Yesterday President Barack Obama, in an interview with ABC News, came out in support of same-sex marriage. This completed an “evolution” long in the making. The president, who was openly in favor of same-sex marriage in 1996, when he was running in a liberal state legislative district in Illinois, has been tap-dancing on the issue since 2004, when he stepped up to a statewide constituency in his run for the U.S. Senate. In the 2008 presidential race, during the famous “Saddleback Forum” with evangelical pastor Rick Warren, Obama said “I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian . . . it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.” In the same exchange, he declared himself for civil unions—legal arrangements for same-sex couples that approximate marriage in every respect but the name.
Once elected, the president acted in every possible way like a supporter of same-sex marriage—except that he failed to say he supported same-sex marriage. He pushed for, and got, a congressional repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy. He called for repeal of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, and when the votes weren’t there, he cravenly abandoned the legal defense of DOMA in ongoing federal litigation. He announced his opposition to every effort to defend marriage constitutionally at the state level, beginning with California’s Prop 8 when he was a presidential candidate. On the current White House webpage for “civil rights,” seven of the ten accomplishments listed are items on the agenda of the “gay rights” left.
There really could be little doubt, in short, that the president was a not-so-secret supporter of same-sex marriage. And it bears noting that in all the words he has spoken or written on this issue in his national career (going all the way back to his 2006 book The Audacity of Hope), Obama has never said “I oppose same-sex marriage.” There has always been rhetorical space available to him to affirm (or reaffirm) his support for it, without being accused of self-contradiction, and he has always associated his resistance with his Christian “beliefs,” while at the same time hinting that those beliefs have no rational foundation. This way of talking around the subject was a strategy for timing his completed evolution for maximum political effect. Why then did he choose now as the time to say so?
Recent events in the presidential campaign may have been taken by the president as a sign that the time is right. For in the last month the same-sex marriage issue surfaced on the Republican side of the political campaign in a very interesting way, which showed some rather muddy thinking among some conservatives—always in trouble when they adopt the rhetorical frame offered by liberals—about the relation between the marriage issue and political principle.
The story begins with the Romney campaign’s appointment on April 19 of Richard Grenell as foreign policy spokesman. Grenell had served the Bush administration for years at the United Nations, and, as some reports (but not all) noted upon his appointment to Romney’s campaign, he is also “openly gay.” Most of the political world took little notice of it, an exception being Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, who rightly highlighted the fact that “Grenell has for years been an outspoken advocate for homosexual marriage,” but, I think, wrongly bundled this with concerns about Grenell’s “private sexual conduct.”
I became part of this story myself with two blog posts at National Review Online’s The Corner on April 27. When all I knew was that Grenell was homosexual, I took no interest, and I knew nothing of Fischer’s comments until long after publishing my own. But then I read an April 24 blog post by Jonathan Capehart at the Washington Post, describing a drubbing he endured from Grenell over Twitter for not confronting the president personally about the marriage issue at a White House dinner in March. Grenell then published a piece in the Washington Blade, ramping up his criticism of Capehart and other Democrats for supporting a president who “isn’t performing” on “gay equality.” He argued that “if gays are going to win support for their political issues, they better start playing smarter politics,” and that meant they must stop being “loyal to their party at the expense of the movement.” Plainly, for Grenell (a self-described “activist”), the cause of same-sex marriage had become the most vital issue of the day. The personal seems to be the all-consuming political: as a gay man who believed in “gay equality,” he believed that “smarter politics” required everyone in “the movement” to sacrifice party loyalty to the cause.
I thought there were three reasons to be alarmed at Grenell’s appointment to the Romney campaign. First, the appointment of a passionate same-sex marriage advocate might cause conservatives to falter in their support of Mitt Romney. Second, it seemed inappropriate for such an advocate to have an influential position in the campaign, even on foreign policy, given the growing relevance of the “gay rights” agenda in that field. And finally, it was doubtful that a man who declared “the movement” for same-sex marriage to be of a higher value than party loyalty was a good choice for the obviously partisan business of a presidential campaign.
These were the concerns that prompted my two Corner posts on April 27. As I said in the first, “Grenell’s being openly gay is, in itself, of no consequence for his service in the Romney campaign,” and I added that support for same-sex marriage would not necessarily be disqualifying in all personnel choices. But if the Romney campaign were to be, and appear to be, consistently devoted to the principles the candidate has enunciated—committed to the preservation of marriage as a conjugal union of a man and a woman, and pursuing foreign and domestic policies consistent with that commitment—then, I argued, it had made a mistake with this appointment of a man whose own public commitments were fundamentally opposed to those principles.
On May 1, Richard Grenell announced his departure from the Romney campaign. This prompted a storm of commentary that Grenell had been “hounded” out of his new job by “anti-gay” conservatives—a theme Grenell planted in the press himself when he decried a “hyper-partisan discussion of personal issues”—and I was sometimes named as one of those doing the hounding. But it turned out, as the New York Times reported on May 3, that before I published a word about Grenell, the Romney campaign seemed to know it had a problem. The rapid implosion of his hiring suggested that the campaign did an inadequate vetting of him in the first place, and the realization set in that a mistake had been made.
