On gay marriage, is Obama ‘imposing his religion’?

I was glad to see President Obama come out in favor of same-sex marriage last week. Don’t get me wrong—I … Continued

I was glad to see President Obama come out in favor of same-sex marriage last week. Don’t get me wrong—I oppose same-sex marriage myself. But I was glad to see the president’s new candor on display.

Throughout his administration he has acted like a supporter of same-sex marriage, but he has spoken like a man who didn’t have the nerve to own up to his true opinion. It must feel good to be saying what he really thinks. I know I feel better. We can have a fair contest now, in which everyone’s cards are on the table.

One of the president’s cards is that he arrived at his support for same-sex marriage not despite his Christian faith, but because of it. He specifically cited the Golden Rule taught by Jesus in the gospels. I will not turn my attention here to whether the president has offered a coherent, or even plausible, account of the Golden Rule as it pertains to the marriage issue (but here are two
good treatments, in my view). I want to note instead how much damage is done by the president to one of the favorite arguments of supporters of same-sex marriage.

The mere fact that the president claims to have religious reasons—specifically Christian reasons—for supporting same-sex marriage has occasioned some interesting triumphalism in recent days among those who agree with him. Time magazine’s Amy Sullivan had a piece in the pages of the Post that the editors gave the accurate descriptive headline, “Obama’s case for gay marriage shows that invoking faith isn’t just for conservatives anymore.” House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi reportedly said that “my religion compels me” to be for same-sex marriage. (Pelosi has a problem the president can sidestep since, as a Catholic, she is not really in charge of saying what her religion compels her to do in this matter.) The Post’s Lisa Miller praised the president for relying on his faith, although she coupled this with the rather curious assertion (based on what, is a mystery) that the president has set sail from the barren shores of mere Scripture to find his way. The New York Times recently observed that there are plenty of religious people and organized churches on either side of the issue.

So what is the damage that I think has been done to the arguments for same-sex marriage? Well, one of the endlessly repeated arguments of the advocates for this revolution in the meaning of marriage is that the defenders of the only meaning of marriage ever known in human history (that it unites men and women to form families) are “imposing their religion” on people who disagree with them. This is supposedly un-American, unjust, unconstitutional, unconscionable—un-you-name-it.

The criticism goes something like this. Many supporters of the traditional, conjugal understanding of marriage are religious people. They frequently employ religious arguments, or act on religious motives. When they argue in ways that do not rely explicitly on their faith, their opinions suspiciously overlap with what their faith has always taught them. It may be that what they call “moral” arguments are actually just religious arguments in disguise. And if they are really enacting, in public policy for the whole society, norms that they derive from or support because of their religion, then they are either “establishing” a religion in violation of the separation of church and state, or they are acting “irrationally” and have no “rational basis” for their view, since everyone knows “faith” and “reason” are entirely separate domains. Hence the supporters of traditional marriage are violating either the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, or the requirements of due process and equal protection, or both.

As I have explained elsewhere, this criticism is shot through with errors about the Constitution’s requirements, logical fallacies about the relation of morality and religion and of faith and reason, and general thuggishness. That has not prevented it from being popular with same-sex marriage advocates, and even some judges in Iowa and California.

Here I will content myself with observing that every one of these wrongheaded criticisms is exactly on point as a criticism of President Obama and all other supporters of same-sex marriage who rely in any way on their faith, as they understand it, to justify their support. If the people of California can be faulted for “imposing their religion” on their fellow citizens by passing Proposition 8, then it is equally true that President Obama is “imposing his religion” on his fellow Americans when he says, as he did last week, that laws preventing same-sex marriage are unjust to gay couples desiring to get married. If he is not imposing his religion on anyone, neither is anyone else.

I think “you’re imposing your religion” is an incredibly bad argument against President Obama’s view. But then I have always thought it was an incredibly bad argument against the defenders of the conjugal tradition. Will those now praising the president because of his faith-based view now renounce this bogus argument when it is aimed at the other side, as it has been for years? I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath.

Matthew J. Franck is director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, N.J.

  • Secular1

    I agree with with Matthew Frank on the thesis, insofar as that using religion is is wrong argument. But he goes too far when he claims Obama is imposing his religion. First of all I unequivocally hold that religion has no place in the public square at all, contrary to the scholarly articles to the contrary. In my mind the reasons are many supporting my position.

    1) Religious positions are varied within each religion itself. The interpretation of religious dogma always covers the entire spectrum of 360 degrees. The reason for such variation is because religious scripture, on which the dogmas are based, are incoherent and contradictory, not to speak of bigotry and superstition.

