Is Obama’s Support of Gay Marriage an ‘Imposition’ of His Religion?

Same-sex marriage opponent Matthew J. Franck in Washington Post‘s On Faith section talks about Obama using his faith to justify his support of marriage equality, and almost — almost! — has a point:

The mere fact that the president claims to have religious reasons — specifically Christian reasons — for supporting same-sex marriage has occasioned some interesting triumphalism in recent days among those who agree with him… If the people of California can be faulted for “imposing their religion” on their fellow citizens by passing Proposition 8, then it is equally true that President Obama is “imposing his religion” on his fellow Americans when he says, as he did last week, that laws preventing same-sex marriage are unjust to gay couples desiring to get married.

I grant that I’m not thrilled about anyone using religion to justify even progressive stances that I agree with. For example, I have a problem with the death penalty because of its immutability, the fact that it doesn’t work as a deterrent, and because I have a problem with the state deciding who lives and dies, but not because a stone tablet is purported to instruct me that I “shalt not kill.” The right thing is the right thing, and you don’t need Jesus to tell you one way or the other. So I do think it’s wrongheaded for progressives to hypocritically fault conservatives for using religious justifications for conservative positions, and then turn around and use religious justifications for their own progressive positions.

Anyway, Franck goes off the rails pretty quickly, thus my vociferous “almost”:

If he is not imposing his religion on anyone, neither is anyone else.

Hooooold on there, bub. False equivalence! Saying that you think it would be nice if we treated people equally because Jesus suggested it is not the same as declaring “God commands that we codify into law the oppression of the gays.” Nor is Mitt Romney imposing his religiously-motivated will when he says that marriage is between a man and a woman. He’s expressing a theological belief. But he would be imposing it if, as president, he worked for and signed into law a ban on same-sex marriage.

One of the covers Newsweek almost went with this week

A major difference here is that if a President Romney (shudder) were to do so, he would be doing it purely for religious reasons. He may dress it up in secular-ish language about the stability of the American family or tradition or some other malarkey, but there is really no reason to oppose marriage equality unless one is doing so because one feels that the creator of the universe is squeamish about gay folks.

If Obama were to wave a wand and legalize same-sex marriage nationally, and did so purely because of his religious beliefs, he would still not be “imposing” his will on anyone. He’d be granting a right enjoyed by everyone else, and one which harms no one else. He’d be doing it for a silly reason (because a probably-mythical guy in sandals 2,000 years ago said we should be nice to each other) but he would not be forcing anything on anyone, other than maybe some local clerk who has to put a notarized stamp on the marriage certificate of Adam and Steve, and might feel grudgingly about it.

To boil it down: Saying “you may not do X” is an imposition. Saying “go ahead, guys” is not.

As a side note, we may see more of this kind of thing. In an interview at Religion & Politics, Mark D. Johnson notes that the Jesus example is often undergirding a push for equality:

I’m sure that the President’s invocation of faith was considered carefully beforehand. But that doesn’t make it insincere. And the way he invoked it echoes what a growing number of Christian writers have reported over six decades. Many devout Christians — members of the clergy, lay leaders, theologians and religious educators — have become convinced not just that discrimination against homosexuals is a violation of basic human rights, but that it goes directly against the teachings and the example of Jesus of Nazareth. So I was struck that the President spoke not just about the moral principle of the Golden Rule, but about Jesus’ sacrifice.

So there’s another way of looking at it: If Jesus is an example as a person, and his story is one that makes you wish to behave toward others in a certain way because it has inspired you, that’s very different than doing so because you think you’ve been instructed to by a guy who’s been dead for millennia. Or by his dad. Who is also him. Or whatever.

About Paul Fidalgo

Paul is communications director for the Center for Inquiry, as well as an actor and musician. His personal blog is Near-Earth Object, and he tweets as @paulfidalgo. He is the author of a short (and cheap!) Kindle book on the atheist political movement, Under the Stained Glass Ceiling: Atheists' Precarious Place in Modern American Politics.

  • Gus Snarp

    When you said he almost has a point I had to make sure you covered why he didn’t well enough. Glad I read it all before I went off in a comment:

    If Obama were to wave a wand and legalize same-sex marriage nationally, and did so purely because of his religious beliefs, he would still not be “imposing” his will on anyone. He’d be granting a right enjoyed by everyone else, and one which harms no one else.

    To boil it down: Saying “you may not do X” is an imposition. Saying “go ahead, guys” is not.

