Alex Blaze

Marriage and Religion in the public square: No, they don't have to

Filed By Alex Blaze | August 19, 2008 3:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Fundie Watch, Marriage Equality, Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, John McCain, LGBT, marriage, one man one woman, president, religion test, Rick Warren, same-sex marriage

Here's Obama at Rick Warren's presidential forum on same-sex marriage:

When asked to define marriage, he told Warren, "It's a union between a man and a woman."

"For me as a Christian, it is a sacred union. God's in the mix," he said.

Obama added that he does support same-sex civil unions, saying, "I can afford those civil rights to others even if I don't have ... that view."

Well, we already knew that he wasn't in favor of same-sex marriage. But does he have to parrot the extreme-right's rhetoric on that subject?

I would argue that he doesn't, that saying that it's a "sacred union" between "a man and a woman" isn't doing anything more than entrenching homophobia. Anyone who cares enough about same-sex marriage to vote on it is already a Republican and making a statement like that won't attract any voters.

What it does do is legitimize the views that:


  1. policy works best when it follows one person's abstract understanding of their faith, one that not everyone adheres to,

  2. the government should be and is in the business of officiating sacred unions,

  3. love between two men or two women does not meet the criteria for sacred, and

  4. being homophobic, gay, an ally, or just not caring are all on the same moral plane (coming from his last comment there).


Personally, I don't even see how he could say that civil marriage is a gender-based institution after laws that discriminated based on gender (at least on paper) were banned by the Supreme Court several decades ago. It's simply not, as a matter of law, something that has to do with gender, and the "one man, one woman" argument is pretty much all that the Religious Right has. Remember this?

What Obama saying all of these things does do is put them further in the center of American political discourse. It's not that extreme if both the Democratic and Republican nominee for president agree on it.

They moved on to the religion test, you know, the one test for high office that is specifically banned in the Constitution. Check it out:

Warren: NOW YOU'VE MADE NO DOUBT ABOUT YOUR FAITH IN JESUS CHRIST. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU? WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU TO TRUST IN CHRIST AND WHAT DOES IT MEAN ON A DAILY BASIS? I MEAN, WHAT DOES THAT REALLY LOOK LIKE?

Obama: AS A STARTING POINT, IT MEANS I BELIEVE IN THAT JESUS CHRIST DIED FOR MY SINS AND THAT I AM REDEEMED THROUGH HIM. THAT IS A SOURCE OF STRENGTH AND SUSTENANCE ON A DAILY BASIS. I KNOW THAT I DON'T WALK ALONE, AND I KNOW THAT IF I CAN GET MYSELF OUT OF THE WAY, THAT I CAN MAYBE CARRY OUT IN SOME SMALL WAY WHAT HE INTENDS. AND IT MEANS THAT THOSE SINS THAT I HAVE ON A FAIRLY REGULAR BASIS HOPEFULLY WILL BE WASHED AWAY.

BUT WHAT IT ALSO MEANS, I THINK, IS A SENSE OF OBLIGATION TO EMBRACE NOT JUST WORDS BUT THROUGH DEEDS THE EXPECTATIONS THAT GOD HAS FOR US. AND THAT MEANS THINKING ABOUT THE LEAST OF THESE. IT MEANS ACTING -- WELL, ACTING JUSTLY AND LOVING MERCY AND WALKING HUMBLY WITH OUR GOD. AND THAT, I THINK TRYING TO APPLY THOSE LESSONS ON A DAILY BASIS KNOWING THAT YOU ARE GOING TO FALL A LITTLE BIT SHORT EACH DAY AND KIND OF TRYING TO BE ABLE TO TAKE NOTE AND SAY, WELL, THAT DIDN'T QUITE WORK OUT THE WAY I THINK IT SHOULD HAVE BUT MAYBE I CAN GET A LITTLE BIT BETTER.

IT GIVES ME THE CONFIDENCE TO TRY THINGS INCLUDING THINGS LIKE RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT WHERE ARE YOU GOING TO SCREW UP ONCE IN A WHILE.[...]

Warren: FIRST, YOU'VE MADE NO DOUBT ABOUT THE FACT THAT YOU ARE A CHRISTIAN. YOU PUBLICLY SAY YOU ARE A FOLLOWER OF CHRIST. WHAT DOES THAT MEAN TO YOU AND HOW DOES FAITH WORK OUT IN YOUR LIFE ON A DAILY BASIS? WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO YOU?

McCain: MEANS I'M SAVED AND FOREGIVEN AND WE'RE TALKING ABOUT THE WORLD. OUR FAITH ENCOMPASSES NOT JUST THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA BUT THE WORLD. CAN I TELL YOU ANOTHER STORY REAL QUICK?

Warren: SURE.

