Getting on the Bus: Obama and Same Sex Marriage

Where does it stop?  God intended Adam and Eve to be a couple, not Adam and Steve.

— Jethro James, Senior Pastor at Paradise Baptist Church Newark, May 10, 2012

The gay marriage debate in New Jersey has gone national, with President Obama throwing his own hat in the ring with resounding approval for same-sex unions.  Evangelicals are shuddering, and various pro-Obama supporters are shaking their heads.  One is pastor Jethro James of the Paradise Baptist Church in Newark.  ‘I don’t understand why he did it – and why now.  I was gung-ho for his re-election and now, I don’t know.  This troubles my spirit’ (Star-Ledger, May 10).

States such as North Carolina, given an overwhelming vote there to ban gay marriage, suggest that the issue for Obama, at least when it comes to the November election, is not a negligible one.  Ditto South Carolina.  Individuals such as Bakari Middleton, chairman of the Richland County Democratic Party tend to stay mum about the president’s stance.  ‘Nobody wants to comment on that’ (Rock Hill Herald, May 12).  State Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter tends to have faith amongst the voters – notably ‘communities of colour’ whose perceptiveness she holds with a degree of reverence.  “We are not electing President Obama to be bishop…  We aren’t looking to him for our religious beliefs”.   Cobb-Hunter, it would seem, is a defiant optimist.

A closer look at the responses, and a few truths emerge.  Anything that will garner votes will be entertained, though the gay lobby is hardly as packed a church as the evangelical equivalents.  Approval for gay marriage amongst black churchgoers is amongst the lowest in the country.  Jonathan Bernstein in the Washington Post suggests that the move simply gave Obama a bit more leg room should the issue come up later in the campaign.  But at the end of the day, an obsession with the marriage debate can always risk lessening the value of the advocate’s message in other areas.

Then comes the issue of business, something that every political principle in the United States is ultimately subordinated to.  Karen Kontos, whose family owns a number of restaurants and catering halls in New Jersey, could see the dollar signs lighting up like neon lights.  “I think it’s wonderful if it brings in more business. We’d welcome anyone who wants us to cater their wedding.”   The lawyers will be thrilled too – a marriage rush can just as easily lead to a divorce exodus – where there are unions, dissolutions follow.

At the end of the day, Obama’s stance can only ring true in a symbolic sense.  The debate would be taking place however ‘evolved’ his views on the subject might be.  Several states have already passed rules allowing gay marriages – New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, Iowa, Massachusetts, Washington DC, to name a selection.  Thirty one, however, have banned it.  The laws of marriage, and for that matter the laws of sentencing, are sovereign bastions for US states.

The President of the United States might be able to annihilate countries at the push of a trigger or initiate a drone attack in Pakistan, but he is unable to change a state’s rules on unions and marriages or force the courts to heed his views.  That is both the miracle and the splendid perversion of the American constitution.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: Read other articles by Binoy.