    2) In a secular state such as ours there has to be room for all religion, and that is feasible only if we do not make any special room for any religion.

    3) Only thing we can rely on, although ever changing, is the human zeitgeist.

    4) We cannot leave individual rights to the whims and fancies of the majority.

    Obama’s use of his theology is just tactical and not intrinsically meritorious. This is because the religious right has polluted teh public discussion with the nonsensical religious issues. They pick and choose the tenets of their own dogma. If we take their positions seriously they must also be working tirelessly to repeal each and every child welfare laws, which pertains to the parents. But they don’t. I would submit Obama would have been quite content not bringing his interpretation of his religion to the argument, but for the fact that the opposition already polluted the waters, with religion. People can come to the public square with any motivation they want, that can guide them through their private life and their lives in general. Within the public square however, if they cannot translate their motivations into non-religious laden rational arguments then they need not, actually they must not present themselves in the discussions.

  • currentissue

    Freedom is the freedom of choice – the freedom to perform same-sex marriages, to not. The freedom to enter into one, the freedom to not.

    It’s not “imposing your religion” when one side would still have the option of not performing religious ceremonies recognizing same-sex marriages. It is, however, imposing your religion when, on religious grounds, you can not enter into a civil marriage with someone of the same sex.

  • gustav2

    It’s the Constitution, that nasty ‘full faith and credit’ and the ‘equal protection’…my personal faith does not enter into it. Neither should yours, just as the Founders wanted it.

  • gustav2

    It is the Constitution that guides my thoughts and feelings on this matter. You know the equal protection stuff and how a state must honor another state, blah, blah. My personal faith does not enter into it, neither should yours. Just as the Founders wanted it.

  • RightRevJames

    I believe in traditional biblical marriage the way the Word of God describes it most often. Bibilical marriage is between one man and as many women as he can afford to own as wives or concubines.

  • roberthagedorn1

    Google First Scandal.

  • ElCatitan

    So lets see, having the government sanction only one type of marriage as defined by one religious sect is O.k., But having the government also sanction the marriages of religious sects that think gay marriage is O.k. is “forcing your religion on people”.

    So to get a job as a waspo writer all I need to do is be either a stupid or lying ideologue who can’t even reason a basic argument that doesn’t contradict itself!?

  • Charvakan

    This is the stupidest logic I have seen in a long time! Can’t believe he gets to write for WP. If Obama is forcing everyone to get married to someone of their own gender because he feels that is what his religion tells him, then he is definitely imposing his religion on everyone. That is not the case here. No one has any problem if a person decides not to get into a same sex relationship/attend a same sex wedding etc because of their religious views. That is their right. It is when the say because of those views, no one else should do the same, we have a problem. And that is what the religious right that opposes gay marriage is doing.

  • takinabreak

    How is allowing something an imposition?? It’d be an imposition if the US banned all divorcees from remarrying; it’d be an imposition if people banned everyone from eating pork or if everyone was forced to eat pork; it’s an imposition to ban gay people from marrying. I don’t know how you can make an argument that recognizing gay marriage is imposing some religion.

  • hyhybt

    It’s not, to people who are both thinking and arguing rationally. But many people trust what certain authority figures say, and those authority figures have figured out that to twist things around and claim they’re the victims instead of the troublemakers gets their followers nicely riled up to action.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    A thoughtful yet abysmal argument. To claim that the opponents of same-sex marriage base their convictions on anything other than an archaic, barbaric vein of dogma handed down by ancient propagators of religious superstition demonstrates either a grave misunderstanding of the nature of this debate, or simple intellectual dishonesty. Either way, the bottom line is that any ruling by the state that officiates gender roles, partnerships, or our abstract conception of ‘love,’ is a betrayal of the foundational principles of our democracy. Marriage predates the christian dogma, and secular democracy supersedes it. This entire conflict has been manufactured by the rather large portion of our citizenry with frontal lobes that are too small and egos that are too big.

  • XVIIHailSkins

    The novelist below me being a fine example.

  • Secular1

    TTWSYFAMDGGAHJMJ1, do you ever read the unadulterated crap you write? That nonsense you called scripture is nothing but a dust old tome written by a bunch of bronze age ignorant superstitious bigots, who had no earthly idea what anything in this world. It should have been thrown on the dung heap of history just like the humanity left the books of Al chemy, astrology, and magic.
    You wrote the following illogical nonsense: “God allowed polygamist because of the Jews recalcitrance but Jesus told the Jews it was not allowed and was licit (Matt 9:8). Jesus also said one who practiced polygamy also commit adultery.” So your mighty dog (sorry my dyslexia gets better of me) would go around willy nilly smites and smotes everyone for any little thing, but he could not control the recalcitrant jews, is that it? When you talk of recalcitrant jews, are you suggesting he initially wanted monogamy, but the jews didn’t listen to him? So her re-instituted it after JC came around?

