Even If It’s Wrong: Barack Obama, Religious Faith, and Same-Sex Marriage

There was this piece about Barack Obama in the New Yorker a couple of weeks ago. And it had a comment in it — about both same-sex marriage and religious faith — that chilled me to the bone.

“If there’s a deep moral conviction that gay marriage is wrong, if a majority of Americans believe on principle that marriage is an institution for men and women, I’m not at all sure he shares that view, but he’s not an in-your-face type,” Cass Sunstein, a colleague of Obama’s at the University of Chicago, says. “To go in the face of people with religious convictions — that’s something he’d be very reluctant to do.” This is not, Sunstein believes, due only to pragmatism; it also stems from a sense —

and here comes the kicker, people —

that there is something worthy of respect in a strong and widespread moral feeling, even if it’s wrong.”

I’m trying to think of the best way to put this:

No, there isn’t.

No, no, no, no, no.

A wrong moral feeling is not — repeat, NOT — made worthy of respect by being either strong or widespread.

I don’t just think this idea is wrong. I think it’s dangerously wrong. I think this idea — that even if a belief is wrong, if a lot of people share it and hold it passionately then it has somehow earned gravitas and respect — this is among the most destructive ideas that human beings have come up with.

Why? Because it is essentially a self-perpetuation machine for bad ideas.

Do I even need to explain this? Think of all the evil, harmful things in human history that have been supported by a strong and widespread moral feeling. Slavery. Clitoridectomy. Imperialist wars. Religious wars. The disenfranchisement of women. The censoring of information, and active disinformation campaigns, about birth control and sexual health. The Salem witch trials. The Inquisition. Genocides ranging from the Trail of Tears to the Holocaust. Lynchings. Putting queers in jails and mental institutions. Do I need to go on?

And every one of these events and institutions was made stronger and more durable by this “worthy of respect” idea — everyone else thinks it’s okay, so how bad could it really be?

The idea that a strong and widespread moral feeling deserves respect, even if it’s wrong… it’s morality by mob rule, by popularity contest. It’s an idea that enables people to not think about what’s right and wrong in the world, but instead to let everyone else think for them. It’s an idea that makes it possible to not question received wisdom, even if that wisdom is blatantly contradicted by the reality around you. It’s an idea that makes people vulnerable to skillful demagogues who are experts at manipulating strong feelings and fears — especially the fear of being left out, of not being part of the group.

And it’s one of the more troubling aspects of religious faith — the idea that holding strong, passionate religious beliefs is by itself a good thing, regardless of what those beliefs are, regardless of whether they’re demonstrably untrue or demonstrably harmful. The idea that being a “person of faith” is an admirable trait, one you have to give at least grudging respect to… even if you find that person’s actual faith itself to be bigoted, evil, stupid, and/or insane. The idea that a lot of people believing the same thing together at the same time is a beautiful thing — regardless of whether the thing they believe is in any way based in reality. (BTW, before everyone writes in — yes, I understand that this isn’t the only way to be religious. But it’s a depressingly common one. And I think the “faith ultimately trumps evidence” nature of religion makes it unusually susceptible to this way of thinking.)

And I don’t want a President who thinks that. That’s what we had with Bill Clinton — a weathervane President who was unable to take an unpopular moral stand, on same-sex marriage and about a billion other issues. And as much as I would give ten years off my life to have Bill Clinton be President again right now (how depressing is that?), as much as he’s pretty much been the best President of my conscious lifetime (and how depressing is THAT?), I sure as heck wouldn’t vote for him in a primary, and I don’t want another President like him.

Because the upshot is this: Ingrid and I want to get married. Legally. But a whole lot of people have a strong feeling that it’s wrong — and that feeling is supposedly deserving of respect. Even though that feeling is based on ignorance. Even though that feeling is based on hatred and fear. Even though that feeling is being manipulated and taken advantage of by corrupt, power-hungry frauds. Even though that feeling completely disrespects us. We’re still supposed to respect it.

And I say yet again: No.

No, no, no, no, no.

Fuck that. We have to do nothing of the kind.