McCain: VIETNAMESE KEPT US IN PRISON IN CONDITIONS OF SOLITAIRY CONFINEMENT FOR TWO OR THREE TO A CELL. THEY DID THAT BECAUSE THEY KNEW THEY COULD BREAK DOWN OUR RESISTANCE. ONE OF THE TECHNIQUES THAT THEY USED TO GET INFORMATION WAS TO TAKE ROPES AND TIE THEM AROUND YOUR BICEPS, PULL YOUR BICEPS BEHIND YOU, LOOP THE ROPE AROUND YOUR HEAD, PULL YOUR HEAD DOWN BETWEEN YOUR KNEES AND LEAVE YOU IN THAT POSITION. YOU CAN MANAGE, IT'S VERY UNCOMFORTABLE. ONE NIGHT I WAS BEING PUNISHED IN THAT FASHION. ALL OF A SUDDEN THE DOOR OF THE CELL OPENED, THE GUARD CAME IN, A GUY WHO WAS JUST WHAT WE CALL A GUN GUARD. HE JUST WALKED AROUND THE CAMP WITH A GUN ON HIS SHOULDER. HE WENT LIKE THIS AND THEN HE LOOSENED THE ROPES. HE CAME BACK ABOUT FOUR HOURS LATER, HE TIGHTENED THEM UP AGAIN AND LEFT. THE FOLLOWING CHRISTMAS, BECAUSE IT WAS CHRISTMAS DAY, WE WERE ALLOWED TO STAND OUTSIDE OF OUR CELL FOR A FEW MINUTES, AND THOSE DAYS WE WERE NOT ALLOWED TO SEE OR COMMUNICATE WITH EACH OTHER ALTHOUGH WE CERTAINLY DID. AND I WAS STANDING OUTSIDE FOR MY FEW MINUTES, OUTSIDE MY CELL. HE CAME WALKING UP. HE STOOD THERE FOR A MINUTE AND WITH HIS HANDLE ON THE DIRT IN THE COURTYARD HE DREW A CROSS AND HE STOOD THERE AND A MINUTE LATER, HE RUBBED IT OUT AND WALKED AWAY. FOR A MINUTE THERE, THERE WAS JUST TWO CHRISTIANS WORSHIPPING TOGETHER.

I'm not going to criticize them for answering the question, but I can't help but wonder what a Jewish candidate for president would have answered. Or how about a Muslim? An atheist? A Buddhist? A Hindu? A follower of a Native American Religion?

Of course, they wouldn't give the same sort of answer that either Obama or McCain did. And people wouldn't respond the same way. Even assuming that the Jewish person's (or Muslim's, or atheist's, etc.) campaign had extensively researched and prepared for questions of faith, there's no way that they would give the "right" answer.

It's the same as the tests of whiteness that are being set up here, many of them far too subtle to be called out in an open-forum without getting labeled as shrill, overly sensitive, and paranoid, all to derail the idea that Obama could be a president. In the same way, asking the candidates to talk about their relationship to Jesus constantly, and buying into it as a test to see who'd be the better president (because something completely unprovable like a relationship with Christ is exactly the type of thing that politicians would never lie about), is really just setting us up for both policy failure and discrimination. It's not what we're supposed to be about, but, here, in front of the whole world, Obama and McCain pretty much agreed that we were.

And I also think it's bad calculus. There are people out there who are turned off by the religion tests and the linking of public policy to the Bible, and many more who don't care about it one way or the other.

Since 1991, the number of unchurched has nearly doubled from 39 million to 75 million, according to The Barna Group, a company that follows trends related to faith, culture and leadership in America.

The latest study shows that the percentage of adults that is unchurched - defined as not having attended a Christian church service, other than for a holiday service, such as Christmas or Easter, or for special events such as a wedding or funeral, at any time in the past six months - has risen from 21 percent in 1991 to 34 percent today...

The unchurched are also younger (median age: 38) than most U.S. adults (median age: 43). Born-again adults are substantially older than either group (median age: 46).

While one-quarter (26 percent) of American adults are single-never-married, nearly two-fifths(37 percent) of the unchurched fit that definition.

The study revealed that the unchurched are also less likely to participate in elections, less likely to donate to non-profit organizations, and less likely to use media or to engage in community activities.

"The unchurched are more likely than others to be somewhat isolated from the mainstream activities of the society in which they live," said director of the study, author and researcher, George Barna.

Barna also described the group as "non-committal" and "independent." He noted that to unchurched people, embracing church life is "both counter-cultural and counter-intuitive."

"Unchurched people are not just lazy or uniformed," the researcher continued. "They are wholly disinterested in church life -- often passionately so.

75 million people is no tiny voting block - elections are won with those numbers. But they're less likely to turn out, and I'm guessing a big part of it is that they're completely turned off by spectacles like the one we saw Saturday night.


