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The conflicting spirits of Obama's marriage statement

There are a lot of things to be said about President Obama's announcement yesterday that he favors marriage equality (warning, autoplay video). What interests me is the contrast in spirit -- a term I'll define in just a bit -- between two rationales he gave for his position. Early in the interview, he gave a secular argument for marriage:

But I have to tell you that over the course of-- several years, as I talk to friends and family and neighbors. When I think about-- members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in 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're not able to-- commit themselves in a marriage.

At the very end, he returned to the topic and explained how his new position comports with his religious beliefs:

And-- and obviously-- this position may be considered to put as at odds with-- the views of-- of others. But-- you know, when we think about our faith, the-- the thing-- you know, at-- 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'd want to be treated. And-- 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 more consistent I can be-- in being true-- to-- to those precepts-- the better I'll be as a dad and a husband, and-- hopefully the better I'll be as a president.

I'm a dedicated atheist, but I actually like the second, religious argument better. Not, of course, because it's religious -- the golden rule can be easily secularized even if the reason Obama follows it is because of Jesus. Rather, I think the second passage has a better spirit.

I've always thought of myself not only as someone who is not spiritual, but as someone who doesn't even really understand what spirituality is all about. I don't feel a hole in my life that could be labelled "spiritual," that I needed to fill with meditation or communing with nature or something when I left behind my religious faith. But I got a definition that works for me from a former doctor. In between telling me his thoughts on the Rambo movies and insisting that my physical disorders had a psychosomatic cause, he told me that in his view, "spirituality" refers to the deep values that motivate you.

A broad definition like that is something I can work with, because it applies to just about everyone. If you do things deliberately -- if you're not completely apathetic and guided purely by habit -- you have a spirituality. Spirituality here has no necessary connection to religion. A highly rationalist atheist can be as spiritual, in this sense, as the most committed yogi. Moreover, knowing someone's sect or doctrine does not necessarily tell you anything about their spirituality -- you can have massive spiritual diversity within a single congregation.

I would further posit that there are two major spirits, two major value orientations that lie at the root of people's lives. Obviously people can exhibit mixes of these spirits and shift over time, and the behavior they produce depends on a variety of other factors -- but I find it useful to distinguish the ideal types. These two spirits are the spirit of love and hope, and the spirit of fear and hate.

The spirit of love and hope is an expansive spirit. It reaches out for connection and relationship and healing. Love -- genuine care for others on their own terms, "my neighbor as myself" -- brings hope because it holds out a promise of reconciliation. This is the spirit Obama is pointing to in the second passage. Treating others well and wanting to see things from their position is the essence of the spirit of love and hope. And while Obama couches it in Christian terms -- and there's plenty of Bible passages reflecting this spirit -- it is no unique possession of religion.

The spirit of fear and hate is a defensive spirit. It says the world is limited and we must defend our own righteousness against those who fall short. This spirit has its place -- undiscriminating openness is perilous. But it must always serve the larger goals of love. Obama's first statement comes to the same conclusion as the second -- endorsement of marriage equality -- but it has a fair bit of the spirit of fear and hate in it. The logic of Obama's argument there is that same-sex couples are in so many other respects not just normal, but exemplary of the ideal that defines "our" righteous way of life and separates us from the sinners. They're monogamous, they're raising children, they're serving in highly respected professions like the military. They therefore do not deserve fear, and the hate that it breeds, because they're actually among the good ones (unlike, say, some hypothetical polyamorous childless exotic dancers).

Marriage equality is not the end of the road for LGBT rights, nor is same-sex marriage the end of the road for reforming how law and society recognize relationships. As we travel down those roads, we'll be better off guided by the spirit of love and hope than the spirit of fear and hate.


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