My Thoughts on Obama's "Evolution" Towards Favoring Marriage Equality

So while I was busy ending the semester, Obama gave a tepid, hedged, politically non-committal, mealymouthed endorsement to same-sex marriage. Over time, no doubt, his expressions of support for gay rights will increasingly feature less pauses, hesitations, stammers, ambiguities, and qualifications as the American public increasingly gives him permission (in the form of polls on their evolving views) to acknowledge the full civil and moral dignity of gay people and their love.

There were two issues of contention in the wake of his announcement: “Was it political?” and “Did it take longer than it should have?”

Here are the primary points I think are worth keeping in mind.

1. Whether or not Obama’s timing was politically motivated, I have no reason to think his choice to support gay rights is a matter of any kind of political compromise that goes against his real views.

2. During the period that Obama was clearly lying and pretending not to believe in gay marriage for religious reasons (as though Obama is the type of person to unreflectively determine his policy views by baseless, bigoted, outdated religious dogmas), I think Obama showed by his actions that his political calculation was for gays, rather than just for himself.

There are two ways to throw someone under the bus. One is to throw them under the bus for your own benefit—see Bill Clinton instituting “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and signing the unconscionable Defense of Marriage Act. The other is to publicly throw them under the bus because you see it as the only way to gain the power to effectively support them in practice.

Even while the Obama administration was officially on the record as being against full equality for gays, it pushed for and accomplished the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”, it ended the ban on immigration for HIV infected people, and it ordered the Department of Justice to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act. In practice Obama was clearly using his power to advance gay equality seemingly wherever it was within his reasonable governing means.

So, much as I have loathed to watch him resort to lying, I think it is wrong to attack the ways he has been “political” as involving substantive betrayals of gays. He was political in ways that tangibly served the ends of legal equality for gay citizens.

3. Nonetheless, one thing that bugged me throughout his whole play act of being a conservative religious man who was slowly evolving (apart from the insult to essentially everyone’s intelligence) was that it cynically discounted the valuable role of philosophical leadership. Presidents do not need to just follow public opinion polls. They actually have the ability to lead them. President Obama showed little courage in assuming the mantle of a leader willing to take an unpopular position and to stand on principle in order to help make it popular.

He was the coolest kid in the school and the class president and though he publicly told the picked on gay kids that things would get better, and though behind the scenes he made some things easier for them, he would not come out and say that the rumors there was something wrong with them were bullshit until the class voted and a majority showed they already thought that. It was pragmatic. In the long run it was effective. But we need the popular kids to use their clout against the bullies before the crowd they command is already behind them.

And, more broadly, the left, and its president, needs to stand up for moral principles and a coherent worldview. Pretending to be a thickheaded religious conservative averse to change who was won over by emotions observing the gay parents of his kids’ friends, Obama ceded the role of philosopher king and ran like his hair was on fire in the other direction. He insisted on pretending that the average American’s hesitations are perfectly understandable and just in need of a little nudge of empathy, rather than in need of a whole different moral framework where inclusiveness is the default and not something minorities need to patiently prove themselves in order to get.

And his moment of leadership, qualified as it was, is already influencing people on behalf of gays.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • skepticalmath

    I think the real issue here, all along, is Obama’s insistence (even now) that this is a states’ rights issue. That concerns me far more than his supposed (and probably fake) “evolution.”

    • Daniel Fincke

      Don’t worry, he won’t have that stupid “states rights” interpretation once he doesn’t need to. Right now it is his way of challenging DOMA (which penalizes states which afford gay rights). Knock down the whole of DOMA and the states rights arguments are gone anyway.

    • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

      I concur with this post. That’s really the issue at hand.

  • RW Ahrens

    Yes, thank you.

    This is my biggest criticism of Obama and the Democrats right now, that in this election, they should be standing up and pushing a true liberal point of view for liberals and others who oppose the right wing to rally around.

    This election has the potential to literally destroy the right wing fundamentalists’ political power – IF the democrats will step up and take the chance – the chance to show the country what liberals truly want to do, how they want to do it and that they are willing to risk it all to take that chance.

