Why Obama’s Not “Evolved” Yet on Marriage Equality

Everyone has a theory: at Politico’s Arena, religious right activist J. Kenneth Blackwell, a prominent black conservative who, as Ohio’s secretary of state, campaigned for that state’s gay marriage ban in 2004 by comparing gay people to barnyard animals, thinks Obama can’t risk alienating black and Latino voters:

President Obama understands that huge majorities among black and Hispanics voters strongly hold that marriage is a union between one man and one woman. While he also understands, these same voters respect the human dignity of homosexuals, he knows substantial numbers of these voters will leave the ranks of Obama supporters, if he trashes traditional marriage. This would assure his defeat in Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and Florida. He will not show the courage of his convictions! President Obama would prefer to bring about this change through activist courts.

Of course Blackwell and his allies on the religious right wish this were true: that a single issue would unite black and Latino voters with Republicans instead for Obama. But there isn’t much evidence that this is true. In fact, there’s increasing evidence that it’s becoming less likely as time goes on.

Last week, Public Religion Research Institute reported that whle black Americans are less likely to support same-sex marriage than the entire population as a whole (only 37% in favor, compared to 47% in favor overall), black millenials “are, however, significantly more supportive of same-sex marriage than black Americans overall. Younger black Millennials are 12 points more likely to support same-sex marriage than black Americans overall (49% vs. 37% respectively).” The generation gap is true of black Protestants also, which, according to PRRI, “suggests that these differences are not simply a result of lower levels of religious engagement among young black Americans.” Thirty-three percent of black Protestants of all ages support same-sex marriage, but 48% of younger black Protestants do. 

As Candace Chellew-Hodge reported last month, Latinos are no more likely to oppose same-sex marriage than other demographic groups. Similarly, the Public Religion Research Institute found in its 2010 American Values Survey that “[w]hite Catholics are more likely than Latino Catholics to support some kind of legal recognition of gay couples relationships, but they are not more likely than Latino Catholics to support same-sex marriage. Nearly 8-in-10 white Catholics favor either same-sex marriage (41%) or civil unions (36%), compared to roughly two-thirds of Latino Catholics who favor either same-sex marriage (45%) or civil unions (22%).”

So is Obama afraid of alienating black and Latino voters? I doubt it. Whatever Obama’s true beliefs on the issue are (remember that he once said he was for marriage equality on a questionnaire he filled out when he was running for office in the 1990s) his time in office has been marked by trying to balance when and how he rankles religious moderates and conservatives on the “social” issues. On the one hand, Obama has consistently sided with religious conservatives who insist, for example, that faith-based organizations receiving government funds can discriminate in hiring and firing based on religion. And while his accommodation on the contraception coverage failed to satisfy the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and their evangelical allies, he did have supporters, such as the Catholic Health Association, backing his tweak of the coverage requirement.

The administration has made a point of emphasizing the role of his “spiritual advisor,” the Florida pastor Joel Hunter, who has tried to put a new face on religious conservatism by insisting that evangelicals are motivated by a broader range of issues than abortion and marriage. But when Florida’s ban on same-sex marriage passed in 2008, Hunter had this to say to the New York Times:

The Rev. Joel Hunter, an evangelical pastor in Florida, said many religious conservatives felt more urgency about stopping same-sex marriage than about abortion, another hotly contested issue long locked in a stalemate.

“There is enough of the population that is alarmed at the general breakdown of the family, that has been so inundated with images of homosexual relationships in all of the media,” said Mr. Hunter, who gave the benediction at the Democratic National Convention this year, yet supported the same-sex marriage ban in his state. “It’s almost like it’s obligatory these days to have a homosexual couple in every TV show or every movie.”

Good heavens. 

I can’t get inside Obama’s head; I don’t know what his heartfelt religious beliefs or heartfelt beliefs on marriage equality are. It almost doesn’t matter, though. He’s shown himself willing to support religious discrimination in some circumstances — in permitting discriminatory hiring and firing with taxpayer funds, in opposing legal equality for all citizens. In the end, it doesn’t matter whether he believes it in his spiritual heart of hearts or is doing it out of political expediency: it’s still discrimination.

Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, covers politics and religion. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Guardian, The Atlantic, The American ProspectThe NationSalon, and other publications. Follow her on TwitterRSS feed Email