(P.S. Yes, I’m aware of the fact that these are not Obama’s own words — they’re the words of a colleague describing her his understanding of his ideas. But it’s a colleague who seems to understand him very well. And given the positions he’s publicly taken on same-sex marriage (he supports same-sex civil unions, but opposes same-sex marriage because “marriage is a religious bond”), it seems pretty damn plausible that “worthy of respect even if it’s wrong” is an accurate representation of his position on religious homophobia.)

Even If It’s Wrong: Barack Obama, Religious Faith, and Same-Sex Marriage
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26 thoughts on “Even If It’s Wrong: Barack Obama, Religious Faith, and Same-Sex Marriage

  1. 1

    Now this interesting!
    The quote is from Cass Sunstein, who I remember from the 1990s as being one of the strongest academic defenders of Catherine MacKinnon’s views on speech and pornography.
    I guess that’s not surprising considering the guy’s apparent belief in moralism for moralism’s sake.

  2. 2

    Yup, IACB beat me to it….that was the first thought that came to my mind when I saw that name.
    Funny that if this does reflect O-Bomb-a’s fundamental position, then why doesn’t he extend his apparant belief in “moralism” to…gee, I don’t know…bombing Iran??? But, I guess that since that is as much a popular “moralistic” sentiment as opposing gay marriage, that would be totally consistent with his pandering to popular right-wing “morality”, too.
    Read my lips, Mr. Obama: Bigotry and hate deserves NO respect. Not even if 99.999% of the public agree with it.
    And this is the most “liberal” Democrat nominee saying this crap?? Makes me glad I’m an Independent.
    Great rant as usual, Greta.

  3. 3

    There are lots of other valid ways of waffling, but a bad idea is a bad idea.
    I can respect a politician who says that they’re not willing to go to the wall for a particular principle. There are lots of problems with the world, and one has to pick and choose one’s fights.
    I support gay marriage, but if I had one wish and had to choose between permanently enabling same-sex marriage and permanently disabling “extraordinary rendition”, I know which I think is the more dangerous injustice.
    Heck, I regret the way Clinton blew a huge chunk of political capital fighting for gays in the military. He might have got his health care reforms through if not for those bruises.
    Or how about “I think we need to do a little consciousness-raising before the country is ready for that.”
    Something can be a necessity because of overwhelming popular support, but that still doesn’t make it right.

  4. 5

    Here’s an interesting counterpoint from DailyKos.
    A retelling of a guy’s recent trip to visit Republican in-laws.
    The telling quote from a conversation is this
    “”You know, it’s tough. Usually I vote on moral issues–and so does my family. You can tell someone’s character from the stand they take on those things. But at the same time, I think we’ve seen that no matter what you believe in morally, it doesn’t really matter very much to what happens in the country. My family has talked a lot about this. We really need people who are going to make the right decisions, no matter what they believe personally. So I’d still definitely have to say I would vote for the person who says they’ll stop the war.””
    Not all religious people are blinded by that faith. I think to imply that religious people leave their minds at the door is to do them a grave dis-service

  5. 6

    “I think to imply that religious people leave their minds at the door is to do them a grave dis-service.”
    I didn’t imply that. In fact, I made a special point of saying, quote, “I understand that this isn’t the only way to be religious.”
    What I said was that (a) the idea that “a strong or widespread moral feeling is automatically worthy of respect” is very common in religious beliefs, and (b) that there are aspects of religion that make it more susceptible to that way of thinking. I said it was common. I didn’t say it was universal.

  6. 8

    This is what worries me about Obama. He’s not really black.
    What do I mean by that? Sure, he’s of African descent, and he now lives in America, but that doesn’t make him an African American in the most meaningful sense.
    He never had an ancestor who was a slave. He never had a relative who was lynched or had a cross burned in their yard. I have no doubt that he’s been discriminated against for the color of his skin or been a target of racial epithets–you can’t live in this country for a day without that happening, even in our current “enlightened” age–but when it comes down to really experiencing the full-blown savage terror of ignorant white racist stupidity, I think he has about as much insight into that as someone who just landed here from Mars. Otherwise he might understand why there is actually nothing at all worthy of respect about prejudice–religious, racial or otherwise–no matter how strong or widespread it is.

