It wasn’t a public policy change. But it was an announcement that dominated much of the public discourse for the second half of the week: President Barack Obama’s long-expected expression of support for marriage equality. Sharing her insights on the immediate reaction and likely political impact is Religion Dispatches Senior Editor Sarah Posner.
She’s written excellent articles about this week’s events for both Religion Dispatches http://www.religiondispatches.org/dispatches/sarahposner/5969/obama_says_his_… and Salon http://www.salon.com/2012/05/10/obamas_marriage_epiphany/singleton/
RUSH TRANSCRIPT: SARAH POSNER
[REV. DR. C. WELTON GADDY, HOST]: When the president spoke out in support of marriage equality on Wednesday afternoon, it seemed that every conservative, so-called “pro-family,” so-called “religious” group had a press release ready to go – and everybody hit the “send” button at the same moment. Perhaps Vice-president Biden and Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s expressions of support last weekend gave them fair warning of what was coming next. Perhaps they’d been sitting and praying for just such a presidential announcement – confident that it would ensure Barack Obama’s defeat at the polls in November. Well, their prayers have been answered. But what are the possible electoral implications of this president throwing himself into the deafening roar of the debate over this controversial social issue? Well here to answer that question and to analyze the whole situation is our friend, Sarah Posner, Senior Editor at Religion Dispatches. Sarah has a deep understanding of the power and politics of the religious right, and she’s written excellent articles about this week’s events for Religion Dispatches and Salon.com.
Sarah, as always, welcome back to State of Belief Radio.[SARAH POSNER, GUEST]: Thanks Welton. [WG]: First, I want to tell you how much I enjoyed the headline of a recent article you’d written about the president’s public stance on marriage equality. The headline read simply: “Evolve, Already!” That went up on Religion Dispatches on Monday, so I think much of the credit for Wednesday’s announcement goes to you. [SP]: I doubt it. [WG]: Besides your article, though, what else do you think finally moved Barack Obama to do what he did? [SP]: Well, I actually think that Obama did not ever have a problem with same-sex marriage, but I think that he saw a political downside to coming out for it. But there has been a remarkably rapid transformation of the country’s public opinion on this issue since just 2008. I mean, if you look at the public opinion data going back to 2000, to 2004, to 2008, to now – it tracks on this remarkably rapid trajectory towards acceptance of same-sex marriage. So during the time that he’s been in office, there has been a great evolution. The public opinion evolved faster than the president’s opinion on this did. So I think that he found this moment to be one in which he could no longer stay in this box that he had created for himself by saying: “Well, I’m for all of these LGBT rights except for marriage.” He could no longer hew to the religious conservative rhetoric of “I believe in traditional marriage,” or “I believe it’s between a man and a woman,” and it became increasingly difficult for him to be in that spot and still be credible about it. [WG]: Would you believe he came to the office probably already thinking very positively about this? [SP]: I just think that – it’s hard for me to imagine somebody with his background, and his purported belief system – that he would have a serious problem with same-sex marriage. I think he understood LGBT rights and equality, but I think he also understood that there would be – or he thought that there would be – a backlash against him for coming out for marriage; and I do think that that had something to do with the religious figures that he surrounded himself with when he was campaigning, when he first took office. [WG]: Well, you know, Biden gets accused of being a loose cannon, and sometimes saying things he shouldn’t have said – but he probably didn’t do anything wrong; he probably ran the flag up the pole intentionally. [SP]: Well, he came out and made those remarks on Meet the Press on Sunday. On Monday, the administration just tried to parse and prevaricate and somehow come up with some explanation of why Obama’s position was somehow consistent, even though he supported everything but same-sex marriage. And I think that Biden gave him the opening to just realize that there wasn’t going to be a huge political backlash against him except from the religious right – and this is a constituency that isn’t going to vote for him anyway, and he might as well do the right thing. [WG]: Right. Well, I guess the big unknown at this point is how is this going to impact what happens in November, if at all, and there’s a lot of speculation from: this will energize the youth vote and thus help the Democrats, to: this is going to alienate a part of the African American electorate. What are your thoughts on it? [SP]: Well, I think that, again, the public opinion polling shows younger African American voters more accepting of same-sex marriage than their elders are. That there are similar demographic changes in terms of views of same-sex marriage in the African American community and the Latino community as there are in the population at large, and it’s less likely to impact the youth voter, the millennial vote, because they’re more in favor of same-sex marriage than older people are. I have a hard time imagining that this single issue is really going to turn a lot of voters. There may be older conservative Christians who would possibly be more motivated to drive their neighbor to the polls on Election Day, or go do phone banking for the Faith and Freedom Coalition or one of those religious right organizations because of what Obama said – but by and large, I think that that’s a constituency that has viewed Obama as quote-unquote “Pro-abortion, waging a war against Christianity, possibly Muslim, possibly not a real Christian, possibly not a real American” – so it’s hard to imagine that this is going to change things a lot for them. In fact, I’m pretty sure that probably a lot of them considered him to be quote-unquote “pro-gay” anyway because of the repeal of “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” and the refusal to defend the Defense of Marriage Act in court by Obama’s Justice Department – so I just don’t think it really changes that equation that radically. [WG]: The Washington Post, on the day after the president’s announcement this past week, carried a story of, I