    A mealy-mouthed half-way sincere endorsement is no way to get that started. Obama has the ability to fight hard and fight smart, he just needs to step up and show the Democratic party he’s willing to do it.

  • George W.

    I firmly beleive that in politics- evolution is the best vehicle for change. Campaigning on a revolution- walking through the White House guns-a-blazing is a recipe for getting nowhere. People need time to ruminate on change, they need time to develop the proper psychological tools to square new realities to old epistemologies. Going the route of revolutionary ideas seems noble at face value- but it is more likely to cause reactionary backlash to the greater cause.

    Obama could have campaigned on gay rights, but the reality is that this principled stand could have cost him the election. Now you have a McCain Presidency- and how does that forward civil rights? Obama could have dismantled every single law that disadvantaged homosexuals- and he likely would have been punished at the polls, both at mid-term elections and his re-election.

    Doing the right thing is, well, right- but it’s not always smart. It is certainly not always the best way to acheive the goals your principles desire. Hell, we see this every day with the religious right. They honestly believe that they are acting on their principles- that they are doing the right thing. Yet time and time again they lose ground by flailing on principle: “Gays might be able to legally marry? When did it become okay not to stone them?”

    The largest swath of people on any debatable issue lie somewhere in the middle- and to drag them kicking and screaming to the right answer just makes them pull further toward the wrong one….and in politics you need to be aware that you won’t always be holding the chain.

    I have always said that the best politicians are guided by idealism and govern with pragmatism.
    We need to ask if we want to elect good people or good politicians- they are not mutually exclusive but in how they govern. A good person has the advantage of being good- a good politician has the ability to make us all better.

    • magistramarla

      I agree with you totally – you said everything that I was thinking. I have often thought that with the education and life experiences that President Obama has had, there is no way that he could be as influenced by religion as he was pretending to be. I’ve been certain all along that he was doing what he had to do to appease the xtians in mid-America, while quietly thinking and doing what is right.
      We need to give him a chance by making sure that he is re-elected, along with as many progressive Democrats as possible in both Houses. I’m hoping to see some real progress in the next four years. If the republicans gain control, we’re looking at options for retiring abroad.

    • bettycoppola

      George has expressed it best and “the proof will be in the pudding” when POTUS Obama is re-elected.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … the Obama administration … pushed for and accomplished the end of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” …

    Cite needed.

    My impression, watching from the sidelines, was that the O admin didn’t push for that (or any other progressive) position so much as it was pushed towards it.

    Same applies for the gay marriage statement, as evidenced by Joe Biden’s “premature” support and the obvious discomfort of O campaign spokespeople in voicing the straddle-of-the-day.

  • andrewtripp

    Quite frankly, I’m completely unimpressed with this declaration, and not just because of it being a completely political maneuver. Marriage equality is of course important, but it is an institution that favors privileged members of society, those with the stability, finances, and such to get married. The people who benefit from marriage equality are overwhelmingly white, well-off, and cis members of the LGBT community.

    This is a problem because the marriage conversation has completely overtaken all other issues relating to queer rights in America. Today, it is functionally illegal in most of the country to be trans* or in some way gender non-conforming. Trans* people, particularly trans* people of color, are overwhelmingly subjected to physical violence and abuse, and there is not a week that goes by in which we don’t hear about a trans* person being killed for their gender identity. In most states, it is legal to discriminate against trans* people in housing and employment, i.e. you can be evicted from your residence for your identity.

    The list goes on, but this is why Obama’s announcement doesn’t elicit much positive from me. When he starts actively working for the rights of the marginalized and oppressed in this country, then I’ll listen.

  • diana

    I agree with your post with no quibbles. The question is whether he can get elected to do what we think, and I believe, he wants and intends to do. If he doesn’t, then it’s all moot. And we know what we have in that case, and no progressive or even moderate liberal will be happy with any part of that outcome. It’s not my way of taking a stand, but then I’ve no intention of ever being a politician. I couldn’t handle it. I just hope Obama can, though, because if he can’t, we’re all totally screwed, on every level.