  7. 9

    I really find statements that Obama “isn’t really black” to be incredibly problematic.
    I mean, so what if his African ancestry is recent. He grew up in the United States as someone who is visibly black and I assume was treated as such in the larger society. Its not like most of the people he would have encountered in day-to-day life would check up on his ancestry – somehow treat a Kenyan-American any different from an old-stock African-American.
    Of course, he did grow up in Hawaii (at least, until he went to college), where race issues are more about haoles vs locals than white vs black vs brown. In some ways Hawaii has ideas about race that are almost more Brazilian than American. But still “landed here from Mars” – that’s a wee bit of an exaggeration.
    As for what prejudices he may or may not have on gay rights issues. First, its not at all clear that Obama shares Cass Sunstein’s prejudices – all that proves is that Cass Sunstein is a fool, something I knew 15 years ago when he was defending MacKinnon’s nonsense on pornography. Second, if those are in fact Obama’s attitudes about prejudice, then he wouldn’t be the first person to experience prejudice and not apply those lessons to how they treat others. The world is full of people like that (Sunstein’s friend Kitty MacKinnon, for starters). It has nothing to do with Obama’s not being “really black”.

  8. 10

    Have to agree with IACB on the whole “is Obama black?”. Besides which even if Obama isn’t “black” (not that this should be a reason for picking a president) I think most of the country would agree he is blacker than any other major candidate. But again I don’t even really see the point in the distinction, it isn’t how we should be picking a president. I think it is a distraction for the democrats to be worried about. Luckily, the republicans are tying themselves in knots trying to decide it Mit Romney is a “real” christian.

  9. 11

    What bothers me about Obama is that he is perfectly willing to say that when it comes to reproductive rights, he can set aside his personal religious views and support a woman’s right to choose, but when it comes to same sex marriage, he claims that his religious views keep him from supporting it. It sounds to me that one is just more politically expedient than the other. Which is crap.

  10. 12

    You make an excellent point, and while I never used your example, it touches on my concern: does Obama really understand how these issues impact their respective communities?
    Obviously he has no insight into how dehumanizing it is to be told you can’t marry because the love you feel for your partner isn’t legitimate, but I have to wonder if he really appreciates how it would feel to be compelled to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term.
    I have to suspect that he’s just looking at the numbers and making a calculation that he can afford to ignore the basic human rights of one group, but he won’t get elected does so to a larger group.
    And this lead me back to what I said about Obama’s blackness.
    Can black America trust him to truly empathize with them?
    He can’t look back on his ancestry to find ancestors who were slaves or poor sharecroppers terrorized by the Klan. He has no memory of “whites only” signs in the Jim Crow south. His memories are of a childhood spent in Hawaii and Jakarta, and of the divorce and subsequent tragic deaths of his parents.
    So I have to wonder if he really has the insight to act in the best interest of black America or if he will do so only when it is politically expedient.

  11. 13

    “He has no memory of “whites only” signs in the Jim Crow south.”
    Neither do most other African-Americans born after 1960.
    Culture is more than just direct ancestry.

  12. 14

    “Culture is more than just direct ancestry.”
    And Black is more than a color.
    What, other than the color of his skin, does Obama really have in common with Black Americans?
    I’d really like to know. I’m sorry, but I’m beginning to think that the claims that Obama is just as black as anyone else sound just a little bit like racism to me.