    Exactly! And also, exactly what so many religious people seem to fail to understand, whether with regards to birth control funding or school prayer or any number of other church/state issues.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

      “Saying “you may not do X” is an imposition. Saying “go ahead, guys” is not.”

      More to the point, saying “Go ahead, guys, if it’s OK with YOUR moral precepts, and if it isn’t, then DON’T.” is not religious imposition.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001627228091 Alexander Ryan

    I’ve seen a lot of comments like “For a Christian, NObama seems to have a lot of anti-Christian values.” I thought the religious types didn’t have to agree with everything in the Bible. Need I pull the entitled to slaves card out? Religion invented hypocritical statements, I swear.

  • Stev84

    We’re talking about civil marriage here. Religion has nothing whatsoever to do with it.

    • Derrik Pates

      Except that Christianity especially sees marriage as somehow their domain, their “property”. Never mind that it was of such critical importance that Christianity couldn’t be bothered to make a “sacrament” out of it until the 12th century.

  • http://www.dpsinfo.com LaurieMann

    There is no rational reason to oppose same-sex relationships – and lots of irrational reasons according to various groups’ bibles.

  • http://dogmabytes.com/ C Peterson

    I don’t see how anybody’s support for anything can be considered “imposition”, religious or otherwise.

    In any case, the President does not make law. It is only Congress that can do that, and if it creates laws based primarily on the personal religious views of its members, that would reasonably be considered an imposition of religion. But not by the President.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=35702181 Christopher Check

    The argument that nobody’s been using is that the opposition to same-sex marriage actually restricts religious rights.

    Some groups within Reform Judaism and the Episcopal Church recognize same-sex unions, but are prevented from performing those ceremonies by state laws.  That is, the state is interpreting their scriptures for them.  Which sounds an awful lot to me like having an official state religion.
    And thanks to the 14th Amendment, that whole “can’t have a state church” thing from our Bill of Rights applies to states as well.  It seems pretty clear that laws regarding how churches can dole out their mythical sacraments are unconstitutional.

    • Stev84

      The White House actually used that argument in their objection to the Defense Authorization Act, which includes an amendment that bans same sex weddings on military bases.

      Section 537 would obligate DOD to deny Service members, retirees, and their family members access to facilities for religious ceremonies on the basis of sexual orientation, a troublesome and potentially unconstitutional limitation on religious liberty.

    • blargh

      Actually there was an amicus brief filed in the same-sex marriage case in Hawaii that argued exactly that.  The group which filed the brief was headed by a Bhuddist organization, but they had several other minority religions join in as well.

    • The Captain

      People can give you limited examples of it actually being used, but as a general rule no not many people outside the legal profession make the argument. 

      Which drives me nuts! I am sick of seeing a TV debate (or news story) where the anti-gay guy screams about his “religious freedom” and the pro-gay marriage person says something about loving all people (or something like that.

      During the Prop 8 debacle I actually saw a news story where the anti-gay protesters on the street where yelling “freedom of religion” and the for gay marriage pastor who was interviewed just talked about jesus’s love and crap like that. Fail! He should have just walked right out in front of those cameras to the crowed and loudly shouted “what about my freedom of religion”? to the crowd.

  • Thegoodman

    The motivation for expanding civil rights is irrelevant, as it is the right thing to do and cannot be humanely argued against. The motivations for hindering the expansion of civil rights are only a combination of hatred , fear , and a lust for power.

    Tu quoque

  • Brian

    All Christians subvert their own religion consistently. Do they stone people to death for working on the sabbath? Or the myriad other reasons for stoning one to death, as it’s written in the bible? No. So it’s no surprise that the President, like so many of his fellow Christians, is able to keep the faith while disagreeing with outdated principles. Now if only the rest of Christendom, and every other religion for that matter, would follow suit and “evolve” like the rest of humanity, the world would be a better place.

  • Blasphe Me

    I’m just going to vent: _*anyone*_ who invokes religion, imho, in pretty much any argument (which inherently seems to necessitate use of logic), is either a) generally undereducated b) pandering. 
    This blog riles me up and irritates me, because it puts stupidity (of the religious) on display and reminds me that  someone else’s stupidity (which i’m using interchangeably with religiosity) affects the lives of millions, no _billions_ of people adversely. But I keep coming back ;-) 

    I used to think that my dad was insensitive and rude when he used to scoff at attending excruciatingly long religious ceremonies (wedding, deaths, etc.) the goings-on at which most people didn’t really understand to begin with when I was growing up in India. But now I realize he’s a hide-and-seek atheist.

    I don’t think he influenced me to be atheist but maybe I am wrong. 

