A Different World

Obama's gay marriage stand detracts from his accomplishments

Published May 18, 2012 in The Sun News

When President Obama takes the stage in Bank of America stadium in Charlotte late this summer to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination for president, he’ll be standing roughly 20 miles south of Davidson College.

The two are alike in ways that came into sharper focus this week. They are directly linked in the person of Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx, a Davidson alumnus who graduated from the school a couple years before I did. He was instrumental in luring the Democratic National Convention.

President Obama and Davidson can claim credit for important, recent historic achievements. President Obama has done more for the cause of gay rights than any president before him. And Davidson has taken the lead nationally in assuring that low-income students will not only be able to afford college but walk away after four years without school-related debt.

But events this week highlight how their equivocation on a clear issue can tarnish some of the good they’ve done.

President Obama’s wrong-headed, probably politically-motivated view on gay marriage came into view as voters in North Carolina went to the polls to enshrine discrimination into the state constitution, an anti-gay marriage amendment so tough it might also undermine a variety of non-married, heterosexual relationships and rights. The president has helped to end “don’t ask, don’t tell,” stopped legally defending the Defense of Marriage Act, and put an end to the discrimination against gay men when it comes to blood donations, among other things.

But he can’t bring himself to say that gays and lesbians deserve equal marriage rights – even though top officials in his administration have supported such unions over the past few days, including Vice President Joe Biden.

In a tight election year, he wants to be able to recite his accomplishments while not alienating portions of his base. If he doesn’t win, his ability to affect more change goes down in defeat as well. It is a practical concern in a strictly political context. But for the man who says he is a fierce advocate for equal rights and a learned student of the Civil Rights Movement, his position is wrong.

Davidson is in a similar position. In 1837, it was strictly the domain of white men, some of whom owned slaves. It is now an institution that proudly touts its diversity – of religion, of socio-economic background, of gender, of race, of different physical abilities, of thought – and has made inclusivity one of its five core objectives. It has pulled this off while maintaining high academic standards. It remains among the highest ranked liberal arts colleges in the country. There is no discernable achievement or graduation gap between white and minority students.

But it has reserved its highest-profile and most important position for Presbyterian Christians; only they can serve as president of the college. Without the Presbyterian Church, there would probably be no Davidson College. The link is that vital. It’s not clear if a change in the provision would turn off big-dollar donors, the kind who are integral in making sure Davidson’s commitment to low-income students can be maintained.

The school has put together a committee to study the issue and is trying to create an atmosphere of respectful disagreement among those with opposing opinions, even on emotionally-explosive topics.

Yet there’s no logical – or moral – way to justify a strong push for treating everyone at the college equally while shutting out the majority of those who come through the college’s doors from even the possibility of becoming its president.

A 1990 graduate of Davidson, Izzy Justice, launched a media campaign this week to highlight that double-thinking, a campaign that might result in negative headlines and a class-action lawsuit for a school we both love.

As it stands, voters in North Carolina will probably have approved of an anti-same sex amendment the same week President Obama’s perplexing position on the subject was thrust back into the spotlight.

And while Davidson is still basking in the glow of President Carol Quillen’s appearance before the U.S. Congress recently to teach others about the importance of college affordability, it might be headed for troubled waters over a religious clause that may have made sense decades ago but no longer does.

Hopefully, both will have sorted out the mess by the time Davidson students and officials join President Obama at Bank of America stadium the first week of September.