One of the things that got me interested in Barack Obama as a Presidential candidate was the answer he gave, in a church venue, sometime in 2007 – I’d be grateful to anyone who can point me to the video – on the question of gay marriage. He said, as I recall:
1. My church holds that marriage is between a man and a woman.
2. The principles of religious liberty mean that the government shouldn’t tell my church that it’s wrong about that.
3. Other churches believe otherwise.
4. The government has no business telling them that they’re wrong, either.
5. The definition of marriage should be left up to individual churches.
6. The government should define and protect a status of domestic partnership open to any adult couple.
Shorter version: since gay marriage is bitterly controversial among various religious groups, and the state doesn’t need to take a position with respect to that controversy, it shouldn’t. Andrew Sullivan calls this “cowardly,” but in any other context he’d recognize it as reflecting Obama’s Oakeshottian desire to avoid having the state take a stand on one side or the other of a social conflict unless justice demands it.
That seems to me to be both right and politic. I understand why the belief of some churches that marriage is only a male-female thing profoundly offends some gay people. But I think the desire to have the government tell (e.g.) the Catholic Church that it misunderstands one of its own sacraments is not a desire that ought to be granted. On the other hand, if the state recognizes pairwise domestic partnerships, denying equal recognition to same-sex pairs seems obviously wrong. (And no, I have no trouble seeing why multiplicity, or arrangements involving minors, are different questions that ought to get the opposite answer.)
Obama has continued to say since that he believes that marriage is between a man and a woman. But he also opposed California’s Proposition 8, albeit not as loudly as I would have liked. He hasn’t said anything since that leads me to believe that he’s changed his original position. He continues to say that he wants DOMA repealed, though he hasn’t moved on that.
This, I think, answers the puzzlement about how Obama, a decent human being, could want to deny gays the right to marry. He doesn’t.
Footnote No doubt Glenn Reynolds will welcome the news that his President agrees with him about “separating marriage and state,” and will stop saying that Obama is “anti-gay-marriage.”