While a lot of people noticed Barack Obama’s religious references (mainly touting the Golden Rule as his guidepost) in his statement on same-sex marriage yesterday, Religion Dispatch‘s Sarah Posner specifically noted how it was different from earlier evocations of religion by Obama on this subject:
In 2004, Obama told a public television station in Chicago, “What I believe is that is between a man and a woman. What I believe, in my faith, is that a man and a woman, when they get married, are performing something before God, and it’s not simply the two persons who are meeting.” In 2010, he told progressive bloggers, “I have been to this point unwilling to sign on to same-sex marriage primarily because of my understandings of the traditional definitions of marriage.”
Obama didn’t just endorse same-sex marriage today. He abandoned conservative religious rhetoric about it and signaled that religious conservatives, even his close religious advisors, don’t own the conversation on what Christianity has to say about marriage.
What’s ironic about this is that in abandoning the conservative Christian take on same-sex marriage, Obama was embracing his own church tradition on the subject.
When the Obamas were last regular church members, it was, famously, a congregation of the United Church of Christ in Chicago. Like a lot of First Families, they have not joined a specific church in Washington, so I assume the UCC remains their spiritual “home.” As part of a decentralized denomination (hence the traditional name for their largest constituent element, the “Congregationalists”), many UCC churches have been performing same-sex marriages for years. But the entire denomination embraced the practice in 2005, adopting a resolution of support:
The resolution was adopted in the face of efforts to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage. It was both a theological statement and a protest against discrimination, said the Rev. John H. Thomas, the president and general minister of the denomination, which has 6,000 congregations and 1.3 million members.
Religious conservatives may scoff at the UCC (or the Episcopalians, or other mainline denominations that are, to use the buzzword, “open and affirming” to gay people). But the UCC is the country’s oldest Christian religious community, and among other things, was spearheading the fight against slavery back when many of the religious conservatives of the early nineteenth century were largely defending it as a divinely and scripturally ordained institution.
So Obama has pretty strong authority for saying there’s no conflict between his faith and support for same-sex marriage. Indeed, he’s now removed the conflict, so I would hope that conservatives who are forever demanding respect for their own religious motives for thinking the way they do will show Obama a little respect in exchange. But I’m not holding my breath.