    Long live gay marriage and any other marriage we’ll argue about in the future that hurts no one!

  • Onamission5

    I’m trying to understand how anyone could interpret the support for granting of rights to other people as an imposition upon them. It’s not like he came out and said that everyone has to get married to someone of the same sex. Was the JFK’s support of the civil rights movement an imposition upon the religious beliefs of the Klan?

    • http://twitter.com/JasonOfTerra PhiloKGB

      This is the kind of astute analysis of which I see too little. It’s hard to see how any opt-in right can be an imposition. Legalized same-sex marriage is an imposition to conservative Christians in much the same way as legalized alcohol is to AA. That is, not at all.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Margaret-Whitestone/100001682409207 Margaret Whitestone

       “Was the JFK’s support of the civil rights movement an imposition upon the religious beliefs of the Klan?”

      According to the religious zealots of today, it would be.   To them life is a zero-sum game, so if people of whom they disapprove have rights, they don’t.   If LGBT people  and women seeking reproductive freedom have rights, it’s a restriction of anti-gay, anti-choice peoples’ “religious freedoms”.

  • ganner918

    Restricting people’s freedoms vs. expanding people’s freedoms on the basis of religion are very different forms of imposition. If all Christianity did was serve the poor, advocate for just social policy, and and not try to condemn anyone, limit anyone’s rights, or get the religion endorsed and supported by governments, I’d still think the spiritual stuff was silly and baseless, but I can’t say I’d have too big a problem with it.

  • Tinker

    I am sorry, but am I the only one here who realizes that this is an election season. I don’t think that Obama cares one way or the other. I just think that he is following election advice that has told him that the majority of Democrats agree with social freedoms and the majority of Americans are Christian. Which in my opinion are mutually exclusive.

  • jdm8

    A lot of the anti-Obama sniping use opportunistic arguments to find fault. It’s not unique, but it seems a lot more prevalent these days.

    Anyway, religious arguments don’t need to apply.  I don’t see any reason against gay civil unions or marriage, what’s promoted as reasons against it are largely fear tactics.

  • Edmond

    I disagree that Obama used any religion to justify his position.  No religion invented nor owns the concept of treating others as you would like to be treated.  This is a universal, humanistic concept, not a religious one.

  • esurience

    The right analogy would be a Christian who believes that same-sex marriage is immoral, but respects that we live in a plural society where other people should also have rights and freedoms (and therefore would believe gay and lesbian people should have the right to marry). That Christian wouldn’t be imposing their beliefs on us, and neither is Obama.

  • Baby_Raptor

    So…Saying you personally support something is the same as passing laws denying people their rights? 

    Someone explain this to me, or tell me I’m reading it wrong. I can’t do the mental gymnastics required to process it. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Margaret-Whitestone/100001682409207 Margaret Whitestone

    Obama’s not taking away/restricting anybody’s rights or even recommending it be done because of what he believes.  The same can’t be said of the other side.  The obvious answer is “No, Obama is not imposing his religion on anybody”. 

    • Derrik Pates

      Exactly. The referenced author is making a false equivalency, as pointed out in the article. Though the referenced author was probably trying to make a point about “well, you’re limiting my freedom of religion by allowing things my religion says are verboten” – which is a specious argument at best.

  • http://profiles.google.com/statueofmike Michael S

    Nice article. I hadn’t heard of this person’s strange attack on the President’s statement.

  • Celticlight

    The good news is that the President’s opinoin on gay marriage has nothing to do with his religion and is based purely on politics. He was for gay marriage when he ran for the Illinois Senate, then was against it when he ran for President and now is for it again. He is not imposing his religion on anyone. He was getting push back from some of his biggest bundlers that he was not being supportive enough. Relax everyone.  

  • http://twitter.com/joeimus_prime Average Joe

    the legal definition of marriage can be changed to reflect the 9th ammendment, which basically says that whatever freedoms one group of americans have (but not necessarily specifically granted by the constitution) must be applicable to all americans. so if any state official can legally join 2 people, if the state recognizes the union, and law grants protections and certain privileges (like joint tax filing) to those individuals due to the nature of their union…then all american citizens should have those rights regardless of religious morality.  just as we don’t discriminate due to race, we can’t discriminate due to sexual orientation. no matter what the popular opinion is.

  • http://twitter.com/joeimus_prime Average Joe

    funny thing, too…ever notice how Jesus didn’t say anything at all about homosexuality but instead to accept everybody and treat them respectfully no matter who they are….but all the Christians against same-sex marriage use Hebrew Scripture to justify their belief? 


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