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Obama And Religion: Where Will He Stand On Same-Sex Marriage In 2012?

March 10, 2011 3:58 pm ET by Kerry Eleveld

When Mitchell Gold and Rev. Jimmy Creech went to visit staffers of presidential hopeful Barack Obama in 2006, they were told that the senator didn't support full marriage equality because of his religious views.

"The first thing they said is, 'You know, the senator is very good on your issues,'" recalls Gold, a successful furniture maker and LGBT activist, who was joined by Creech and Washington lobbyist Howard Vine at the meeting.

"Fantastic, he's for my full and equal rights," responded Gold. "So he's OK with me being able to get married."

At that point, Joshua DuBois and Michael Strautmanis -- who respectively now serve as head of the White House office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and deputy assistant to President Obama -- explained that the senator supported Gold's relationship rights but under the rubric of "civil unions." They initially framed it as "personal," says Gold, but pressed further, they added that it was because of his "religious beliefs."

"Oh, well that's religious-based bigotry," Gold remembers saying. "We've been down that road before when religion was used against people of color to support slavery, to deny integration, to deny interracial marriage -- used against women to deny them the right to vote."

The mood turned sour recalls Rev. Creech, an ordained Methodist minister who was defrocked in 1999 for performing a same-sex marriage.  "They had a physical reaction to the word 'bigotry.' They did not like that -- they thought it was offensive," says Creech, who will be releasing a book later this month about his personal revelations as a minister serving gay and lesbian parishioners.

Citing religion as a basis for not supporting same-sex marriage is a stance that has often provided a safe haven for Democratic candidates in elections, much the way a united front on civil unions did for all three 2008 Democratic front-runners - Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, and Barack Obama. They all supported civil unions and appealed to religion at various times to explain their stance during the campaign.

As Creech says, "In many cases, religion is intended to just end the discussion."

Obama used a religious-based rationale to explain his views on relationship recognition several times as a candidate, although his support for civil unions has fluctuated throughout his career as a politician.

He started to feature religion more prominently in framing the issue during his 2004 bid for the U.S. Senate.

"I'm a Christian," Obama told a local Chicago TV station that year. "And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman." It was a perfectly scripted answer that the senator used word-for-word with multiple Chicago outlets.

But perhaps his most prominent pronouncement on the matter came in his 2008 appearance at California's Saddleback Church when Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren asked him to define marriage.

"I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman," Obama responded, "for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union. God's in the mix."

But Obama didn't always support civil unions and, in fact, his explanation for supporting the alternate institution seemed to vary from politically strategic to religiously rooted depending on who was asking the questions.

As a young candidate for Illinois state Senate representing Chicago's LGBT-friendly Hyde Park, Obama signaled strong support for marriage equality. "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages," he stated in a signed candidate questionnaire in 1996.

But in 2004, even as he was wrapping his aversion to same-sex marriage in spiritual garb with mainstream outlets, Obama was also telling the Windy City Times, a local LGBT outlet, that his pro-civil unions positioning had tactical underpinnings.

"I am not a supporter of gay marriage as it has been thrown about, primarily just as a strategic issue. I think that marriage, in the minds of a lot of voters, has a religious connotation," he told Tracy Baim, editor of the Windy City Times. "I know that's true in the African-American community, for example. And if you asked people, 'should gay and lesbian people have the same rights to transfer property, and visit hospitals, and et cetera,' they would say, 'absolutely.' And then if you talk about, 'should they get married?', then suddenly ..."

"But you think, strategically, gay marriage isn't going to happen so you won't support it at this time?" Baim asked.

"What I'm saying is that strategically, I think we can get civil unions passed," Obama said of a bill that was working its way through the state legislature. "I think that to the extent that we can get the rights, I'm less concerned about the name."

John Green, a political scientist at University of Akron and senior adviser at the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life, says Obama's devolution and recent evolution back to "struggling" with the question of marriage equality could be the product of both his changing constituency as his political star rose and the fact that the nation's attitude on the subject is a moving target.

Pew released a poll earlier this month showing that support for same-sex marriage had risen 8 points since 2009, from 37% then to 45% today -- rendering the country evenly divided on the matter, with 46% of respondents currently saying they oppose marriage equality.

"It's pretty dramatic in just two years," Green says of the climb. "People's opinions on social issues tend to be pretty stable," he adds, noting that the public's attitude about abortion has been much more stable over the past decade by comparison.

The variable nature of voters' views on same-sex marriage has been very challenging, says Green, prompting many politicians to recalibrate over the course of their career. Obama's change from representing one of the most progressive parts of Illinois to the entirety of the rather moderate state as a U.S. Senator and finally the nation as a whole put him in a particular bind in terms of his changing constituencies.  

But Green also believes that a religious rationale for denying equal marriage rights will be a much tougher sell for moderate-to-progressive candidates in 2012.

"God is in the mix -- that kind of argument is harder to make with this volatility," he explains. "Part of it is because public opinion is changing, but there are also many people who support progressive causes for traditional religious reasons -- whether it's a matter of social justice or caring for the poor or caring for their neighbor."

Ironically, President Obama may be a victim of his own success. Repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy and his own decision to instruct his Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act have likely played a part in hastening the evolution in national thinking on LGBT equality.

Creech believes that as people increasingly come to know more lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, they begin to think more critically about religious arguments used to discriminate against them and marginalize their humanity.

As a native son of North Carolina, he remembers the pious appeals that were used to perpetuate a rigidly segregated society.

"It's God's will that the races be separated. It's God's will that the races not be inter-married," he says. "Nobody would buy those arguments now because the culture has changed. I think the same kind of dynamic is happening with the religious arguments about gays and lesbians today."

But Mitchell Gold, who ultimately supported Obama's candidacy, believes last year's spate of tragic suicides that were the result of kids being bullied for either their sexual orientation or their perceived sexual orientation has initiated some soul searching.

"As I travel around, I think there's a lot of good Christian folks who have realized that, Holy cow, I'm really hurting people," says Gold, who founded the organization Faith in America in 2005 in hopes of shining a spotlight on the way in which religion is used to justify prejudice against LGBT Americans. The isolation caused by bullying intensifies, Gold says, when kids don't feel like they can turn to their parents or their church because of the religious messages they're receiving.

By his own account, President Obama has personally experienced the pain and alienation that religion can cause even among adults.

In his 2006 book, "The Audacity of Hope," Obama reflected on a conversation he had with a lesbian supporter who took exception to his religious justification for denying same-sex couples equal marriage rights.

"She felt that by bringing religion into the equation, I was suggesting that she, and others like her, were somehow bad people," he wrote. "As I spoke to her, I was reminded that no matter how much Christians who oppose homosexuality may claim that they hate the sin but love the sinner, such a judgment inflicts pain on good people."

"And I was reminded," he added, "that it is my obligation, not only as an elected official in a pluralistic society but also as a Christian, to remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided, just as I cannot claim infallibility in my support of abortion rights."

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