    BTW how come you did not pontificate on the polyandrous polygamist?

    Only natural laws are what we figured from nature, like the laws of physics and chemistry. All the other crap is nothing but ranting of ignorant, superstitious bigots.

  • Joel1

    It is simple. What part of the constitution don’t these jokers get? You are welcome to have your religion, as I am mine. Even those who want no religion are welcome to their views. But, and it is a big BUT, keep it at home, or in your personal lives. It is fine that someone even uses their beliefs in working out their positions. It is not ok to make it part of the political discourse. Have the decency to act on your beliefs without wearing your beliefs on your sleeves. Once upon a time it would have been viewed as crass and degrading to parade it in public office. Well, it still is crass. The problem is nobody has the good sense to see that anymore.

  • Secular1

    TTWSYFAMDGGAHJMJ1 in response to my assertion “You wrote the following illogical nonsense: “God allowed polygamist because of the Jews recalcitrance but Jesus told the Jews it was not allowed and was licit [correction illicit] (Matt 9:8). Jesus also said one who practiced polygamy also commit adultery.” So your mighty dog (sorry my dyslexia gets better of me) [at least you’ve admitted something is affecting you] would go around willy nilly smites and smotes everyone for any little thing, but he could not control the recalcitrant Jews, is that it? ”

    Wrote “ANS: That’s it. He could control them and He will at their death. . . . ” this. So TTWSYFAMDGGAHJMJ1, logical thing for you and ilk of ignorant bigots, should heed to the above asnwer, just shut up and let their sky daddy take care of whatever it is, after we are dead. In the meanwhil, in keeping with the so called free will crawl under some rock and stay there, instead of taking away the free will that they keep boasting of, yet putting obstacles in the exercise of it.

  • ThomasBaum


    I wrote, “Many people say that Jesus is the Saviour of the world, very few believe it and sad to say, very few even want it to be True.”

    You replied, (((“ANS: The Virgin Mary told the three children of Fatima that souls were falling into Hell like leaves falling in the Fall. She asked that they pray for the reparation of sinners. Thus, the Catholic Church has many secluded cloisters, monasteries, and convents that pray 24 hours a day.
    The Paschal mystery of Christ’s cross and Resurrection stands at the center of the Good News that the apostles, and the Church following them, are to proclaim to the world. God’s saving plan was accomplished “once for all” by the redemptive death of his Son Jesus Christ.
    The Scriptures had foretold this divine plan of salvation through the putting to death of “the righteous one, my Servant” as a mystery of universal redemption, that is, as the ransom that would free men from the slavery of sin. (Isa 53:11; cf. 53:12; Jn 8:34-36; Acts 3:14).
    St. Paul professes that “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures.” Jesus’ redemptive death fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering Servant. Indeed Jesus himself explained the meaning of his life and death in the light of God’s suffering Servant. After his Resurrection he gave this interpretation of the Scriptures to the disciples at Emmaus, and then to the apostles. (Cf. Lk 24:25-27, 44-45).
    “For our sake God made him to be sin”
    Consequently, St. Peter formulated the apostolic faith in the divine plan of salvation this way: “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your fathers. with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was destined before the foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake.” Man’s sins, following on original sin, are punishable by death. (Rom 5:12; 1 Cor 15:56). By sending his own Son in the form of a slave, in the form of a fallen humanity, on

  • ThomasBaum


    You wrote, “All societies should practice Theocentricism, not Theocracy.”

    Are you suggesting that the USA should throw out it’s founding documents and start with some fresh ones?

    Seems to me that, “Theocentricism”: (having God as the focal point of attention), should be something that a person should be able to decide on his/her own especially since some do not believe in any kind of god, gods or God and those that believe in god, gods or God happen to believe in many different versions, so to speak, so to have a “society” to be “Theocentric”, just who would be the one or ones to attempt to force their “version” of god, gods or God on the rest?

    I asked, “”Jesus never hinted theocracy in His Name and never forced Himself on anyone, do you think that Jesus wants anyone to force Jesus on anyone else?” ”

    You replied, “God gave Man a free will to choose to love or not love Him.”

    This is a non-answer, a simple yes or no would have been an answer, if you wish you can answer it, if not then don’t answer.

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