Obama’s historic stand?
May 10, 2012
History is being made. Again and again we are told this. Every time a war starts or ends, every time a stock market crashes, every time a tower falls. But is history really made in sudden, monumental, movie-montage events? Or does it move more slowly, in the time of dinner table conversations and daily commutes, in the twenty years it takes to raise a child?
I’m afraid I barely noticed when President Obama made his first public statement on same-sex marriage. I was lazily browsing BBC News, and to be perfectly honest, stories about the increase of plastic waste particles in the ocean (a 100% increase in the past forty years) and Google’s plans to develop driverless cars caught my attention much more strongly than this. Maybe it’s due to my social privilege as a person who has not been the object of sexuality-based discrimination. More likely, though, I think it’s due to the fact that Obama’s stance really wasn’t any news to me. I’d known all along that he is a supporter of LGBTQ rights, even if in official discourse he previously hedged the issue. However, as scholar Sarah Wildman has stated in a recent BBC news article,
“Among many progressives, a feeble stance on gay marriage has become almost a political liability. Witness the quick hurrah! response from Nancy Pelosi and Mike Bloomberg to the president’s statement.
But it is far easier to make a statement as a governor, a congresswoman, a mayor. The country needed the president to take a stand here. The country needed this statement to come from on high: a clear-headed recognition that these are people’s lives, that rights can’t be traded or put off for later. The pomp and circumstance of the White House is no gimmick. A major new direction has been announced for the country.
“Historic,” in this moment is not a cliche.
However, Wildman also takes the long view, noting that this moment is part of a long, gradual process that is unfolding. While there may exist a realm of eternal truth and good, we who dwell in Plato’s cave know only shadows…and the shapes and sizes of those shadows change over time. We are in the midst of a value shift that has been developing gradually over much time, and Obama’s annoucement is just one of many movements in that shift. I rejoice with Wildman in the implications of this change for human rights and freedoms.
“Malia and Sasha Obama might, rightly, be shocked by all the fuss this is causing. Certainly, by the time they are of an age when their peers begin to marry, 15 or 20 years from now, this day will glow with that Instamatic glow through which we view many of the civil rights successes of the past.
You mean women had to ask their husband’s permission to work? You mean interracial marriage was… illegal? You mean gay marriage was once… banned?”
Like many others of my generation, I find it impossible not to be a supporter of same-sex marriage. I am enough of a traditionalist to believe that marriage and family (and the lifelong commitment implied in each) are highly important moral institutions that should be preserved for the health of both the individual and society. Meanwhile, my postmodern education has suggested to me that traditions might be amended without forfeiting their integrity, that marriages and families can take on many forms, and that gender is a socially constructed as well as a biological category. However, when I try to discuss my perspective with my parents – who firmly see marriage as a union between a man and a woman with the goal of raising children – we reach a communicative impasse. On this particular issue, a gulf has formed between our values, and we stand on opposite sides.
But, for me the gulf is perhaps not so wide as it is for many of my fellow millennials. To an extent I can empathize with conservative journalist Rod Dreher, whose opposing BBC opinion piece concurs with Wildman in acknowledging that a value shift is occurring. But while Wildman rejoices in the change, Dreher laments it:
“As is commonly known, polling data show a stark generational divide among Americans on same-sex marriage. The younger the voter, the greater the support. The demographic tidal wave on this issue is undeniable…As long as the traditionalist position on same-sex marriage, almost universally held only 25 years ago, is treated as irrational hatred and nothing but by the media, business, and social elites, there will be powerful social and psychological pressure to shun it.”
Dreher discusses the many correlations made between the gay rights movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s (and tries to endorse the latter while distancing himself from the former). Ultimately, he argues that just as political and social pressure from elite opinion makers gradually forced small-town white Southerners to accept integrated schools, so this same pressure will ultimately force same-sex marriage opponents to accept the phenomenon as it spreads.
I believe that Dreher is most likely correct in his predictions, and while I don’t join him in decrying this change, I am intrigued by the conclusion of his article, in which he attributes the increasing support for same-sex marriage in America to a decline in religious practice:
Leaving aside the role of elites in forming mass opinion, it is not sufficiently appreciated why so many younger Americans support same-sex marriage.
It fits easily with what they already believe about the nature of marriage, of sex, of liberty, and of human nature. The high level of religiosity shown in US polls is deceiving.
More recent, comprehensive research by political scientists Robert Putnam and David Campbell, and sociologist Christian Smith, indicates that young Americans are not only abandoning formal religious observance in large numbers (while still claiming to be “spiritual”), but they see religion primarily in therapeutic terms.
That is, they believe that God wants us to be nice, happy and self-fulfilled – and that’s about it.
As the late sociologist Philip Rieff observed in his great 60s work of cultural analysis, The Triumph of the Therapeutic, Western culture had by then abandoned the Christian moral matrix, especially on sexual matters.
Given the haplessness of the churches as a counter-cultural force to the hedonism and individualism celebrated by popular culture, it should surprise no-one that arguments, Christian and otherwise, for traditional marriage are hard for young people to conceptualise.
Traditionalists keep winning battles, but we have lost the war at the level of ideas... Like it or not, this is what it means to live after the passing of the Christian era.”
It is on this point – the “passing of the Christian era” – that I can empathize with Dreher. Although I do not lament the increasing support for LGBTQ rights, I admittedly bemoan what I also see as the decline in religiosity in American society and the increase in what he calls the “therapeutic” mentality (so seductive, but so shallow in the end). I also think that there are many traditional values – particularly loyalty, commitment, and devotion to ideals higher than the self and individual well-being – that are worth preserving.
But, while I relate to Dreher’s concern about religion, I can’t help but notice the glaringly obvious flaw in his reasoning. What is the relationship between this decline in religious practice and support for same-sex marriage? There may be a correlation, but can we really say that one is the cause of the other? Most important, why does religious practice have to be coded as socially conservative? What about progressive Christians and LGBTQ churches and openly gay priests? Dreher speaks of the Civil Rights Movement – let us not forget that many of its great leaders, as well as its detractors, were professed Christians. The LGBTQ rights movement is different, but still, Dreher is incorrect in his categorical linking of religiosity with social conservatism.
We human beings are constantly making history, both collectively and individually, and we have a choice about which morals we want to preserve and which we want to change. It is true, as Dreher shows, that societal pressures will often compel us to choose one value over another…but ultimately, the decision is ours. And, these values do not have to come in a neat pre-packaged set. Being pro-same-sex marriage does not have to mean being secularist or nonreligious. Being a liberal does not have to mean rejecting certain traditions that one deems worth preserving. As always, values are messy. What matters most is to understand our own motivations for having them, their influence on our actions and their impact on other people.