  13. 15

    “What, other than the color of his skin, does Obama really have in common with Black Americans?”
    Not speaking from experience here, obviously. But offhand, I’d have to guess: The experience of being treated as if he were Black — i.e., in the same racist manner — by the non-Black world.
    I get that the experience of being descended from slaves is different in many ways from being an American of African descent who isn’t descended from slaves. But I also think that the question of just how important that difference is, given that the racist world treats both groups pretty much the same, is one on which reasonable people can disagree. (BTW, I’ve seen writing by smart, thoughtful African Americans on both sides of this debate.)
    And honestly, I’m not sure what it has to do with the question at hand. It’s not as if slave-descended African-Americans can’t be clueless fucking idiots about oppression. Condoleeza Rice leaps to mind, as does Clarence Thomas.
    I really don’t agree that the reason Obama doesn’t support same-sex marriage is that he’s not descended from slaves and therefore isn’t sensitive about oppression. I’m not even sure it has anything to do with this bullshit about there being something worthy of respect about a strong, widespread, wrong moral conviction. I think he most likely doesn’t support same-sex marriage for the same reason that the other Demo candidates don’t — because he wants to be President, and he doesn’t think supporting same-sex marriage will fly politically.

  14. 16

    You know, if I was reading a conversation among straight people about whether I was “really queer,” I’d be kind of pissed off. Hell, I WAS pretty damn pissed off back in the day when QUEERS discussed if I was “really queer.”
    In fact, I am irritated by any pretense to knowing whether someone else is “really” something (black, queer, female, fat, jewish, etc.) by which they identify themselves. When it comes right down to it, these are their identities and I believe in letting people label themselves.
    In addition, I have NEVER found the argument that “you should be more willing to oppose my oppression because of your own” to be productive. I’m not sure why it isn’t, but I’ve never seen any good come of it, just a “how dare you assume your oppression is like mine” resentment.
    Obama should support same-sex marriage because it is the right, fair, courageous and just thing to do. Oddly enough, I truly believe that these are the reasons that led Gavin Newsom to legalize same-sex marriage in San Francisco — and he’s rich, straight and white.
    Discuss 🙂

  15. 18

    “Not speaking from experience here, obviously. But offhand, I’d have to guess: The experience of being treated as if he were Black — i.e., in the same racist manner — by the non-Black world.”
    And when he was treated that way, did he have a parent to talk to about it who understood racism in America its historical context? Remember, he wouldn’t have experience American racism until he was in college. He was raised in Hawaii and Indonesia, The issues he was dealing with were mainly about being multicultural. He really has no experience with being raised as a black person in America, and by claiming he is a part of that culture, he, and others who accept that claim, are equating culture with race.
    The relevance to the question at hand is that Obama might be less willing to accept the notion that widespread, deeply held, morally wrong beliefs are worth of respect if he were more intimately aware of how widespread and deeply help the belief in the natural inferiority of blacks was in this country. It’s probably still a widespread, deeply held belief in America that only straight, white, Christian men should be president. I wonder if he respects that.

  16. 19

    “The relevance to the question at hand is that Obama might be less willing to accept the notion that widespread, deeply held, morally wrong beliefs are worth of respect if he were more intimately aware of how widespread and deeply help the belief in the natural inferiority of blacks was in this country.”
    And how does that explain Condoleeza Rice? Clarence Thomas? Michael Jordan shilling for Nike when he knows their products are made by what is essentially slave labor? Do I need to go on? Do you want a longer list?
    Or to move it outside of race for a moment: Margaret Thatcher? Ann Coulter? The Log Cabin Republicans?
    I really wish I could believe that growing up with an intimate, personal experience of oppression would teach people about how it worked and why not to do it. But the evidence, alas, is against it.
    And I’m extremely reluctant to speak for Obama and say what his experience growing up was or was not like, or how it did or did not shape him.
    And like Rebecca, I’m reluctant to tell other people what their central, personal identity labels should and should not be. (Example: I don’t like it when people tell me I shouldn’t call myself a dyke because I’m bisexual and not a pure Kinsey 6.)
    Speaking of which, I don’t agree with the “creationists calling themselves biologists” analogy. For one thing, “biologist” isn’t an emotional, personal, self-identity word with widely varying definitions. But more to the point, creationists call themselves biologists in order to deceive. They distort facts, conceal facts, ignore facts they don’t like, even even outright lie, to convince people of their position. It’s not like Obama is lying or trying to deceive anyone about his upbringing, any more than I’m trying to deceive anyone about my bisexuality when I call myself a dyke.

