandchildren may pose the question: "Grandpa, some people in school say that when you were president you opposed same-sex marriage. That's not true, is it, Grandpa?" I am rather confident that, unless he makes this fundamental struggle for civil rights and equal justice his own, Grandpa Barack will be able to offer no answer of which he will not be ashamed.