Obama, Gays and the Radical Pragmatism of the Separately Equal

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On his website, Change.gov, Barack Obama lists his gay and lesbian agenda under the heading of “Civil Rights.” It is, without any doubt, a very liberal plan: allow gays to serve openly in the military, expand hate crimes statutes, support same-sex civil unions, oppose a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, and expand adoption rights for gays and lesbians. The platform, however, makes no mention of supporting gay marriage, because, well, Obama does not support giving gay couples the right to civil marriage. This is, it must be said, a rather conventional position for a Democrat to take, and it is widely seen as politically savvy. Around the country, voters continue to reject the idea of gay “marriage,” even as the nation becomes more comfortable with the idea of gay rights.

Obama himself has suggested that his position on gay marriage arises less from a personal conviction than from a tactical know-how. Back during the primaries, Obama explained that  “marriage” was not the best terrain to fight for gay rights.

Look, when my parents got married in 1961, it would have been illegal for them to be married in a number of states in the South. So obviously, this is something that I understand intimately, it’s something that I care about. But if I were advising the civil rights movement back in 1961 about its approach to civil rights, I would have probably said it’s less important that we focus on an anti-miscegenation law than we focus on a voting rights law and a non-discrimination and employment law and all the legal rights that are conferred by the state. Now, it’s not for me to suggest that you shouldn’t be troubled by these issues. But my job as president is going to be to make sure that the legal rights that have consequences on a day to day basis for loving same sex couples all across the country.

This is a remarkably complex, if only subtly controversial, argument. He suggests that laws preventing gay marriage are as unjust as laws preventing interracial marriage, the very union that led to his own birth. But he further argues that the best way to fight this injustice is to indefinitely cede the central moral argument–that in America all men (and women) must be treated equal–and rather score incremental victories that push the nation in the right direction. In Obama’s formulation, it would have been indefinitely acceptable for interracial couples to be denied the rights of civil marriage, if other progress was being made to advance racial equality. In the same way, it is indefinitely acceptable for gay couples to be denied the right to civil marriage, if other progress is being made to give gay couples similar rights. There is an unstated assumption here: If Obama is successful he will clear the way for a subsequent politician to support gay marriage, just as the broader civil rights movement cleared the way for an end to anti-miscegenation laws in 1967 by the (activist?) U.S. Supreme Court.

Whatever advantages this approach scores tactically, it also carries with it a cost. Namely, Obama effectively cedes the clarity of a moral argument for gay rights equality. He cannot argue that separate is not equal, because he is endorsing a separate system for gay and lesbian couples, an accommodation that seems, on its face, to contradict a central principle of the civil rights movement, as laid out in 1954 by the (activist?) U.S. Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education.

I write all this now (from vacation, no less) because I think Obama’s gay rights approach is at the heart of the backlash over his inaugural invitation to Rick Warren, a popular California pastor who opposes any sanctioning of same-sex unions. Those who have objected most strongly have objected to Obama’s choice on fundamentally moral grounds. The selection, they argue, endorses something un-American. Would he invite a segregationist to speak? Would he invite an anti-semite? TIME’s John Cloud compares the Warren invitation to the one-time adoration of Richard Russell Jr., the segregationist Georgia senator who put a warm face on southern opposition to Civil Rights. Joe Solmonese, who heads the Human Rights Campaign, asks “[W]ould any inaugural committee say to Jewish Americans, ‘We’re opening with an anti-Semite but closing the program with a rabbi, so don’t worry’?”

The objections of Cloud, Solmonese and many others are based on the idea that Obama is behaving like a hypocrite. “Obama also said [Thursday] that he is a ‘fierce advocate for equality’ for gays, which is — given his opposition to equal marriage rights — simply a lie,” writes Cloud. But there is a consitency at the heart of Obama’s position. He campaigned on the promise that he would not demonize, reject or even contest those Americans who believe that gay couples should not have the same rights to marriage as straight couples. He promised not to make the big moral argument, but rather to score the incremental victories. Rather than hypocrisy, Obama is demonstrating the radical pragmatism that has marked his entire career. If there is now buyer’s remorse, this is its true source. If there is now shock, it is because Obama’s campaign papered over just how radically pragmantic its candidate planned to be.