Will We Ever Be Able to Count On Obama as a Gay Marriage Ally?

While running for Illinois State Senate in 1996, Barack Obama told a newspaper he supported gay marriage. But as a U.S. Senate candidate in 2004, he insisted he was only for civil unions; he repeated this stance in 2008 as a presidential candidate. Why the switch? Maybe it has to do with his religious beliefs. Maybe it has to do with his campaign strategy. But is getting Obama to come out in favor of full marriage rights for gays and lesbians contingent on knowing why Obama is a flip-flopper? More importantly, is it even possible?

Obama didn’t leave the Chicago-area United Church of Christ until 2008, after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s rageaholic sermons made the video clip rounds. (As president, he’s been theoretically shopping for a new church, but hasn’t found one.) But it was the same United Church of Christ that in 2005 adopted a non-binding resolution recommending churches support “equal marriage rights for couples regardless of gender,” relays the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Bob Egelko. So if Obama is going to point to his religious teachings as the reason why he doesn’t back the M-word, doesn’t that contradict his own church’s message?

(This is not to be confused with Cardinal Carlo Caffarra of Bologna, of the Roman Catholic Church, decrying any politician who supports gay marriage as a non-Catholic. Obama was never Catholic, but you see how much influence a church can have on some officials.)

Enter the “pure politics” approach. That’s how Equality California’s Geoff Kors, and many other Obama apologists, describe the now-president’s about-face on gay marriage. He needed to court the electorate, and endorsing full gay marriage rights, this theory goes, would be seen as a vulnerability and a chance for conservative opponents to pounce. Particularly on the national stage. Instead, he voiced support for civil unions, the less-than-marriage institution that’s been proven to not, in fact, carry the same rights, privileges, and recognition that marriage does. Says Kors: “When he was running for office in Chicago and wanted strong support from the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community, he made it clear he supported full equality. Since he has continued to seek higher office, he has changed his position for the worse. It’s especially appalling that he is citing his religious beliefs as grounds for his public government position on the civil marriage issue because he knows better.”

Indeed it’s appalling, because conservative zealots fall back on those same “religious beliefs” to defend their no votes on marriage equality. See: New York, New Jersey, and even this week’s events in New Hampshire.

It’s impossible to tell whether Obama will ever flip-flop again and back full gay marriage rights. For now, the evidence points to absolutely not: He’s been silent on the federal Prop 8 Perry trial in California; he made no effort to mobilize Democrats to support gay marriage in Maine; his Justice Department continues to defend DOMA in court while trivializing gay Americans. Moreover, he doesn’t have to: With his mild push to repeal Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, he’s going to score LGBT points over the next year-plus as Congress moves to repeal the military law. Even if he does nothing truly remarkable and, like health care, hands off the project to Congress. And with a weak Gay Inc. that’s proving to be nothing more than a press release publisher, we have “activists” applauding Obama’s lip service instead of demanding action.

Meanwhile, as as Newsweek‘s Sarah Kliff notes, a DADT repeal is helluva lot more likely than federal marriage equality. With LGBT and military advocates reframing the debate over gay soldiers as one of national security, Obama gets to back a repeal with the message of making America safer. This makes the issue less about ending discrimination (although it is, very much) and more about Obama’s promise to fend off terrorists.

It brings us back to the usually stunted debates of The New Republic‘s Jamie Kirchick — who just got done assailing Andrew Sullivanwho questioned why liberals think the president, who is on the record saying he doesn’t support gay marriage, is just playing politics and is actually secretly in favor of it. Or at least more secretly in favor of it than conservatives.

Asking whether Obama will ever declare himself in favor of full marriage equality, let alone lobby voters and legislators about it, is really just a parlor game for political wonks. The man has declared his position, and if he’s like the senior politicians before him, will wait until he leaves office before admitting he made a giant, irrevocable mistake.