My Frustration with Bell, Clinton and Obama on Marriage Equality

My Frustration with Bell, Clinton and Obama on Marriage Equality March 20, 2013

I know this may not be a popular position to take among my readers. After all, the last time I wrote anything even remotely critiquing or questioning Rob Bell, I got scathing responses. Oh, if folks only got so passionate about other things like, say, poverty.

Anyway, I’m a real fan of Rob Bell. I think he’s taken some bold steps in his career, and his accessible way of taking on complex, challenging theological ideas has made a big difference for a lot of people. I’m also glad that he recently made public comments in support of marriage equality. It’s the timing of it all that bothers me.

Back when Bell’s book, Love Wins, came out, Bell got raked over the proverbial coals by fellow evangelicals for his arguably liberal stance on the afterlife and God’s judgment. Around the same time, he parted ways with Mars Hill – his church at the time – moved west and began reinventing himself. At a recent talk at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral, he was asked about his stance on gay marriage, to which he offered this response:

I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.

First of all, I applaud Bell’s candor. Despite the fact that many conservative evangelicals abandoned him after Love Wins, he still has a massive following and has much potentially to lose. That said, I’m frustrated that it’s taken this long for him to come to this position in a public way. Yes, he could have “evolved” on the matter as President Obama says he has, but based on my second-hand knowledge of Bell, I expect he’s felt this way for some time.

Of course there are plenty of detractors even now, but with nearly 60% of the American public in support of marriage equality, and with an overwhelming majority of those under 35 showing their support, it’s hardly a game-changer to make such statements now.

I feel more or less the same about President Obama* and Hillary Clinton coming forward in support of marriage equality when they did. Again, I’m glad they did, but their timing leaves something to be desired. Clinton waited until she was no longer in public office to make her statement, and Obama is no longer facing another election, so suffice it to say they’re both in fairly comfortable positions when it comes to public opinion. But as I’ve written before, when a person of power and privilege takes a tough stand on matters of social justice, it means much more for them to do it when they risk losing much in the process.

I’m not calling on Rob Bell, Hillary Clinton and the President to be martyrs for marriage equality. But in waiting as all of them did until only recently, it suggests as an implied subtext that, yes, this was important. Just maybe not as important as other personal endeavors first.  The Gospel call is to stand up and respond to perceived injustice as soon as you recognize it as such, not when it’s more personally, professionally or politically advantageous to do so.

As a side not, I still think that the whole same-sex marriage debate is misguided. If we were to divest the states of the power to marry, giving them only authority over civil unions, even a healthy cross-section of conservatives would support a move to include same-sex couples. Let churches and couples deem for themselves what marriage means and if they want to engage in a ritual to affirm that publicly. But rather than fight over the definition of what “marriage” means, I’m far more concerned about the ongoing denial of equal rights to millions in our midst in the meantime.

*A NOTE: After this was published, a reader sent a link to help clarify Obama’s position. Although he has not yet pursued or supported any legislation to this effect, President Obama did speak publicly in support of gay marriage in May, 2012.

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  • Greg D

    Whoa Nellie. It takes some people longer time than others to “arrive” at a belief. Beliefs evolve. We change. In fact, I haven’t “arrived” at excepting gay marriage myself. Civil unions… sure. But, not gay marriage as a holy institution. Nope. Not there yet. Not convinced I ever will be either.

    • I understand and appreciate that, Greg. But based on my understanding of the three folks referenced in the article, however, I have reason to believe they felt this way for some time and withheld public statement until it was more personally expedient to do so.

      • Marc Istook

        Christian, I think you make a lot of valid points here, but am not sure they’re entirely accurate. Perhaps Bell held his perspective awhile before making it public. I’m not sure about Hillary Clinton though – and it bears mentioning that she wasn’t in an elected office and wouldn’t have faced the same electoral backlash as someone actively campaigning. Likewise with the President – he “came out” in support of gay marriage while still in his first term, campaigning for a second. There was absolutely a potential political cost to his announcement.. To be honest, at the time he made went public, I figured he might have cost himself the election. The timing seemed a bit puzzling and risky, especially given that it only added another round of ammunition to those who might be seeking anything possible to use against him in the election.

        As someone whose own views have evolved over time on this issue, I think there likely wasn’t an “aha” moment for the figures you mentioned, where they snapped their fingers and realized it was time to make a public pronouncement. It may have been a slow realization that, at some point, just seemed worth recognizing publicly.

        I think this issue gets especially complicated because similarly minded, honestly caring people can arrive at different conclusions, all based on how they weigh aspects of scriptural perspective, inerrancy, nature vs. nurture, free will, etc., against each other. While I would completely agree that the ideal requires people in high positions to stand up to injustice as soon as they see it, I think in reality that issue gets muddier when the injustice isn’t as black and white as it might appear to people on one side of the issue or another.

