Obama on Same-Sex Marriage

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Barack Obama seems to hold all of the following mutually inconsistent propositions about same-sex marriage:

1. We shouldn't deny rights to same-sex couples that opposite-sex marriages have.
2. We should not recognize same-sex relationships as marriage.
3. Attempts to prevent same-sex couples from getting married denies them rights that opposite-sex marriages have.

Unless you equivocate in the meaning of some terms in those statements (and I'm not thinking of a way that he could be), there's no way they can all be consistently held. Yet he does seem to hold all of them. He's said repeatedly that he doesn't support calling same-sex civil unions 'marriage'. Yet every time anyone tries to pass a law preventing a state from using such a term for a same-sex union, he opposes it and says it denies that couple rights that equal treatment requires. He opposes the federal legislation that protects states from having to observe other states' marriages. He opposes California voters' current attempt to overturn the judicial enforcement of same-sex marriage in that state. Is this position consistent?

It's one thing to hold Senator Robert Byrd's view, which is that the government shouldn't recognize same-sex marriage but that such a view shouldn't be encoded into the U.S. Constitution. Perhaps Obama would extend the same reasoning to state constitutions, and thus he could explain his opposition to Proposition 8 in California. But that's not what he said. He said he opposes it because it denies people a basic right, which amounts to #3 above.

Obama is even opposed to an ordinary law (as opposed to a constitutional amendment) preventing the recognition of same-sex marriage in a state that doesn't want to recognize it. Basically, the law means New York doesn't have to recognize Connecticut, California, and Massachusetts same-sex marriages, even though New York currently does. Obama's justification for opposing this law? It violates basic rights. It's #3 again.

Now there's a possible position that opposes not just constitutional amendments on this issue but even laws, while still disapproving of same-sex marriage. Someone could think it's wrong to encode same-sex marriage in the laws but that it's also wrong to encode opposition to it in the laws. That's clearly not Obama's view. His view just seems to be inherently contradictory. This also doesn't seem to be a genuine change in positions, where he's just rethought the issue and changed his mind. He's been opposing these laws and amendments for a long enough time that in the meantime he's also kept saying that he opposes legal recognition of same-sex marriage.

This isn't an issue that I care all that much about, mostly because I don't have much hope that this issue will ever be handled right. I'd prefer the government stay out of calling anything marriage, and that means I agree with very few politicians on either side on the debate. But it's an enormously significant issue of our time, and I'd expect someone running for president at least to have a view that's consistent (or to have a view and consistently follow it), even if it's not exactly the view I would advocate. Obama doesn't seem to be able to articulate a clear and consistent position on the matter and then consistently follow it, and this isn't the first issue I've noticed this about.

It makes me wonder how many other issues there are where I haven't followed the discussion as closely and don't know the wider debate as well as I do this one and abortion, where his ability or willingness to formulate a clear and consistent position is even more lacking. He certainly has similar problems with gun control. For a guy who by all accounts is very smart, it's unlikely that he's as confused as his statements make him sound, which makes me wonder if he's being honest about his views.

3 Comments

Jeremy, I think you are missing something in accusing Obama of inconsistency here. You have said that "he doesn't support [X]. Yet every time anyone tries to pass a law preventing [X], he opposes it", for one particular X, and called this inconsistency. But it is not. It is one thing to personally not support X, and another to hold that it is right for X to be prohibited by law. To find examples that you might agree with, suppose that X is adultery, or expressing extreme socialist views, or practice of a non-Christian religion, or using abusive names for one's family members. I would expect you not to support any of these things. I would also expect you not to support any laws prohibiting any of these things, on the grounds that it is not for the state to interfere in personal morality, in freedom of speech, in religious practice, and in trivialities. Doesn't it make sense for Obama to count what same sex partnerships are called in one or more of these categories which the state should not intervene in? At least he can do so without being inconsistent. As another example, Obama no longer supports what Rev Jeremiah Wright has preached, but would it be inconsistent of him to oppose any law to make that kind of preaching a punishable offence?

Obama says he supports civil unions but not same-sex marriage as a civil entity. He says you won't be able to build consensus on marriage, because so many regard it as a religious institution (and he says he does himself) but that he can't condone denying the rights of legal recognition that you'd be denying if you didn't allow civil unions. It's very hard to take that as merely personal opposition when he's contrasted the two civil approaches and endorsed one over the other.

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