By R Vaidyanathan
Barack Obama has electrified his liberal constituency by announcing his support to same sex marriage. In an interview to ABC television, which he has emailed to all his supporters, he says:
“I've always believed that gay and lesbian Americans should be treated fairly and equally. I was reluctant to use the term marriage because of the very powerful traditions it evokes. And I thought civil union laws that conferred legal rights upon gay and lesbian couples were a solution. But over the course of several years I've talked to friends and family about this. I've thought about members of my staff in long-term, committed, same-sex relationships who are raising kids together. Through our efforts to end the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, I've gotten to know some of the gay and lesbian troops who are serving our country with honor and distinction.
“What I've come to realize is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered less than full citizens. Even at my own dinner table, when I look at Sasha and Malia, who have friends whose parents are same-sex couples, I know it wouldn't dawn on them that their friends' parents should be treated differently. So I decided it was time to affirm my personal belief that same-sex couples should be allowed to marry. I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines. But I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.”
In making his views public, Obama has lit a time-bomb in American society which is deeply divided on the issue of same sex relationships, including same sex marriage.
In one sense he has brought the end to what is called the “American Project” which was excellently elucidated by Alexis de Tocqueville - the French traveller - in the 1830s. He stresses that the American institution of marriage was fundamental to the civil society of a free nation. Of course, he also praises the ability of Americans to form associations at the drop of a hat and its then minimal levels of crime due to the deterrent nature of punishment.
What has happened to the “American Project”?
The pendulum has swung from one extreme to the other. A relationship-based, local community-based system of self-governance (and hence law-abiding society) has been turned into a rule-based/contract and small print-based society. There are now pre-nuptial contracts/marriage contracts/friendship contracts and child rights contracts. When a society becomes obsessed with rules, it loses its spontaneity and, in the process, the sovereignty of families gets destroyed. When families are not in control, children spend more time with game consoles than their grandmother.
This trend has been visible from the 1980s, when everyone was for enforcing rights and nobody argued about duties. Old people are the responsibility of the government so also unwed mothers and young children. The joint family got liquidated into nuclear families which, in turn, became single parent or co-habiting families. Single parent children are low performers compared to the children of married and living together parents. Unfortunately, lots of studies have shown that children of co-habiting mothers are no better than those of single parents (usually a mother). (See Charles Murray: The Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960/2010).
More than 50 percent of children born in 2009 to under-30 women were out of wedlock. What was once considered illegitimate has now become the new normal. Among blacks it is nearly 75 percent and for Latinos it is 55 percent (See Marriage is a Luxury Good).
At a time when marriage and family as institutions are under severe stress and may not exist in the coming decade, in this cauldron President Obama has poured shudh ghee to accentuate the issue by arguing that same sex marriages be recognized and supported.
This will be extraordinarily divisive since only a few days before North Carolina has rejected any attempt to recognise gay marriages. The USA is now broadly divided into two camps. The West Coast (San Francisco is known as the capital of same sex America) and the liberal North East, on one side, and the Bible belt of South and Midwest, on the other. The Economist newspaper says “it is safe to say that over one-third of Americans, more than 100m, can be considered evangelical, with the greatest concentration in the South. Not only that, the vast majority of evangelicals oppose gay marriage”.
It seems the entire religious and family edifice of America, as understood by Tocqueville, is under threat.
“American exceptionalism” has come exceptionally under threat. To the best of my current information, same-sex marriages or unions cannot consummate and so they have to adopt or go for sperm and egg donations. From all accounts, born-again Christians or evangelicals are not going to accept it under any circumstances and many more states will fight it tooth and nail. It is worth recalling that the American civil war was not only about African-American issues, but about federalism and the rights of states.
What about the church? The Catholic Church has to oppose it tooth and nail, but given the recent scandals regarding child abuse, etc, and their diminishing hold on followers, it may not matter much. But the opposition of New Age Churches like the Pentecostals, which have strong evangelical followers, will be severe. One possibility is for the Church to lose but Christianity to win by slowly projecting Christ as gay-friendly just as the historical West Asian Christ has, over time, been converted into a White Christ (as depicted in the History Museum of New York).
The reactions of Islamic theologians will be very critical since all sections of Islam consider homosexuality to be unnatural and in some Middle Eastern countries it is punished with death.
As far as India is concerned, even Marxist historians have not provided instances of any gay person being killed in our history for being gay. At worst he may be looked upon with amusement in our villages, not contempt.
But Americans are passionate and very religious people, unlike Europeans. The Bible belt is not going to accept Obama’s election-eve announcement of support. Obama has enthused his flock but the undone “American Project”.
It is going to be long-drawn-out civil war fought on religious and federal principles which will split America into two: those who are for and those who are against. The present has become tense, and the future uncertain.
R Vaidyanathan is professor of finance, IIM, Bangalore. The views are personal and do not reflect that of his organization.