In his May 9 announcement that he supports same-sex marriage, President Obama linked his stance to the Christian faith. In particular, he cast his view as being consistent with the Bible by quoting Jesus’ words from Matthew 7:12, known as the “Golden Rule.” Obama said:
[The First Lady and I] are both practicing Christians and…when we think about our faith, the thing 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 would want to be treated…and that’s what motivates me as President.
Since the President’s announcement, the largest Christian churches in America—including the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention—have reiterated that they don’t share the President’s interpretation of Scripture on this issue.
Others have pointed out that the President’s appeal to the Golden Rule is problematic as a guide for complex ethical decisions, including whether or not to support same-sex marriage.
Baylor University professor Francis Beckwith notes that if the Golden Rule simply means giving your neighbor what you happen to want, it would lead to all sorts of immoral conclusions. For instance, a masochist could claim that the Golden Rule means it’s acceptable to inflict pain on others.
To avoid this kind of warped reasoning, Beckwith argues that one would have to situate the Golden Rule within the larger canon of Scripture and the Church’s “moral theology including its understanding of marriage and the common good.”
Moreover, Beckwith wonders to what extent President Obama is willing to apply his interpretation of the Golden Rule more generously:
Will he extend it to the unborn or even the survivors of abortion?
Or church-affiliated and private businesses that cannot in good conscience provide contraception and abortifacient coverage under his [contraception] mandate?
Or private citizens, businesses, and charitable organizations whose moral theology forbids them from blessing or supporting same-sex unions?
Or what about those Americans whose representatives in Congress listened to their voices in passing the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996? Did those citizens not in essence say that one of the ways they want to be treated is to have traditional marriage defended at the national level? Yet Obama has instructed the Justice Department not to defend this law in court, a point he made in the very same interview in which he appealed to the Golden Rule.
In short, church bodies and individuals alike have pointed out that the Golden Rule, stripped of any relationship to an objective moral standard, isn’t helpful on the question of same-sex marriage—or many other ethical matters. To employ the Golden Rule to help guide ethical reflection on this issue, one would have to first answer the basic question “What is marriage?”
Obama bypassed this substantive question, putting forth instead a simplistic and inadequate model of ethical decision-making from a biblical viewpoint.