  17. 20

    “And how does that explain Condoleeza Rice? Clarence Thomas? Michael Jordan shilling for Nike when he knows their products are made by what is essentially slave labor? Do I need to go on? Do you want a longer list?”
    Does it have to explain them? I’m really puzzled by this question. I’m just trying to tell you what I think Obama’s problem is–why he doesn’t seem to get it that a prejudice, even a widespread and deeply held prejudice, is just a prejudice.
    I wasn’t proposing a general theory to explain every case of an American of African descent being a disgraceful conservative toady or, heaven forbid, a successful athlete who gives generously of his time, money and celebrity, and I’m not going to, because that would be racist.
    I really don’t get where you’re going with the other list, or what this has to do with your sexual identity.
    What this is about is a politician who is playing the race card because he thinks it is a good move politically. It’s not “an emotional, personal, self-identity word” in Obama’s case. It’s about as genuine as his claim that he’s a liberal. It IS EXACTLY “like Obama is lying or trying to deceive anyone about his upbringing.”
    You need to be wary of how people label themselves in the political arena. I seem to recall one politician who called himself a “compassionate conservative.” Turns out he was neither. I do care about how people label themselves.

  18. 21

    BF, the reason I keep bringing up Condoleeza Rice and Clarence Thomas is as a counter-example. It seems that you’re saying — and please correct me if I’m wrong — that the reason Obama doesn’t get it about same-sex marriage is that he didn’t have the oppressive experience of growing up as a slave-descended black person in racist America. My point with Rice and Thomas is that growing up oppressed — and specifically growing up as a slave-descended African American — is absolutely no guarantee that you won’t be a big idiot about prejudice, or that you won’t turn around and oppress other people.
    (And, as Rebecca pointed out with her Gavin Newsom counter-example, growing up ridiculously privileged is no guarantee that you will.)
    I bring up my sexual identity to draw a parallel. I’ve repeatedly had the experience of having other people tell me what my identity is and is not. I’ve been told that I’m not “really” a dyke; not “really” bisexual; not “really” a feminist. I’ve been very condescendingly told that I AM “really” a femme, despite the fact that that’s a label I don’t really even understand, much less identify with. And often (generally with the words “lesbian” or “dyke”), that criticism has come from a “growing up the way I did was much more oppressive than growing up the way you did, therefore you don’t get to use the label I use” place.
    And it ticks me off. It ticks me off when it’s done to me, and it ticks me off when it’s done to other people. I get ticked off when male-to-female transsexuals get told that they aren’t “really” women because they didn’t have the experience of growing up female in a sexist society — and when people say that Obama isn’t “really” black because of how he grew up, it ticks me off in the same way.
    Goodness knows I’m not trying to convince you to like Obama. The whole point of this post is that I have a serious problem with him. I’m not even trying to convince you that he’s more sincere generally than anyone else who wants to be President. If the New Yorker article is accurate, even his religious practices come less from a sincere spiritual faith and more from a desire to belong. Great. Another Bill Clinton who wants more than anything else for everybody to like him. Just what we need. (My point about him not lying wasn’t that he isn’t generally deceptive; just that he doesn’t actually, literally lie about his parents and his upbringing, in the way that creationists actually, literally lie about intelligent design not being about religion.)
    And I’m not even trying to argue that Obama’s experience with race and racism isn’t substantially different from that of Al Sharpton, Michael Jordan, Barbara Lee, Queen Latifah, Levar Burton, Jocelyn Elders, Ron Dellums, and other African-Americans descended from slaves. (Of course, all of their experiences are all different from each other’s… which is kind of my point.)
    My point is just this: I don’t know why Obama calls himself black, and I don’t think you do, either. And in the absence of any actual strong evidence that his self-identification as black isn’t genuine, I am strongly inclined to let him call himself whatever the heck he wants.
    (BTW: Just to clarify, I don’t have any problem at all with Michael Jordan being rich and famous and successful. I just don’t like him shilling for Nike. I don’t like anyone shilling for Nike. Nike is evil.)

