Why is Obama silent on Tar Heel gay rights?

So what is the mainstream press to do with President Barack Obama’s refusal — so far — to take a clear stance on gay-rights issues, especially same-sex marriage?

Well, there are basically two options — one journalistic and the other, well, not so journalistic.

First of all, it is possible to write news pieces that are based on the president’s own words and actions, including the public stances taken and defended by his own church and/or religious denomination, which is the United Church of Christ. Then it would be possible to focus on his political reasons for not taking a clear stance, which would almost certainly lead journalists into a religious thicket as well, one centering on the beliefs of most African-Americans and Latinos who frequent church pews.

Then again, it is also possible to write stories that merely hint at the above factors and then focus totally on why people on the political and moral left are disappointed with his lack of courage.

I guess one could also assume, with Bill Maher, that the president is a simply lying (video clip here) until after the 2012 election votes are cast, but that wouldn’t be very journalistic.

What we have in the following Washington Post story is a classic example of the second approach. Here’s a sample, taken from a story that basically says Obama is hurting his standing with young people by being silent on North Carolina’s Amendment One that would ban civil unions and domestic partnerships:

The issue is particularly complicated in historically conservative North Carolina. Obama scraped together a razor-thin victory there four years ago with a multicultural coalition that included independents, African Americans and Hispanics — constituencies that are less uniformly enthusiastic about expanding gay rights than campus activists.

North Carolina is widely seen as a bigger challenge this year for Obama than it was in 2008, when he won with a margin of roughly 14,000 votes. Not only does the state’s unemployment rate continue to hover near 10 percent, but its Democratic Party is in disarray and is expected to be of little help to president. …

None of these challenges have stopped Obama from planting a flag in North Carolina, as he did by deciding to hold his party’s national convention in Charlotte this year. His campaign has opened more than a dozen offices around the state. In fact, Obama’s grass-roots organization never really dismantled four years ago — and actually as grown since then, state campaign officials said.

And in case you missed the main point (I can certainly understand why even careful, well-informed readers might miss it) there is this:

It will … be up to Obama to navigate the political crosscurrents of a complicated state in which he must court multiple constituencies that do not all agree on all the same issues.

The fate of Amendment One, for instance, is uncertain, with one public poll predicting that it will pass easily and another projecting a loss. Quietly opposing Amendment One, but keeping his distance from on-the-ground efforts to defeat it, could be an essential strategy for Obama to pull back together the diverse coalition that elected him last time.

The story presents all of this as a political issue — alone. Clap your hands if you are surprised.

This is a political issue, of course. I get that. But the key is that Obama is trying to skate over the fact that most African-American and Latino churchgoers are not convinced that, in terms of civil rights laws, sexual orientation truly equals race. I would imagine that the White House has very specific data on this reality and that Amendment One must, at this stage, be polling well with people of color. Thus, the president is smart to remain silent, until he is reelected (as Maher would say).

Here is my main point: Here at GetReligion, we have long insisted that the voices and views of leaders on the religious left are inadequately covered in the mainstream press. Would it have strengthened this story to note that Obama is part of the United Church of Christ, the liberal Protestant denomination that has, in the actions of its national leaders, long served as a trailblazer in the field of gay rights? Is that relevant to this story? Why not talk to UCC leaders in North Carolina?

Also, in terms of the pro-Amendment One viewpoint, why didn’t the Post ask African-American and Latino pastors WHY THEY believe Obama has elected to remain silent? Call me old-fashioned, but I really think this news story needed to include voices from both sides of that debate. It’s a journalism thing.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Cliff

    But is Obama part of the United Church of Christ? The President and First Lady withdrew their membership at Trinity UCC back in the summer of 2008.

    In what sense then is he connected to the UCC now?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Good question. But if you leave one Catholic parish, does that mean you are no longer a Catholic? If you leave a particular Lutheran parish, you are no longer a Lutheran?

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mollie

    I think it’s reasonable to assume that the Obamas retain their beliefs as confessed by the UCC. Whenever I hear President Obama speak, he speaks as someone who accepts the UCC statement of faith.

    Further, his departure from his previous congregation had everything to do with political comments made by the pastor and not the UCC itself.

    It’s tricky, what with the Obamas not being members of another church, but as a reporter I’d assume they made a public profession of faith when they joined Trinity and that they have not renounced this. And I would verify this, of course, but that would be my starting place.

  • Jeff

    The intersection of race and religion is a third rail for liberal ideology.

    Given their political leanings, the last thing the MSM wants to do is to advertise the fact that African-American and Latino Democrats are, by and large, eeevil, eeevil, “homophobic” “fundies,” just like most Republicans are.

    This isn’t so much conscious bias as a deeply rooted aversion to going somewhere that liberals generally do not want to go — a place where the contradictions in their thinking are revealed.

  • sari

    Do most Protestant denominations require the same strict adherence to dogma expected of Catholics or is there more room for personal interpretation?

    Should Obama’s religious beliefs inform every decision he makes as president? Can a leader make decisions which reflect the needs of a diverse population, even when they contradict his or her religious beliefs?

  • Heather

    Should Obama’s religious beliefs inform every decision he makes as president?

    I was under the impression that one’s religious beliefs inform almost every decision ever made, to varying degrees – isn’t that the reason for this blog? ;^)

  • http://ecben.wordpress.com Will

    The UCC being congregational, you can not be a “member” of the national organization in isolation. It is not in the least like being “baptized Catholic”, and therefore included in the figures in the Catholic Directory… only congregations are “members”.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Precisely right. This is WHY I asked if the information should be included. At the same time, I think that interviewing UCC clergy in NC would be a more than valid source of commentary on the president’s silence.

  • sari

    I think that interviewing UCC clergy in NC would be a more than valid source of commentary on the president’s silence.

    How can any clergy person comment on a co-religionist’s motivations unless the two people are acquainted? And why should Obama’s religion come into play at all? Or Romney’s? Santorum and Gingrich injected religion into the political mix; in their cases, your question would be valid.

    The sitting President represents ALL Americans, not just those with whom he shares a church pew. If s/he can’t recognize that very basic fact, then s/he should look for other employment.