Once again President Barack Obama has come tantalizingly close to being terrific. But his failure of courage on the gay marriage issue, in the end, undermined the point he hoped to make Wednesday. As with his prior rhetorical flashes of principle in denouncing torture, commiserating with the victims of Wall Street fraud and resolving to end unjustifiable wars, he quickly waffled and the result was a continuation of that which is fundamentally wrong.
There is only one essential point to be made about gay marriage: To acknowledge one's own sexual being and to define the relationships that follow is a basic human right. How dare anyone intrude on a life choice that is not his to make for others? Whether the president's family knows gay couples who are monogamous and nice to their children has no more to do with the issue than the old argument of enlightened racists in the American South that there were many fine Negroes who were not at all uppity.
Uppity as in the case of gays who were not satisfied with Obama's prior endorsement of civil unions: "I had hesitated on gay marriages in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient." As in knowing your place and being content with the bone you are tossed rather than demanding the full meal you're entitled to.
There is enormous condescension in Obama's assertion that "I've always been adamant that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally." He had not been adamant enough to push for an amendment to the Civil Rights Act to end discrimination based on sexual orientation. Nor did he issue an executive order banning government agencies from contracting with businesses guilty of such discrimination.
Surely one could not have always been in favor of fairness and equality and yet succumbed to pressure from those who claimed that allowing gays to marry was somehow ungodly. "I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, the word 'marriage' was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs," Obama told us, as if sensitivity is admirable when the bigots hide behind cultural norms.
So too did the word "slavery" invoke powerful religious beliefs for the American slaveholders who frequently cited Scripture as endorsing their degenerate oppression of others. The deciphering of divine intention that is so common among today's anti-gay fanatics is exemplified by a statement made Tuesday by Tami Fitzgerald, the chairwoman of the successful North Carolina campaign to ban gay marriage under that state's constitution: "... you don't rewrite the nature of God's design for marriage."
No, what you don't do is selectively cite Scripture to justify denying basic freedoms to your fellow citizens. That's precisely why our federal Constitution bans the governmental establishment of any religion.
Failure to insist on an inviolable freedom for all Americans is the key weakness in the position that Obama stated in his carefully scripted interview with ABC News on Wednesday. He not only didn't embrace a federal guarantee of the human rights of homosexuals, he endorsed the notion that the matter is one to be decided by the states, such as North Carolina, where the Democrats will hold their national convention in September. Since the voters of that state have now decided to deny gay people their rights, it would seem logical for the Democrats to refuse to hold their convention in such a retrograde environment. Perhaps if Obama's opinion had evolved just a few days earlier he might have successfully made an argument to North Carolinians before they voted in the Tuesday referendum that produced a constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions.
The host state of the 2012 Democratic National Convention boasts of being on the cutting edge of scientific innovation, but it is mired in the swamp of primitive religious dogma. Let's never forget that invocations of "God's design" have historically been an invitation to religious pogroms and genocide. Only this time, as Obama's sudden conversion suggests, the forces of intolerance just might be in decline.
The good news is that young voters have returned to the sanity of the nation's Founders and are unwelcoming of the government's imposing its will on their pursuit of happiness. Surely Obama was mindful that the gay marriage issue is trending sharply in that direction, and certainly his response is a reason for optimism among those fighting against second-class citizenship for gays.
A prediction that Obama's shift will lead to deep and lasting change for the nation was offered by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an equally skilled political trend spotter: "No American president has ever supported a major expansion of civil rights that has not ultimately been adopted by the American people, and I have no doubt that this will be no exception." From the mayor's lips to God's ears.