One evening in October 2007, Candace Chellew-Hodge joined a silent picket line outside the Township Auditorium in Columbia. She and other gay-rights advocates were protesting the fact that then-presidential candidate Barack Obama had hired gospel singer Donnie McClurkin to perform at a fundraising event.
McClurkin, a Grammy-winning artist who is also the pastor of an evangelical church in New York, had said that he conquered his own homosexual urges through prayer and that people need to "break the curse of homosexuality." Chellew-Hodge, a self-proclaimed liberal who is now herself the pastor of a gay-affirming church in Columbia called Jubilee! Circle, was disappointed in Obama. She was also saddened to see him invite California megachurch pastor and Proposition 8 supporter Rick Warren to deliver the invocation at his inauguration.
The McClurkin debacle made a brief appearance in national news headlines, and it prompted the Obama campaign to make amends by asking the openly gay Rev. Andy Sidden — Chellew-Hodge's pastor at the time — to speak onstage at the Township that night. Obama's press handlers spun the event as an example of how the candidate would bring people of differing viewpoints together, but the whole event pointed to a fact of politics in the South: The church is, as ever, a crucial and unavoidable forum.
For years, Obama told the media that he was in favor of civil unions for same-sex couples, but he stopped short of advocating full-on marriage equality. Then, in an interview with ABC News last Wednesday, the commander in chief said same-sex couples ought to be allowed to marry — a first for any U.S. president. Here's what he said:
I have to tell you that over the course of several years as I have talked to friends and family and neighbors, when I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think about those soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf and yet feel constrained, even now that Don't Ask Don't Tell is gone, because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, 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.
Obama gave the interview one day after roughly 60 percent of North Carolina voters approved an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage between a man and a woman as the "only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized." Many conservative Christian groups pushed for the amendment, and even the evangelist Billy Graham — who has usually been silent on hot-button political issues — took out full-page newspaper ads in favor of the amendment's passage. North Carolina became the 30th state to include a prohibition against same-sex marriage in its constitution. South Carolina voters passed a similar amendment in 2006.
Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the Charleston-based LGBT advocacy group Alliance For Full Acceptance, says the president's interview on marriage equality could be an opportunity for reconsideration among the "movable middle," the people who don't hold a firm stance one way or the other on the issue.
"I wonder what it would have been like had he done this two days ago," Redman-Gress said last Wednesday. "And I bet there are plenty of people in North Carolina asking that question."
The statement from the president also came three days after Vice President Joe Biden told NBC's Meet the Press that he was "absolutely comfortable" with gay marriage, and some pundits wondered whether Obama's stand was merely a political maneuver — either based on pressure to follow the VP's lead or a calculated effort to win re-election. North Carolina was one of only three Southern states that Obama won in the '08 election.
The jury's out on the re-election theory. In the most recent Gallup poll on the topic, 50 percent of American adults said same-sex marriages should be legally recognized, while 48 percent said they should not (2 percent were unsure). According to a recent Pew Center poll, 49 percent of African Americans oppose gay marriage, as do 43 percent of whites, 68 percent of Republicans, and 31 percent of Democrats.
In the interview with ABC, Obama said he and First Lady Michelle Obama discussed the issue before taking it to the public:
The values that I care most deeply about and she cares most deeply about is how we treat other people and, you know, I, you know, we are both practicing Christians and obviously this position may be considered to put us at odds with the views of others, but, you know, when we think about our faith, the thing at root that we think about is, not only Christ sacrificing himself on our behalf, but it's also the Golden Rule, you know, treat others the way you would want to be treated. And I think that's what we try to impart to our kids, and that's what motivates me as president, and I figure the most consistent I can be in being true to those precepts, the better I'll be as a dad and a husband, and hopefully the better I'll be as president.
Chellew-Hodge was glad to hear the president was onboard, and she was especially happy to hear him couch his position in religious belief, which she said could help dispel the false dichotomy between gays and Christians.
But she was disappointed, once again, because the president had not taken an actual policy stance — he had merely stated a personal opinion. Without taking decisive action to strike down a patchwork of state laws banning gay marriage, the president's proclamation is a lovely and historic sentiment, but it "doesn't amount to a hill of beans," she says. In South Carolina, the constitution still forbids her to marry her partner.
Fox News headlines called the president's statements a declaration of war on traditional marriage, and Chellew-Hodge worries that heated rhetorical exchanges about the issue, tangled with religious infighting, could overshadow more pressing topics in the upcoming presidential debates — poverty, joblessness, and education, for example. The media, she notes, loves "the gay circus."
"I'm just not looking forward to again being a political football," she says. "You know, my life is not an issue. I am a taxpaying American citizen, and as such, I should be entitled to these inalienable rights. I want to make a contract between me and my partner and the government, and religion can butt the hell out."