Adam Mansbach 2008

Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing 


Church & State

For many Californians, post-election excitement over Obama’s win has been tempered by disappointment over the passing of Proposition 8, which proposed an amendment to the state constitution banning same-sex marriage.  In Los Angeles, San Francisco, and many points between, protesters filled the streets, vowing that the fight is not yet over, even if the election is.

How did a state that voted overwhelmingly for Obama also vote to take an existing right away from a segment of its own population? Many theories have been advanced.  Clearly, the opponents of Prop 8 were outspent by its advocates.  The Mormon church, which spent heavily on television ads in favor of the proposition, has been the site of protests in Los Angeles this week. 

Another theory holds that the black and Latino voters who showed out in record numbers for Obama are responsible: that churches in both communities advocated for the proposition, and that religious convictions and homophobia swayed the same people who made the most liberal senator in America the 44th president-elect.

An analysis of voting patterns along age lines, however, paints a more complicated picture.  Young black voters, in particular, voted against Prop 8 in the same percentages as their white counterparts.  This is an issue in which the decisive factor is not race, but age.  This points toward a hopeful future: even in the midst of the present controversy, it is hard to imagine that in twenty years, we will not look back at the debate over same-sex marriage and be embarrassed that it was ever even an issue.

Whether Prop 8 survives the array of lawsuits it now faces remains to be seen, but the Obama administration must not wait for time to change the complexion of this debate.  At stake are two crucial issues: the civil rights of gay Americans, and the separation of church and state.  Both have taken tremendous hits during the Bush years, and the president-elect must consider how to restore them both.

In the eyes of the law, marriage must be defined as a civil ceremony, not a religious one.  This is really a civil rights issue: denying an individual the right to marry also denies him myriad forms of social enfranchisement, from tax and insurance benefits to hospital visitation rights.  Had the issue been more effectively framing in these terms, perhaps even older, church-going black and brown voters might have voted differently.

But Prop 8 is a typical ‘wedge-issue, ‘ of the kind that has been so effective for Republicans in the past: use a social issue like gay marriage or abortion to fire up the Evangelical base, and hope that greater turnout gives your candidate a bump – and keeps vast numbers of ‘values voters’ voting against their own wider socio-economic self-interest.  It didn’t put McCain in office, but Prop 8 has shown us that even in a Democratic landslide, religious and social conservatism remain forces with which to be reckoned.

Obama has declared himself against gay marriage, but in favor of same-sex civil unions. Though his desire to guarantee gay couples all the rights of straight ones is admirable, his position reinforces a hierarchy of perception, reinforces the notion of gays as second-class citizens.  If one views gay marriage as a civil rights issue, then the notion of civil unions is analogous to the “separate but equal” doctrine of public education put forth by the Supreme Court in 1896’s Plessy vs. Ferguson case – the one overthrown by Brown vs. The Board of Education in 1954.  Civil unions create two discrete systems for recognizing spousal commitment in civil society; it is the kind of arrangement we have learned cannot be just in America. The idea itself is a concession to religious pressure, to the idea that marriage is a sacrament rather than a civil matter. 

At the dawn of this new era in America, Obama should re-examine his position on gay marriage in the context of both civil rights and the separation of church and state – lest the thinking of the Bush years drag on any longer than it must. 


Adam Mansbach  books  events  bio  music  interviews  other writing