It was no surprise that the left would chalk up the collapse of Grenell’s appointment to “anti-gay” animosity on the right. Representatives of the Log Cabin Republicans and GOProud, two “gay-rights” interest groups dedicated to removing the preservation-of-marriage plank from the Republican Party platform, unsurprisingly joined the chorus. It has become an article of faith in such circles that if your “orientation” is homosexual, then of course you must be an advocate for same-sex marriage—and if you are a loud, passionate advocate for “the cause,” that only shows your authenticity. The “gay rights” left enforces a party line today rather like the one that prevails in the contemporary “civil rights” left, where opposition to affirmative action makes a black man an Uncle Tom. Any homosexual men or women in America who dissent from the proposition that marriage can be rationally “extended” to same-sex couples should take heed that such dissent will not be tolerated. “Gay rights” groups were overjoyed at Grenell’s hiring by Romney not because he is openly gay, but because he was vocally one of them on what he himself called “their political issues.” They were dismayed at his firing for exactly the same reason, but found it useful to retail the canard that Grenell was the victim of “anti-gay” conservatives. For if all homosexuals are expected to toe the party line, then by the same token the rest of the world must be made to understand that opposition to same-sex marriage is exactly the same as opposition to homosexuals as a class of human beings.
All this, again, was unsurprising. What was surprising and dismaying was to see some conservative commentators take variations on this line themselves. Some did not want to credit the plain evidence that Grenell stood passionately opposed to the position of Mitt Romney on marriage, with a published record that made his loyalty potentially a contingent matter, and needlessly obscured the public message the campaign needs to be sending. Some thought the marriage issue wholly irrelevant to the area of foreign policy. But this is both ill-informed and not a little bizarre. Virtually every one of these same commentators would reject a campaign spokesman on tax policy who was an apologist for Hamas, or a spokesman on environmental policy who had raised funds for Planned Parenthood to build new abortion clinics. And it is not merely a matter of “optics,” in the current political jargon; it’s a matter of principled consistency on a moral issue that matters to many voters.
The campaign to preserve marriage between one man and one woman—which just won its thirty-first victory in amending a state constitution, with 61 percent of a high-turnout vote in North Carolina—is a matter of high importance to scores of millions of American voters. They are evangelical Christians, Catholics, Mormons, Jews, Muslims, and people of other religious faiths or of none, all interested in preserving marriage and the truth about marriage. They see in Mitt Romney, whatever he has said in the past, a candidate who has now firmly committed himself on their side of this issue. They can also see clearly now that President Obama has committed himself to the other side.
The Grenell appointment uselessly risked the gains Romney has made with a vital constituency, with no potential upside, even before the president’s clarification revealed the gulf between the candidates. And conservative commentators did no good to Romney’s prospects with persuadable middle-of-the road voters, and to conservatism more generally, by accepting the rhetorical frame that these scores of millions of voters who oppose same-sex marriage can be tarred with the epithet “anti-gay.” When you adopt the language of your political adversaries, you begin to talk yourself into your own defeat.
So why did Obama make such an announcement now? The Grenell affair assured him, I think, that a theme of “anti-gay bigotry” can be usefully deployed against social conservatives generally, and against Romney in particular. The May 6 remarks of Vice President Biden on NBC’s “Meet the Press” turned out to be a trial balloon. They prompted renewed calls from supporters—including those in the press corps—that the president come clean, and level with the American people. Wealthy supporters of same-sex marriage talked openly of withholding large donations they would be ready to make if the president obliged them. And finally, the president must be feeling that he needs this issue—that he needs not to be talking from now until November about his dismal record on the economy, the federal debt, and the takeover of the nation’s health care system. It seems he thinks this will be a close election, and he needs the left fired up.
In his ABC interview, Obama said, “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.” He went on to stress (in ABC’s words) that this was only his “personal position, and that he still supports the concept of states deciding the issue on their own.” Of course, on issues of great public moment, a president does not have merely “personal” views. This is now, more clearly than ever, a huge campaign issue for 2012. The president will now wage an all-out campaign of calling Mitt Romney an “anti-gay” bigot for opposing what he himself would not embrace until five minutes ago. But given the track record of victories for the defense of marriage in thirty-one states, and the still-tentative declaration of the president, it is clear that he knows he is running a risky strategy. What he knows, we should know too. And we should know that if we keep our heads, and don’t buy into the “anti-gay” framing of the liberal establishment, we are strong enough to win the fight for the truth about marriage.
Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.
Support the work of Public Discourse by making a secure donation to The Witherspoon Institute.
Copyright 2012 the Witherspoon Institute. All rights reserved.