Gay Rights and the Obama Legacy

As someone who is both broadly supportive of the Republican Party and extending marriage rights to same-sex couples, I’m in an obvious bind. Barack Obama has now staked out a remarkable position on the issue, as Pete Wehner notes.

On a substantive level: Senator Obama now opposes the Defense of Marriage Act, signed into law by President Clinton; the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy; and an effort by the citizens of California to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

The Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is obviously destructive. Good riddance. The California marriage tangle is more complex than Wehner allows — a legislative majority for same-sex marriage is not out of reach — but I see his point. As for the Defense of Marriage Act, I do wonder about how the marriage debate will evolve over time: eventually there will be a struggle for Social Security benefits, tax benefits, etc., that will last until long after, say, a third of states legalize same-sex marriage.

This reminds me of Noam Scheiber’s observation concerning Obama’s discomfort with Sister Souljah politics. So as of now, Obama has staked out a strongly Sullivanian position, yet my understanding is that he personally opposes same-sex marriage. I’d be eager to know why — does this parallel his trade rhetoric, where things get amplified and overheated in the course of a campaign?

Or Obama, like many on the secular French left, oppose same-sex marriage because it is an affront to the complementarity of the sexes? The following is from Chris Caldwell’s brilliant essay on the subject:

They may have been following the “differentialism” (an important strain of French feminism) associated with the philosopher Sylviane Agacinski, who happens to be Mr. Jospin’s wife. Ms. Agacinski has argued that the human condition cannot be understood in any universal way without reference to both sexes . This argument has been a mighty tool for left-wing reforms. It provided the intellectual underpinnings for mandating sexual parity in French legislative elections. Today, it provides the intellectual underpinnings for arguing that a marriage that lacks either a man or a woman is no marriage at all.

It is also possible that Obama’s objections to same-sex marriage are rooted in his Christian beliefs. Yet couldn’t he then support civil marriage for gays and lesbians? If not, isn’t he trying to enshrine Christian ethics in the law? And isn’t that something liberals and progressives adamantly oppose?

Somehow I don’t think the good folks at the American Constitution Society are going to be too exercised by this, but these are questions worth asking.

P.S. Julian Sanchez squares the circle, sort of. Like Julian, I think Obama’s position is perfectly coherent. Yet I am curious as to what animates his opposition to same-sex marriage.