The arc of the moral universe

    Snark is cool. It’s the hip ‘tude of the ’10s. And it’s easy to get snarky about President Obama’s historic endorsement of gay marriage.

    For instance, when Obama told ABC News yesterday that “at a certain point, I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” the snarkers said that he had “concluded” at this “certain point” only because the political pressure had become too strong to resist – what with Joe Biden forcing his hand, and the liberal base forcing his hand, and rich gay donors forcing his hand.To which I say to the snarkers, go learn some history. Presidents don’t lead social movements. They’re reactive characters, politically cautious by nature. They respond when the pressure to respond requires it. Abraham Lincoln endured several years of abuse from anti-slavery abolitionists before he finally issued his Emancipation Proclamation. Franklin D. Roosevelt frustrated the early civil rights leaders – as well as his more enlightened First Lady – by dragging his feet on integration; indeed, he told black labor leader A. Philip Randolph to build a grassroots movement that would require a presidential response (FDR: “Now go out and make me do it”). And John F. Kennedy was widely panned by ’60s civil rights leaders for failing to lead on their issue. JFK was in office for nearly two and a half years before he finally reached his “certain point,” and went on TV to affirm that blacks should have equal rights.The other big snark topic is Obama’s endorsement of state’s rights. Yes, he finally came out for gay marriage – but he’s not planning to introduce any federal legislation to make it the law of the land. Instead he’s letting each state decide what to do (or not do). He told ABC News: “What you’re seeing is, I think, states working through this issue – in fits and starts, all across the country. Different communities are arriving at different conclusions, at different times. And I think that’s a healthy process and a healthy debate. And I continue to believe that this is an issue that is gonna be worked out at the local level, because historically, this has not been a federal issue, what’s recognized as a marriage.”Yes, Obama is basically saying that if North Carolina wants to pass a state constitutional amendment banning not only gay marriage but civil unions as well (as occurred Tuesday, in a low-turnout landslide), and if other states want to stand tall for bigotry, he has no plans to social-engineer any socialism from the top down. In a sense, his approach is quite conservative – virtually identical to the stance taken by Dick Cheney eight years ago, when the veep personally endorsed gay marriage (“freedom means freedom for everyone”), but added this caveat: “Historically, that’s been a relationship that has been handled by the states. The states have made that fundamental decision of what constitutes a marriage.”So, one might ask, what’s the big deal about what Obama said, since he’s only in Cheney mode?The answer should be obvious. For the first time, a president has put the imprimatur of his office – indeed, the moral authority of his office – behind a social concept that would have been politically unthinkable just a few short years ago. (At least in America. Gay marriage is already legal in South Africa, Argentina, Canada, Spain, Portugal, and five other nations – with eight more pending, including Australia.) Obama has taken the first necessary giant step into the future, and that matters far more than the short-term political fallout. The fallout is unknowable anyway. It may well be a wash. Obama’s remarks could galvanize the intolerant Republican right, but they could also fire up his own base. The latest nonpartisan Pew Research Center poll reports that swing-voting independents favor gay marriage by 14 percentage points, and that the only age bracket in majority opposition are Americans 65 and older. But however we might slice and dice the sentiment, gay marriage is not going to be a top-tier issue for most voters anyway.So forget all the snark, and the speculation about whether Obama will be helped or hurt in November. This moment is bigger than all that. This moment is akin to June 11, 1963, when JFK (yes, after two years of prodding) broadcast his seminal civil rights speech. He said that night, “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue…The heart of the question is whether all Americans are to be afforded equal rights and opportunities, whether we are going to treat our fellow Americans as we want to be treated.”Obama has now placed gay people on the same path, and while progress may still be slow, it is inexorable. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal