Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Reader Writes: Trying to Unravel the President's Code on Gay Issues

Since some good dialogue seems to have followed my last posting, and since it's in the comments section (which blog readers notoriously overlook on most blogs), I want to do something I've done in the past and lift a comment and my response to it into a posting.

Colleen: Doug Kmiec is probably mouthing Obama's answer to this equality question. Secular civil unions and religious marriage. I wrote this would be the tactic months ago. That way Obama can be both for gay equality and against gay marriage. Clever if somewhat 'non' Christian.

Personally, as long as all the federal benefits accrued to marriage go with civil unions, it's ok by me. It will just serve to point out how freaking morally bankrupt and socially backward religious intstitutions actually are, and even more so if they object to such a strategy, as has already happened with Kmiec.

In essense this would be a strategy which says you are welcome in 'our' country, but not in 'our' churches. Emphasis would still be on 'our' but a least gays wouldn't have to pay an unfair share of taxes to support 'their' official 'morality'.

Bill: Colleen, I think you're probably right. And like you, I would be satisfied with any terminology (within reasonable limits) that did not disguise inequities between marital and other relationships.

At the same time, I think that the application of any symbol (including a term for marital unions) to a targeted group of people, which makes that group distinct from the majority in a demeaning way, feeds other inequities. So even if civil unions were equal to marriage, the use of two distinct terms--one of them clearly inferior in the mind of many citizens--by its very nature sets up conditions for further denigration.

And isn't it ironic that the discussions has NEVER been about forcing churches to marry same-sex couples--as if the term "marriage" in our society means exclusively church-sanctioned wedding? That argument has been such a red-herring, but so powerful as a weapon in the arsenal of the religious right.

I should add that I'm disappointed in Mr. Obama on this issue precisely because I believe he sees these distinctions, and that he rejects gay marriage for reasons of political expediency--which cut against his moral insight.

I can understand his need to do what's pragmatic and expedient, and I can see that this may even be wise, as we move to confirm a new Supreme Court justice and forward on healthcare. It is possible he'd be handing the right a juicy wedge issue to help bash Sotomayor and doom healthcare reform by speaking out now on gay issues.

Still. Moral imperative is moral imperative. I'm sure some of the things that have happened right now on the gay rights front couldn't have been anticipated, and in that sense, they offer an unexpected challenge to the president now.

But in my view, he's not rising to that challenge by remaining silent. The right may well use anything he says as a wedge, but there are large numbers of Americans--and a majority, increasingly--who would welcome at least a word of leadership on these issues, which moves in the progressive direction.

Total silence in the face of the challenges now facing the president is not an option--not if he expects to be taken seriously as a leader in other areas. Silence is an abdication of his responsibilities as a leader. Silence, particularly on a human rights issue, also undercuts his persausiveness, when he seeks to lead in other areas.