Political Animal


May 10, 2012 10:31 AM Obama Back In Line With His Church on Gay Marriage

By Ed Kilgore

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.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Deborah Streeter on May 10, 2012 10:56 AM:

    Thanks Ed. As a UCC clergyperson I am proud to have Obama in my spiritual family. I heard him, as candidate, speak at our 50th anniversary UCC General Synod in Hartford in 2007. He affirmed our motto "God is still speaking" then, and he did yesterday. He also wore our signature "comma" lapel pin - "Never place a period where God has placed a comma." Obama's words keep the punctuation of freedom and equality open and moving. (The UCC celebrates next month the 40th anniversary of being the first mainline denomination to ordain an openly gay person, Bill Johnston, in California in 1972.)

  • Hedda Peraz on May 10, 2012 11:00 AM:

    This is SO last hour's news!
    Currently we are infatuated with Mitt's gay bashing in high school.
    Tune in at noon for the next installment of why Obama/Romney is unfit to serve.

  • revchicoucc on May 10, 2012 11:08 AM:

    Ed, thanks for this post about my church, the United Church of Christ, and our national position on marriage equality.

    The UCC way of being Christian does not have a central or supreme authority that orders or tells its churches, clergy, and members what to believe. Voters do not have to be concerned that a President who is UCC will be controlled by some religious authority in a city by a salty lake.

    That Mr. Obama came to this position on his own time is also consistent with the freedom the UCC gives to its individual members (technically, though, the Obamas are not currently members of the United Church of Christ.)

  • Daniel Schultz on May 10, 2012 11:13 AM:

    This is good, Ed. I'm particularly pleased that you didn't make the common mistake of saying the UCC is made up of only former Congregationalists.

    Two things worth pointing out:

    1. As you say, the UCC is a decentralized denomination, which means that congregations are free to take their own position on same-sex marriage. Many congregations don't offer marriage services to same-sex partners. That's regrettable, but it's their right, as it was Obama's right to disagree with his church on the issue.

    2. The UCC may be the oldest Protestant communion in the nation, but the Catholics have been here since the 1500's.

    Hope that's not too much nitpickery for one day.

  • Dave Wales on May 10, 2012 11:28 AM:

    I have a good friend who is a conservative Congregational minister who claim that UCC is 3 lies in one acronym.

    He also occasionally asks how the "chat" was at the Unitarian/Universalist church I attend.

  • J-NC on May 10, 2012 11:40 AM:

    Respect? Religious freedom? Of course they won't give him any respect.

    It's a battle over "truth" for them. Their truth always trumps yours.

  • jpeckjr on May 10, 2012 11:40 AM:

    @Dave Wales: Your friend sounds like a typical conservative Christian these days: If you can't say something nice about someone, say something insulting and mean. That'w what God would want.

  • Ron Byers on May 10, 2012 12:37 PM:

    As the evangelical fundamentalist ministers/politicians advance their intolerant hate filled homophobic vision of Christianity, I can't help but wonder if the terrorists haven't already won.

    Good for the UCC.

  • boatboy_srq on May 10, 2012 1:02 PM:

    Relgious[sic] 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).

    The thing to remember with religious conservatives is that they define "Christian" in the most narrow terms possible (down to regular church attendees in their specific parish), but claim the broadest possible interpretation of the same term when they're called on their wingnutty b#####t. This is why so many of us refer to "Xtians": these people take hard-line positions on Doctrine and inclusion, but the moment they're confronted with the disconnect between Doctrine and Scripture (see all our commentary re: Charles yesterday in "Billy Graham and Amendment One") they whinge about "religious liberty" and "Christians attacked". They can't have it both ways and expect to be taken seriously - and the rest of us have a duty to make the distinction clear to the populace that the people who whinge loudest about "Christianity under assault" probably include all the rest of us among the assailants.