think it was, two African American men who had voted for Obama last time, and now said that they could not vote for him because of this. But my question to you is: you’re right; we know the religious right is going to try to make something of this, but who is going to vote against Obama because of this that otherwise would have voted for him? I mean, it’s pretty small, isn’t it? [SP]: I would think that it’s pretty small. I mean, I think it’s possible to find people who would say that, but when you look at, for example, in Maryland, where there will probably be a referendum on the same-sex marriage bill that passed the legislature and was signed by the governor, because people who are against same-sex marriage are trying to petition to put it on the ballot for the voters to decide, and there was a piece that ran just this morning about the possibility of the African American vote in Maryland overturning the legislature’s law, and there was an African American pastor – whose name I’m forgetting at the moment – but he was talking about how, yes there are African American pastors who are out there saying that same-sex marriage is wrong and we need to overturn this law, but his opinion was that the pastors are behind the people in the pews. That the people in the pews are ahead of the pastors in terms of accepting same-sex marriage in African American churches; so I think there are a lot of unanswered questions there. [WG]: Yeah. I’m going to sound probably a little cynical with this one, but even though the president has succeeded in some significant policy changes affecting the lives of LGBT people, I guess most notably the repeal of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” many gay rights activists see a lot of missed opportunities in areas like the non-discrimination policy for federal contractors that the president simply refused to implement by executive order. Again, not to be cynical, but is it possible that strategically, the private admission was expected to distract from the lack of further progress in public policy? [SP]: I guess that’s possible. But, you know, remember that Obama did say, very explicitly, that this was his personal belief that he came to; that he believes that same-sex couples should be able to get married legally. He did not signal a change in policy. He did say that he thought that marriage was a matter that should be left to the states and that’s something that some liberal critics have criticized him for, that he basically – well, the Log Cabin Republicans came out with a statement saying that this was basically the Dick Cheney position. So, it’s true, I think that there’s been a lot of focus on the fact that this was not a change in policy at all for the administration. However, as the leader of the free world, making this moral statement was important notwithstanding the fact that he was not announcing any change in administration policy. [WG]: Yeah. [SP]: There’s still obviously work to be done in those areas that you mentioned. [WG]: I guess – my heart palpitated a little when you put Dick Cheney in the same sentence with Barack Obama because what’s interesting to me about this is, and I’m speaking positive when I say this, that the president was out there on many policy issues that previous presidents have not been on – and that came long before he confessed his own personal opinion about that, which I admire as a person responsible for public policy. [SP]: Right. [WG]: And Cheney didn’t do that. [SP]: That’s true, that is definitely true – but the Cheney situation proves something: that when you’re close to somebody, or you know somebody who is LGBT, these things start to really resonate and drive home the point to you. So Cheney has a daughter who’s a lesbian, and so I think that there are a lot of Republicans and conservatives who should take a lesson from that, notwithstanding all of Dick Cheney’s many other shortcomings. [WG]: Yeah. What do you read into Mitt Romney’s reluctance to criticize the president on saying this? [SP]: Well, that brings up another timing issue that I thought was really interesting, that this came pretty close on the heels of the Romney campaign letting Rick Grenell go, the spokesperson on foreign policy and national security issues who was basically hounded out of the campaign by religious right activists, notably Brian Fisher. And so when you contrast that to the president saying: “I’m in favor of same-sex marriage,” which was the very policy thing that Rick Grenell was treated as a pariah over – because it wasn’t just that he’s gay, it’s that he has publicly supported same-sex marriage – it really made the contrast between them seem – not just in terms of policy, but in terms of acting like a human being – seem very, very stark. And then you have this article in The Post, which talks about Romney bullying a perceived gay classmate in high school – and it doesn’t paint a very pretty picture. [WG]: Yeah. Sarah, you mentioned the states’ rights issue, I want to go back to that just a second. It seems to me if you go that route, you imperil the progress that has been made with the policies in this administration, and I know that many of our colleagues in the non-profit community that work specifically on that issue, are horrified of talking about that as a states’ rights issue. How do you see that playing out? [SP]: Well, I think probably Obama – I mean, it’s true; the president can’t really get involved in dictating what a state legislature does, or, you know, what issues get on the ballot as a referendum in the states, and perhaps he was just signaling that he wasn’t going to take any federal action in terms of any kind of federal statue, or constitutional amendment, or push anything on the federal level to implement same-sex marriage, he was basically saying this is something that has to be done at the state level, which is true. But the problem is that the number of states that have outlawed it vastly outnumber the states that have made it legal, and that’s a disconnect; but I don’t know that it’s really in the power of any president to do anything about that. [WG]: As two of the increasingly smaller number of people who seem to be interested in religious freedom in this nation, I made a point – you were nice enough to pick it up in your article – that it’s great that the president comes out and shows that he’s at peace on this issue regarding his faith – but let’s keep in mind that’s not the issue here in the overall structure of things. [SP]: That’s correct. Nobody’s religion should dictate what the law is on LGBT rights, right? Or any law. So, it’s just as wrong for a liberal to say the