        • Chad

          And in Bell’s case he was merely answering a question from an audience member during Q&A time at an event promoting his new book. It wasn’t like he called a press conference to specifically talk about the issue.

      • Kyle

        I agree, Christian. The tide was already turning when Obama “came out’ during his campaign. It was safe and his campaign managers surely knew it. I think Obama has been one the most calculated politicians in our time. Prophetic voices don’t wait until it’s politically or personally expedient to speak the tough words. That’s why they’re called prophets. I’m glad Obama, Bell, Clinton, and others have voiced their support of marriage equality. But there are untold others who truly suffered, some violently, that came well before them.

      • Chad

        I’m not even sure Rob Bell’s statement could even really be considered a statement in support of gay marriage. It was close, but he left himself some wiggle room. Of course, that’s pretty characteristic of the answers he gives to all direct questions, so I’m not too surprised.

  • Alison

    They should just get rid of marriage as a governmental institution and make all marriages civil unions. That way marriage can stay as an institution of the church, much the same way we keep baptism as an institution of the church.

    • William


  • William

    I might point out that the president did come out for gay rights before he got re-elected; I remember wondering if it would end up costing him votes.

  • Christian, what you say is all true. Yes, each of these people should have voiced their support sooner. And, if they’d done so when they had more to lose, it would’ve carried more weight. That said, I’ve got two things. 1) Everybody gets to this point in their own way. Some step out boldly and damn the consequences while others weigh those consequences and look for the best time to take a stand. I don’t want to say “What took you so long” or anything else but “Thank you”. 2) Why do we make such a big deal when people with a little fame say they’re cool with gay folks, same-sex marriage, etc? Every day, regular people do the same thing without fanfare or acclaim and I’ll wager that, in the long run, they make a bigger difference than any celebrity.

    • Chad

      It’s a good thing when the famous folks take a stand that’s controversial because they have a platform that may give others the permission – or at least the courage- to take that stand themselves. We might consider folks like that to be “weak willed”, but at least it swings public opinion just that little more in the right direction… in other words, don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.

  • It is clear to me that Bell is an opportunist and owes his popularity to both a command of 21st century communication techniques and the willingness to commit himself to the most expedient course of action. He had no problem separating himself from Mars Hill (which I attended) to move to a bigger, friendlier market as soon as he felt his fame warranted it. Never mind that the church he was pastoring had no one to fill his shoes or that the arch-conservative west Michigan community was (and is) desperately in need of bold and inclusive church leadership. No doubt he faces a much easier road on the west coast, where push-back is minimal and he has access to celebrities and media types that will continue to accelerate his career.

  • With regard to Clinton. As SecState, she was forbidden to comment on domestic policy, but still stood up for LGBT rights on the global stage. Obama did wait longer than I thought he should, but he came out (with a push from Biden) in the midst of a tough reelection campaign, not waiting until it was over. And, with his final push, the Dems put marriage equality into the Democratic Platform at the 2012 DNC. While later than I wanted, it was lightyears away from 2004–just 8 years earlier, when Kerry was running as far from marriage equality as he could and W won reelection running on trying for a constitutional amendment to ban it. Bell is a different story. But most of us wait longer than we should.

  • Rusty St. Cyr

    Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t do it fast enough.

  • Hilary made her statements after serving as Secretary of State because as Secretary of State she was prohibited from engaging in politics

  • Thomas König

    My Congratulations Christian. You have made it. According to the Wikipedia article about Rob Bell your are a “conservative, evangelical figure”. When you see George Bush junior at his next birthday party, tell him my best regards.

    • I don’t understand…are you sarcastically calling Christian a “conservative, evangelical figure”? Are you being serious? And if you are, did you read the article or just the headline?

  • Nic

    President Obama “came out” in support of marriage equality BEFORE his re-election. Get the facts straight first.

  • Billy

    Dear Doubting Christian Piatt, I suspect that your frustration will fade with a few news cycles. I am waiting for the day when we read an article that the popular American guru of Christianity declares (along with the party leaders of both Democrats and Republicans) that assault weapons ought to be outlawed and that America’s children have all the health care they need and that all Americans have all the food they need and that everyone has a job with a living wage. . . . As for now, lets celebrate that the leaders are expressing reasonable positions.

  • It sure would have been nice if Mrs. Clinton had come out in favor gay rights before any of the past few General Conferences of her United Methodist Church. Such a statement from such a prominent member of her denomination might have helped them work toward ending LGBTQ discrimination in that church earlier. That said, agreed, it would be even better if she’d stated her pro-gay position as soon as she came to hold it. It matters.

  • Nancy

    I think churches ought to divest themselves of the right to perform marriages. Marriages are civil contracts, always have been & always will be. You do not need to be religious in order to marry. Ministers should not perform weddings at all. And weddings should be removed from the church.

    Instead, if a couple wants to have their marriage blessed by the church, they should come to a regular Sunday service where they can be blessed in front of the congregation that will be around to support the marriage.