Marriage and Presidential Politics

12May12

So, this week President Obama “came out” as supporting gay marriage, having a year or two ago announced that his opinion on the matter was “evolving” from his 2008 stance of supporting civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, rather than marriage. Republicans have said that he “flip-flopped” on the issue. PolitiFact even awarded him a “full flop” on their Flip-O-Meter for his change of stance. Mitt Romney has re-affirmed his current stance in opposition to gay marriage. There are two issues that I’d like to get into here: 1) Did Obama flip-flop? and 2) Why is gay marriage such a divisive issue?

To Flip or to Flop?

To say that someone flip-flopped, you must first define what it means to do so. PolitiFact appears to take the stance that to change one’s opinion on any political matter is to flip-flop. Since it’s a slang term, they have every right to take that stance. I take a more nuanced view: that to flip-flop, you must reverse your approach to policy abruptly, and for reasons of political expediency. While Obama has gone from opposing to supporting gay marriage, he has done so over the course of four years (announcing at the mid-point that he might be changing his mind), and at great political risk. I wouldn’t even consider Governor Romney’s evolution on gay rights to be a flip-flop, even though he supported marriage in everything but name in 2002 and opposed gay marriage in 2003 — because of the “everything but name” description of the civil unions he supported.

Furthermore, Obama’s policy stance never wavered. While a supporter of “everything but name” civil unions, he said that same-sex marriage was a matter for the states — as he still says today. He has blocked the executive branch from defending the Defense of Marriage Act, as he considers it unconstitutional, but to my knowledge has never said under what terms (I can see arguments under the First, Tenth, and Fourteenth Amendments). Certainly no flip-flop on policy grounds.

What’s the Big Deal?

Marriage occupies an odd place in American society. I’m tempted to say that it’s a unique institution, but it isn’t. It’s two institutions, often entered into in one event. People who marry in a religious wedding enter into the civil institution of marriage at approximately the same time as they enter into the religious institution (usually signing the documents before or after the religious ceremony — not during, as my wife and I did).

Religions are free to recognize whatever marriages they want to. The Catholic Church, for example, refuses to recognize the marriages of the divorced, the clergy, or of Protestants (the last of these explains how twice-divorced Newt Gingrich can be a practicing Catholic in full communion: in the eyes of the church, neither of his first two marriages ever existed, as they were Protestant services). One would think that by now the Catholic Church would recognize by now that they lost the trademark fight for the word marriage in 1525, when Martin Luther married Katherina von Bora, if not earlier — like at the time of the schism with the Orthodox Church.

The civil institution of marriage exists, not as a sacred entity, but as an institution to encourage stable families and to ensure certain benefits (tax, inheritance, and hospital visitation, for example) for the spouses. As a society we can, if we wish, reconsider the terms of this institution, without affecting the religious institution in any way. In fact, in banning state recognition of same-sex marriage we give special protection to those churches who oppose it over those (like the United Church of Christ) who affirm it. Were we to enter into the two institutions of marriage separately (as I understand is the case in Brazil), there might be less confusion about which marriage is meant when discussing same-sex marriage.

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