bible dictates that we should allow LGBT rights as it is for conservatives to say that the bible prohibits it. However, in this particular instance, I don’t think that he was trying to say that his religious beliefs should dictate the law; I think he was explaining how he got there from a position that was purportedly in line with the conservative position. And I also think it has another political implication, which was that, perhaps, he was sending a signal that the way he’s done religious outreach – which has included more apparently close relationships with anti-same-sex marriage religious figures than pro-same-sex marriage religious figures – perhaps this is a signal that some of that is going to change. The issues with having religious outreach and having a faith-based advisory board and all of those things are indeed things that we should continue to discuss, but just in a purely politics standpoint – standing aside those constitutional issues for the moment, I think this signals perhaps, hopefully, something important, in terms of him having a broader collection of people around him on those issues. [WG]: Yeah, that’s a very good analysis of that. I want to take – I know we should be quitting, but I’ve got to take one more second here – on what I think was an underreported event this past week. I went on Rachel Maddow and talked about it, I know you are very much aware of it: in the great Statuary Hall of our nation’s Capitol building, with the necessary blessing of the House Speaker, some of the most hateful, regressive theocratic, exclusionary, supposedly Christian figures of our time gathered for an event called “Come Pray With Me.” Sarah, that was some extremist stuff! I mean, I guess some people agree that Satan is coming back as a politician, but to say that separation of Church and State is from communism… [SP]: These are old talking points, of course. [WG]: Of course they are – but why, why do we have to put up with that? Why did the media overlook that? [SP]: I can’t answer that last question, why the media overlooked it; I think that the media has an aversion to reporting on religion, doesn’t really understand where the constitutional lines are with the separation of Church and State, has been convinced that praying in public is an innocuous, perfectly acceptable patriotic thing to do and so, therefore, those sorts of things shouldn’t be questioned. There’s not a lot of questioning of the National Day of Prayer, for example, so I think that the media just tends to look at it as: “Oh, well that’s just some people praying, let them pray, it’s all right, it’ll go away.” [WG]: And for me, the implicit problem with that is that not only, then, did the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States Congress affirm that group – so did the media, by giving it a pass. We just have to put up with that? [SP]: We don’t have to, but… [WG]: But there have to be writers like you that take it on, and so that somebody understands. [SP]: Well, it’s good that Rachel Maddow did a segment on it. [WG]: Well that’s true. [SP]: Yeah. [WG]: Well, it’s clear our work is not going to be done, and I want to direct our readers to the work that you’ve been doing with a great article at Religion Dispatches, and an insightful piece posted at Salon.com on the subject of Barack Obama’s expression of support for marriage equality.
Sarah Posner is Senior Editor at Religion Dispatches, and the author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters.
Sarah, this is a big story, I know it’s going to stay with us, I’m grateful for you helping us better understand this moment in our nation’s history today, and we’re going to be calling again soon to get you to help us again. But thank you for consistently being willing to come on State of Belief radio and help us.[SP]: It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
State of Belief is based on the proposition that religion has a positive and healing role to play in the life of the nation. The show explains and explores that role by illustrating the vast diversity of beliefs in America – the most religiously diverse country in the world – while exposing and critiquing both the political manipulation of religion for partisan purposes and the religious manipulation of government for sectarian purposes.
Each week, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy offers listeners critical analysis of the news of religion and politics, and seeks to provide listeners with an understanding and appreciation of religious liberty. Rev. Gaddy tackles politics with the firm belief that the best way to secure freedom for religion in America is to secure freedom from religion. State of Belief illustrates how the Religious Right is wrong – wrong for America and bad for religion.
Through interviews with celebrities and newsmakers and field reports from around the country, State of Belief explores the intersection of religion with politics, culture, media, and activism, and promotes diverse religious voices in a religiously pluralistic world.
The host of State of Belief, the Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, leads the national nonpartisan grassroots and educational organizations, The Interfaith Alliance and The Interfaith Alliance Foundation and serves as the Pastor for Preaching and Worship at Northminster (Baptist) Church in Monroe, Louisiana. Welton is one of 20 international religious leaders on the Council of 100 Leaders, a group created by the World Economic Forum to improve dialogue and understanding between the Western and Islamic worlds.
While ministering to churches with a message of inclusion, Welton emerged as a leader among progressive and moderate Baptists. Among his many leadership roles, he is the immediate past President of the Alliance of Baptists and is a twenty-year member of the Commission of Christian Ethics of the Baptist World Alliance. His past leadership roles include serving as a member of the General Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, President of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and Chair of the Pastoral Leadership Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.
Prior to the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention, Welton served in many leadership roles in the SBC including membership on the convention’s Executive Committee from 1980-1984 and Director of Christian Citizenship Development of the Christian Life Commission from 1973-1977.
Welton received his undergraduate degree from Union University in Tennessee and his doctoral degree and divinity training from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.