The Obama Same-Sex Marriage Statement:
A Religious Analysis

I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don’t Ask Don’t Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married.

President Obama’s historic statement on same-sex marriage was 122 words long, and “God” was not one of them. Nevertheless, it was an important religious statement that merits our attention—not just because it’s a slap in the face to the so-called Christian Right (neither Christian nor Right, as some of my progressive Christian friends like to say) but because of its own positive values.

This administration is nothing if not professional, and it would be foolish to believe that the statement or its timing is accidental. Obama’s statement brings him in line with 55% of the American public (as revealed in a recent Gallup poll), and comes a day after one of the nastiest, meanest anti-gay votes in recent memory—the North Carolina “no families but mine” Amendment 1—it offers moderates a stark contrast between humanity and dogmatism, inclusion and nastiness. 

But it is also a principled stand for a different variety of religious values. Rick Santorum believes that you have to choose between God and gay, between sexuality and religion. And although I’ve gotten in some trouble for saying so, I’ll repeat my view that Dan Savage did as well, when he said that we have to “ignore the bullshit in the Bible” about gay people, just as we ignore the bullshit about slavery. Savage’s view is fine as a personal religious ideology, but coming in a public statement from Gay Activist #1, it tells traditional religious people that there’s no space for them in an LGBT-inclusive world. Once again, it’s God vs. Gay, at least as that God is understood by traditionalists.

Obama’s thoughtful statement sends a different message. It says that values like introspection, compassion, and justice support, rather than oppose, equality for LGBT people. We can interpret Leviticus, Romans, and Corinthians ten ways from Sunday. But what we can’t ignore are the calls to justice and compassion.

What, according to the statement, led Obama to this position? The right kind of thinking. Over time, he said, he has come to understand the truth of same-sex couples: that they are as capable of commitment, love, and sanctity as opposite-sex ones; and that it is an injustice to deny the benefits of marriage to gay people. Those are religious values, expressed in a personal way. It demonstrates the growth of individual conscience: the president used to feel one way, but over time, in a careful and long process of discernment, he has now come to feel a different way. People on his staff, friends and family—these, not abstract principles, are what shifted his heart and mind. Thinking of his personal responsibility for the lives of soldiers serving our country—this, not some policy point, is the data that weighs into calculations of right and wrong.

Is that not the same reasoning that applies in all anti-oppression work, whether regarding sexual minorities, gender minorities, racial minorities, or issues of class, immigration, and economic justice?

Only 122 words, but we could teach this statement in Sunday school as an example of how we grow as human beings by opening ourselves to the truth of other people’s experiences, by opening our hearts, by revising our opinions. Usually it’s religion that tries to speak to politicians. But today, we saw the reverse.

JayMichaelson&ltjay@nehirim.orggt'

Dr. Jay Michaelson [@jaymichaelson] is Associate Editor of Religion Dispatches and the author of five books, most recently "Evolving Dharma: Meditation, Buddhism, and the Next Generation of Enlightenment" (North Atlantic, 2013). He holds a J.D. from Yale and a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.