Thursday, June 11, 2020

Obama as “bigot”? Me as “bigot”? You as “bigot?

Guest Blogger

For the symposium on Linda McClain, Who's the Bigot?: Learning from Conflicts over Marriage and Civil Rights Law (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Randall Kennedy

I learned a lot from Linda McClain’s Who’s the Bigot?  Since race relations is my main academic interest,  I am especially grateful for her extensive and perceptive elaboration of the theological defense of white supremacist policies.  Particularly instructive is her illuminating comparison of the way in which jurists have reacted over time to theological defenses of anti-miscegenation laws and theological defenses of prohibitions to same sex marriage.

Who’s a Bigot? prompts me to recall a recent episode that underscores certain of McClain’s themes and raises questions with which she grapples throughout her analysis.  The episode involves the evolution of  Barack Obama’s stated views regarding the legitimacy of same sex marriage.  In 1996, as a candidate for the Illinois State Senate, Obama expressed his “unequivocal support for gay marriage.”  He declared that he not only “favor[ed] legalizing same sex marriages,”  but that he “would  fight efforts to prohibit such marriages.”  [Quoted in Randall Kennedy, The Persistence of the Color Line:  Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency 23 (2011)].  Subsequently, when seeking higher office, including, of course, the Presidency, Obama changed his mind, maintaining that while same-sex couples should be able to obtain civil unions, marriage itself should be reserved for only heterosexual couples.  His explanation would be a useful addition to the many that McClain catalogues as explanations for defenses of  invidious mistreatments.  “I’m a Christian,” Obama declared – echoing Christian defenders of segregation.  “And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.”  [Id]. 

This was a sad spectacle: a thoroughly decent politician mouthing an opinion that he did not truly hold that significantly affected the lives of thousands out of fear of the electoral costs of candor.  The change in position was by no means surprising;  we expect electoral politicians to be attentive to the winds of public opinion and to accommodate them (lest the politician be blown away).  Notable in this case was the asserted reason for the change in position – religion: “I’m a Christian.”  It requires gullibility to accede to the notion that Obama was sincere when he said that “religious beliefs” (that he never identifies specifically) were the basis for his (changed) position.  It is not accidental that these “religious beliefs” fit so nicely with the political profile that he probably accurately estimated would best advance his political ambitions.  When political winds shifted, so, too, did Obama, who ultimately joined and importantly aided the struggle to end the heterosexual monopoly on marriage.

One question raised in Who’s a Bigot? is the character of “sincerity.”  Sometimes observers laud sincerity in a fashion which suggests that, in their view, it is always a good thing.  I do not think that it is.  The sincere adherent to an evil idea is typically much worse than the insincere adherent.  The latter is bribable or otherwise movable as the winds of expediency shift.  The former, the true believer, must be vanquished which, in some settings requires bloodshed.
I suspect that when Obama switched to withholding support for a right to gay marriage, he chose religion for his cover story for a reason that McClain amply documents.  Assertions of religious belief in favor of contested discriminatory policies or practices are often given more leeway than other sorts of explanations.  Audiences frequently take them at face value even when there is a strong basis to believe that they are mere pretexts.  Moreover, audiences frequently desist from criticizing religious rationales as harshly as secular rationales that adopt the same conclusion.   I am not a Christian so I view Obama’s cover story as merely a typical political ruse.  But if I were a Christian I might view his cover story as a more troubling species of political trickery.  I might view it as blasphemy – a blasphemous pretext to cover a political deception.
 Other issues raised in Who’s a Bigot?  include the moral status of people who engage in or facilitate invidious discrimination against others  and the moral status of those who accommodate, admire, love, or memorialize those who have engaged in such conduct.   Sanford Levinson has addressed insightfully dilemmas posed by expressions of public admiration in the form of monuments. Here I offer an expression of private admiration.   I hold Barack Obama in high esteem notwithstanding what I have written above.  My appreciation for him is accentuated by the stupidity, malevolence, selfishness, ignorance, vulgarity, and overall obnoxiousness of his successor.  But putting aside the catastrophic consequences of the presidential election of 2016, I would still admire Obama despite his willingness to dissemble and despite his involvement in official unjustifiable discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation.   Does that make me and like-minded others morally deficient along with the bigots that populate Professor McClain’s fascinating book?  Her pages offer a rich stew of information and ideas with which to address that inquiry. 

Randall Kennedy is the Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. You can reach him by e-mail at rkennedy at 

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