Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

Obama, McCain stick to marriage 'tradition'


Senator John McCain, pastor Rick Warren, and Senator Barack Obama at Saturday's forum. Photo: Reuters
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No one can accuse either of the major party presidential candidates of pandering to gays – certainly not anyone watching them being interviewed Saturday, August 16 in a public and nationally televised forum with evangelical pastor Rick Warren. But there may be some parsing in order.

One of the first names out of the mouth of Democrat Barack Obama, when asked to identify the "three wisest people in your life," was former Senator Sam Nunn (D-Georgia), a politician reviled by the LGBT community for leading the charge against gays in the military. Republican John McCain included pro-gay civil rights leader Representative John Lewis (D-Georgia). When asked to "define marriage," Obama parroted a favorite verse of the anti-gay set: "I believe marriage is the union between a man and a woman." McCain used essentially the same words to describe his opposition to same-sex marriage, even after identifying his first marriage – which ended in divorce – as his greatest moral failure.

To parse, one must look more closely and keep in mind that the studio audience providing applause or silence was several thousand members of the 22,000-member Christian evangelical church of conservative Orange County, California – Warren's Saddleback Church in Lake Forest.

Key advisers

Obama's answers were like a rollercoaster for LGBT listeners, especially since the audience made clear its approval of his stance against same-sex marriage and tolerance for hospital visitation.

When Warren beckoned him to name the "three wisest people in your life" and who he would rely on heavily as president, Obama first named his wife Michelle, who has made clear that she is a strong supporter of gay civil rights. But soon thereafter he proffered Nunn as one of the people he'd want at his "table" of advisers. Although Nunn recently said he believes Congress should revisit the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy that he helped codify in 1993, many commentators have suggested the remark was probably just an effort to improve his chances as a vice presidential running mate. Nunn, said Obama, would be a foreign policy adviser. But then, Obama put at that same "table" Senator Ted Kennedy (D-Massachusetts), a staunch supporter of equal rights for gays, saying he would be key in considering domestic policies.

McCain named General David Petraeus, Lewis, and former eBay president Meg Whitman. While McCain cited Lewis for his courage and commitment in the black civil rights movement by leading the march from Selma to Montgomery in 1965, Lewis has, in recent years, shown considerable courage and commitment to equal rights for gays. He wrote a powerful editorial in support of same-sex marriage a month before the Massachusetts supreme court issued its landmark decision saying the state constitution required equal marriage rights. Whitman's eBay includes sexual orientation in its corporate non-discrimination policy and offers health benefits to the domestic partners of employees.


When Warren asked McCain to "define marriage," McCain seemed eager to parrot and go:

"Union – a union between man and woman – between one man and one woman. That's my definition of marriage," said McCain. "Are we going to get back to the importance of Supreme Court justices?"

Obama's answer was much the same, only he did take time to explain his view as his personal religious belief and to encourage some understanding of why same-sex couples need some kind of legal protection for their relationships.

"I believe marriage is the union between a man and a woman," said Obama, eliciting prolonged applause from the audience. "For me, as a Christian, it's also a sacred union – God's in the mix. But, uh ..."

Interestingly, though Warren had promised each candidate would be asked the same identical questions, they weren't. In follow-up, he asked McCain whether the California Supreme Court was wrong for having "overturned this definition of marriage" and he asked Obama whether he'd support a federal constitutional amendment.

McCain said he believed the California court was wrong, but never explained why.

"I strongly support preserving the unique status of marriage between man and woman," said McCain. "I'm a federalist. I believe that the state should make those decisions."

"In my state," he said, referring to Arizona, which has rejected one constitutional amendment and is considering another this November, "I hope we will make that decision."

"That doesn't mean people can't enter into legal arrangements," said McCain. "That doesn't mean that they don't have the rights of all citizens. I'm not saying that. I am saying that we should preserve the unique status of marriage between one man and one woman. And if a federal court decided that my state of Arizona had to observe what the state of Massachusetts decided, then I would favor a constitutional amendment. Until then, I believe the state should make the decisions within their own states."

What Warren failed to ascertain was whether McCain would favor a federal constitutional amendment. He asked Obama about "a constitutional amendment" but didn't specify federal or state. Obama clearly responded as if he was asked whether he would support a federal constitutional amendment.

"No, I would not," said Obama, to a noticeably smaller, briefer round of applause, "because historically, we have not defined marriage in our Constitution. It's been a matter of state law – that has been our tradition."

"Let's break it down," said Obama, elaborating. "The reason people think there needs to be a constitutional amendment is – some people believe – is because of the concern about same-sex marriage. I am not somebody who promotes same-sex marriage but I do believe in civil unions. I do believe ... that for gay partners to want to visit each other in the hospital, for state to say, 'You know what, that's all right,' I don't think in any way inhibits my core beliefs about what marriage [is]. I think my faith is strong enough and my marriage is strong enough that I can afford those civil rights to others even if I have a different perspective or different view."

Supreme Court justices

Asked which Supreme Court justice he would not have nominated, Obama chose Clarence Thomas, saying Thomas was not a "strong enough jurist or legal thinker at the time for that elevation, setting aside the fact that I profoundly disagree with his interpretations of the Constitution."

He continued, saying that while Justice Antonin Scalia has "intellectual brilliance" to serve on the Supreme Court, he wouldn't have appointed Scalia either. Scalia has been the high court's most strenuous opponent of equal rights for gays.

McCain rattled off the names of the court's most gay supportive justices: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens. When asked to explain why he chose those four, McCain cited not one reason specifically. Instead, he talked about the importance of choosing the next nominees and his belief that they should have a "proven record of strictly adhering to the constitution of the United States of America and not legislating from the bench."

Although he did not elaborate, the "legislating from the bench" critique has become a code phrase for decisions that have ruled that a constitution's guarantee of equal protection for all citizens covers marriage licensing for same-sex couples.

Oddly, McCain did not mention Anthony Kennedy, author of the two most important decisions to gay civil rights: Romer v. Evans and Lawrence v. Texas.

Faith-based groups

One question tackled the issue of whether faith-based organizations should be denied federal grants if they don't adhere to laws prohibiting discrimination, such as discrimination based on sexual orientation. Warren did not ask the question that way. He noted that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows religious institutions to consider religious beliefs in hiring preferences. And he asked whether faith-based organizations should have to give up that right in order to receive federal grants.

McCain said "absolutely not;" Obama suggested they would.

The Civil Rights Act prohibits any organization receiving federal funding from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. Although sexual orientation is not included in these protections, discrimination against LGBT people has been a blemish on President Bush's so-called faith-based initiative.

Obama said in July that he supports the use of faith-based organizations to tackle some of the nation's social service needs. Obama told Warren that such organizations are free to hire whoever they want when it comes to their own religious mission and personnel.

"But ... when it comes to the programs that are federally funded," said Obama, "we do have to be careful to make sure we are not creating a situation where people are being discriminated against using federal money."

Just last month, some gay commentators raised concerns about a plan Obama unveiled to establish a Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to help religious organizations obtain grants. The Chicago Tribune reported that, when asked about such organizations discriminating based on sexual orientation, "Obama said he believes local laws in some states prohibiting discrimination against gays would apply to faith-based social programs funded with federal money in those states."

Many political commentators opined Sunday that McCain benefited more from the Saddleback forum. Many reports also suggested that McCain probably benefited from Obama going first. Warren suggested McCain was sequestered somewhere "in a cone of silence" where he could not hear the questions being posed to Obama, yet McCain's campaign could not seem to identify where that place was that was so shut off from all communication. A McCain spokeswoman told the New York Times that the senator was en route to the church when Obama was speaking.

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