  19. 22

    “My point with Rice and Thomas is that growing up oppressed — and specifically growing up as a slave-descended African American — is absolutely no guarantee that you won’t be a big idiot about prejudice, or that you won’t turn around and oppress other people.”
    I never said it was a guarantee. I think it would be stupid to say there are any guarantees at all about human behavior. I’m just trying to shed some light on this particular human’s attitudes.
    I know a lot of African-American men who are descendants of slaves and did grow up living with oppression and speak very eloquently on the evils of racism and are very active in the politics of liberation and racial equality, yet who are total Neanderthals when it comes to gender equality, and outright screaming hate-mongers when it comes to gay rights–and, by the way, I think these people are better counterexamples–but their bigotry comes from a whole different place.
    A lot has already been written on the problems the black community–and black men in particular–has with gay rights, so I won’t go into it here. I’d just like to point out, though, that it is profoundly different from Obama’s attitude, and this, again, separates him from the mainstream black community.

  20. 23

    I agree with you 100% that it is a dangerous mistake to assert that faith is in any way worthy of respect. Unfortunately, this perspective seems to be shared by a majority of Americans, on both sides of the political divide. I suppose it would be fair to say that this is one of the things that keeps me blogging. This view that faith is a virtue simply has to change.

  21. 24

    I found your link on Feministing. I am a straight White middle-class female – let me get that out there right now – but, even though I don’t have experience being subject to prejudice due to my race or sexuality, I still feel entitled to discuss these subjects, probably to a large extent because I recognize my own privilege and have attempted to educate myself on it. I also have unique experience for a privileged White woman: I was a single mom receiving government assistance for several years. I have heard one single mother dismiss another as less of a single mother than she is because she’s only a single mother because of divorce or accident as opposed to by choice or from the conception or birth of her child(ren). That kind of divisiveness based only on things that people really can’t help, such as not having been in as tough a sitch as the next guy, is completely non-constructive – and I suspect that it’s part of why middle-class White kids have so latched onto the commercialized version of rap and hip hop culture which celebrates the guy with the most bullet wounds as well. I LIKE that Barack Obama has experience outside the American mainstream. Growing up among a lot less racism than the rest of us has got to be good for him, and I think that it might actually help instances of racism stand out more to him than to many others. I have noticed that he’s less aware of sexuality issues than of anything else, and that’s definitely unfortunate. It’s also unfortunate that folks really can’t get elected without support from one of two pandering political parties and often self-interested (rather than truly altruistic) financial backers. Because of that – and because of so many Americans’ tendency to vote against (rather than for) a candidate based on one issue – politicians do have to be respectful of opposing views, even dumbass ones. And they do have to be willing to compromise. I see nothing wrong with Obama being prepared to do that. If you don’t put your opponents off, you’re much more likely to get compromise out of them. (If only our current administration would take that approach internationally!) But worst of all, as Cornel West points out in his (refreshingly optimistic!) DEMOCRACY MATTERS, the people who would make the best leaders usually don’t want to fill those roles. As my husband says, anyone who wants to fill an office is by virtue of that fact alone inappropriate for it. I am now entertaining the notion that I might try to get elected to a political office sometime, with the expectation of serving only one term so that I wouldn’t have to be constantly acting with keeping my job, rather than doing my job, foremost in my mind. But if someone has to have had every significant experience of each of his or her potential constituents in order to represent them, no one can ever be good enough.
    I write about Obama – and other things – more here: http://www.motherblogs.net/jessica/717/On+Maternal+Absence%3A+Inspired+by+Barack+Obama%2C+Susan+White%2C+Madeleine+McCann%2C+and+my+mom.html Please stop by, and feel free to comment. Best, j

  22. 26

    Dear americans we r now facing a severe challenge where we have a president that promised 2 unite us after winning such a close vote which was pretty much rigged due 2 unfare missconduct on the republican side and 2 appeasing maneuvering on the democratic side we need 2 get this polarising figure out of the white house including any shadow that intends to take his place we need the change which we were promised 7 years ago and so hillary is really that personality but if she sliding in polls then obamas ok

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