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Careful, Alex. You're using Barna research group data!

Anyway, in context, Obama's not parroting a right-wing argument, but just demonstrating a deft understanding of theology and how it can be deployed towards progressive ends.

Dude knows what he's doing with theology.

It's a "sacred union," and that's why gays can't participate? It's "between a man and a woman"? I'll agree that that's deft, but for the right, not the left.

"Defining" marriage as a heterosexual institution is the only argument left for the Religious Right to use against same-sex marriage. And it means nothing other than "It's always been that way, so it always should be that way." It's ahistorical and lame, but it catches on for people who just don't like the idea of two dudes marrying.

The thing is that since it's based on absolutely nothing, there's no room for argument or debate, making it the exact opposite of deft for the left, since nothing can squeeze in later. It just sits there like a big matzo ball.

What's the issue with the data?

Tactics depend on what you think the best strategy for achieving equality is.

We are faced with a large population of people who 1) think homosexuality is categorically "wrong" and 2) think it's destructive to give gay people any degree of civil equality.

Is it easier to convince people that they're wrong about assertion #1 or assertion #2? Well, you can't really argue with #1, because as you say, it's a matzo ball. So you argue #2. Which Obama does, consistently.

Obama never says gays can't participate because it's a sacred union. He was making a separate point about marriage being sacred when Warren interrupted him with a question about a constitutional amendment.

Here's the section about same-sex marriage:

Warren: DEFINE MARRIAGE.

Obama: I BELIEVE THAT MARRIAGE IS THE UNION BETWEEN A MAN AND A WOMAN. NOW FOR ME AS A CHRISTIAN -- FOR ME -- FOR ME AS A CHRISTIAN IT'S ALSO A SACRED UNION. GOD'S IN THE MIX. BUT --

Warren: WOULD YOU SUPPORT A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT WITH THAT DEFINITION?

Obama: NO, I WOULD NOT.

Warren: WHY NOT?

Obama: BECAUSE HISTORICALLY -- BECAUSE HISTORICALLY WE HAVE NOT DEFINED MARRIAGE IN OUR CONSTITUTION. IT'S BEEN A MATTER OF STATE LAW THAT HAS BEEN OUR TRADITION.

LET'S BREAK IT DOWN. THE REASON THAT PEOPLE THINK THERE NEEDS TO BE A CONSTITUTIONAL AMENDMENT, SOME PEOPLE BELIEVE, IS BECAUSE OF THE CONCERN THAT ABOUT SAME SEX MARRIAGE.

I AM NOT SOMEBODY WHO PROMOTES SAME SEX MARRIAGE BUT I DO BELIEVE IN CIVIL UNIONS. I DO BELIEVE THAT WE SHOULD NOT -- THAT FOR A GAY PARTNERS TO WANT TO VISIT EACH OTHER IN THE HOSPITAL FOR THE STATE TO SAY YOU KNOW WHAT THAT'S ALL RIGHT, I DON'T THINK IN ANY WAY INHIBITS MY CORE BELIEFS ABOUT WHAT MARRIAGE ARE. I THINK MY FAITH IS STRONG ENOUGH AND MY MARRIAGE IS STRONG ENOUGH THAT I CAN AFFORD THOSE CIVIL RIGHTS TO OTHERS EVEN IF I HAVE A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE OR A DIFFERENT VIEW.

The matzo ball I was referring to was the "marriage is" argument, which is basically fear of change put into something that sounds like it makes sense.

I think your interpretation of that "sacred union" line is incorrect, since he said it before he was interrupted. It's his direct justification for the "between a man and a woman" line.

I think your interpretation of that "sacred union" line is incorrect, since he said it before he was interrupted. It's his direct justification for the "between a man and a woman" line.

I don't think so--this would depart substatially from the way he usually frames it. He was systematically going through the different parts of his definition of marriage. Hence the word "also." Note the "but" as well, a preparation to qualify his christian belief with his usual church/state stance, before the interruption.

oh the problem with barna data, is that they're a religious org dedicated to the idea that "christianity is dying! the church is doomed unless you follow our advice i.e. buy our books" so they construct all their studies to support their theses.

obama is so very stealth, isn't he?

his progressive ends may just end up matching his shadowy theology.

Bill Clinton II.

There is no reason to think otherwise. History speaks louder than words.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 19, 2008 8:07 PM

Thanks for posting this, Alex!

I've been extremely put-off by Obama's dog whistles to the Evangelicals, as evidenced by his agreeing to appear at the pseudo-debate last week in Southern California and by his answers to questions on faith, marriage, choice, and other issues of concern to the Relgious Right.

I'm old enough to remember the days when political candidates weren't required to prove they'd "accepted JC as their personal savior," in order to have a chance at the presidency.

