Obama’s California Contortion

First published at 365gay.com on July 7, 2008

Barack Obama believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Yet he opposes the California ballot initiative that would write that view into the state constitution, calling it “divisive and discriminatory.” What gives?

Obama’s not alone in this apparent contradiction: Arnold Schwarzenegger, the state’s Republican governor, holds a similar juxtaposition of beliefs: that marriage should be between a man and a woman, and that the state’s supreme court did the right thing by declaring California’s ban on same-sex marriage unconstitutional. (Thanks to the court’s decision, California began marrying same-sex couples on June 16—an activity the ballot initiative aims to stop.)

Meanwhile, presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain disapproves of the court’s decision and supports the initiative to overturn it. Yet McCain, Schwarzenegger and Obama all agree that decisions about marriage should be left to the states.

Confused yet?

For simplicity’s sake, let’s focus on Obama, and let’s start with the last issue first: marriage should be left to the states. There’s no contradiction in holding that states (as opposed to the federal government) should set marriage policy, while also holding an opinion about which policy they ought to favor.

But that still leaves the question: according to Obama, which policy should they favor? Heterosexual-only marriage, or marriage equality?

The answer depends upon what Obama means by “I personally believe that marriage is between a man and a woman.” Does he mean it as a matter of personal preference, as when I say, “I personally believe that martinis should be made with gin (but by all means, have a vodka martini if you want one)”? Or does he mean it as a matter of public policy?

At first glance, Obama seems to be skating the line between the two. His endorsement of robust federal civil unions—but not marriage—for same-sex couples suggests a public-policy stance against full marriage equality. (By “full marriage equality,” I mean extending marriage to gays, not creating a “separate but equal” institution under a different name.) By contrast, his remarks on California suggest a mere personal preference that he doesn’t feel compelled to write into law.

There’s a third option as well. Perhaps Obama’s belief that “marriage is between a man and a woman” is stronger than personal preference (as in my gin martini example) but still not something he wants to codify legally. Perhaps he holds a religious or moral objection to same-sex marriage—not merely in the sense of “I don’t want this for myself” but in the sense of “No one ought morally to choose this.” Would he then be inconsistent for supporting the California decision?

Not necessarily. In a pluralistic free society, not every moral conviction can be—or should be—enshrined in law.

That’s not just because doing so would be unwieldy and impractical. And it’s not just because some laws have unintended and undesirable consequences. As important as those reasons are, they miss the key point.

That point is that securing our freedom sometimes requires giving others the freedom to behave in ways of which we disapprove. As former New York Governor Mario Cuomo once put it, discussing the relationship between his Catholic faith and his policy positions:

“The Catholic public official lives the political truth … that to assure our freedom we must allow others the same freedom, even if occasionally it produces conduct by them which we would hold to be sinful…. We know that the price of seeking to force our beliefs on others is that they might some day force theirs on us.”

I’m not suggesting that Obama thinks same-sex marriage is sinful—I frankly doubt that he does. I am suggesting that there’s a way to believe, consistently, that marriage should be heterosexual and that it would be a mistake to stand in the way of those who hold otherwise.

Obama might also—quite reasonably—worry that the amendment would do more than stop same-sex marriage. It could also strip away domestic partnership benefits, including health care, as amendments in other states have done. That might help explain his “divisive and discriminatory” charge.

Of course, to say that these reasons would render Obama’s positions consistent is not to say that they’re motivating him. More likely, his positions are motivated by political reality. He can’t afford to alienate gay-supportive Democrats by opposing same-sex marriage, and he can’t afford to alienate mainstream voters by endorsing it. So he does both, and neither.

Obama isn’t unique in trying to have it both ways. It’s not about logic—it’s about politics.