You ask, but I can't help but wonder what a Jewish candidate for president would have answered. Or how about a Muslim? An atheist? A Buddhist? A Hindu? A follower of a Native American Religion?" Given the influence of the Religious Right, which is way beyond their numbers in the voting population, non-Christian candidates don't have a chance to win even their party's nomination in today's America.

Honestly, it makes me want to run screaming from the country back to the EU.

Y'know, I support equal marriage rights because it appears that that is the direction where true equality lies ... however, it is a form of legalistic shorthand, and sometimes I wonder.

What I really want is simply: (1) equal taxation, (2) equal inheritance rights, (3) equal government benefits, (4) my relationship (if I ever have one again) recognized in all other ways required and appropriate by civil concerns.

Whether it is called marriage or not ... well, I understand the "separate and unequal" arguments, but I really still don't give a rat's ass what my rights are called, or what the umbrella thay fit under is labelled ... call them whatever you want, but just acknowledge that I have them and rightfully so.

Robert Ganshorn Robert Ganshorn | August 20, 2008 2:05 AM

Having left the country screaming for personal liberty I pine for the days when private lives and core believes of candidates were private.

Warren's church is a phenom because of it's size at 20,000 members. In his followup interview on Larry King he showed himself as being far from the right wing Jerry Falwellesque hater

I am personally acquainted with many happy same sex couples with reciprocal powers of attorney. I am also acquainted with many dissatisfied heterosexual married couples who remain with one another for all the wrong reasons. Relationships are only what individuals make them.

Legal recognition of same sex relationships hinges on us asking the fundies one question:

"Why don't you like our children?"

Saddleback (from what I have seen about their inclusiveness, HIV AIDS outreach, and Gay membership would not care about comprehensive human rights and full equal protection under the law for GLBT persons. We are letting a word dominate a discussion when we should want a new outlook of what it takes to be happy.

We should not be in the position of saying to one another:

"I married you didn't I? Aren't you happy yet?"

This was bad enough:

"It's a union between a man and a woman."

We've spoken about other ways he can say the same thing without repeating far right talking points. But this tops it all:

"For me as a Christian, it is a sacred union. God's in the mix."

Because, you know, when those fucking queers starting getting married, their unions aren't sacred. They're depraved. No God in the "mix."

Bah.

Furthermore...if it is a sacred union and Gawd is in the mix, then why is anyone allowed to divorce?

Doesn't that take Gawd out of the mix?

Why do same-sex couples have to adhere to a higher moral standard than different sex couples?

WE have to make Gawd happy, but they don't have to?

Could someone please ask Obama/McCain about that obvious bullshit, please? Is that too logical of a question to ask or what?

No matter what anyone's philosophy on marriage and/or relationships might be, that contradictory bit of dishonest discourse should not be allowed to pass.

DOMA is unconstitutional. It doesn't take an attorney to understand that.

I think Patrick has it right when he sums up Obama as Bill II (or maybe Hillary II). When Obama and the rest all say they favor civil unions and equal rights, why isn't anyone asking follow-up questions? Such as, OK, you say you favor equality for same-sex couples. What will you do to revamp Social Security so that gay people who support a partner and/or a child will be able to die peacefully knowing SS will provide their survivors some benefits? Let's get some specifics on the record instead of letting the candidates off with vague generalities about their belief system, God "in the mix," blah, blah, blah

It's really scary for me to think that you can have a leader of a mega church and two presidential candidates on stage and not one of them know from a biblical standpoint a union between one man and a woman is a covenant with god.Covenant not marriage is the proper term to use from a christian standpoint.It should also be pointed out that this fight against gay marriage is also about the inability of the church to hold those men and women who entered into Covenants from breaking them.Divorce rates are above fifty percent and I find it ironic that the majority of people I know that are against gay marriage have been divorced themselves.The church realizes that if it were to try and hold those couples responsible at the church level it would only increase the flow of people leaving the church.By putting it out at the state and federal level as opposition to gay marriage it covers their true intentions which is to hold everyone accountable to their religious values Christian,Hebrew,Muslim,Gay etc.

Brynn Craffey Brynn Craffey | August 20, 2008 10:44 AM

Whether it is called marriage or not ...

A.J., unfortunately what it is called matters. Marriage encompasses so many substantive legal rights (and less substantive societal supports) that it is difficult and expensive to try and recreate them through an ad-hoc means, such as hiring an attorney to write up and file all the paperwork.

Likewise, there is no way to hire an attorney to give you the tax breaks that accompany marriage. Nor the social security protections.

Bottom line: as long as we live in a society where marriage guarantees a range of rights and privileges, to deny marriage (and thereby those associated rights and privileges) to an entire class of people is outright discrimination. To do it on so-called religious grounds violates not only Christian decency but the separation of church and state.