Defend the Separation of Church and State!
On May 9, Barack Obama announced on ABC News that he has “evolved” to the position that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.” Within hours of his tepid endorsement of what should be a basic democratic right, contributions to the Obama/Biden re-election campaign jumped by millions of dollars. Meanwhile, Obama got on the phone to black preachers in order to forestall any possible blowback from this key constituency, for whom gay marriage is controversial. It was calculated politicking against Obama’s Republican opponent, Mitt Romney, who recently addressed the commencement at the fundamentalist Liberty University in Virginia in a bid for support from the Tea Party and evangelicals who aren’t quite sure that Mormons are Christians.
Thus do the two parties juggle in the capitalist electoral circus, where workers, immigrants, the poor and the oppressed are left to clean up the animal droppings. The difference between the two parties amounts to the fact that the Republicans openly dish out racist, sexist, anti-labor poison while the Democrats adopt a more benign image for working people and the oppressed—and end up doing the same thing in office.
The cover of Newsweek (21 May) showed Obama crowned with a rainbow halo and the headline, “The First Gay President.” But the president knew that his carefully uttered statement on ABC would have no immediate effect on the legal status of gay marriage. He made clear that his views were “personal” and that he would leave it to the states to decide, a nod to the “states’ rights” doctrine that has historically been wielded to strip black people of democratic rights, particularly in the South. Thirty states currently have bans on gay marriage written into their constitutions. This includes North Carolina, where voters passed a state constitutional amendment on May 8 stating that “marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this state,” posing a potential challenge to civil unions between heterosexuals as well.
Obama’s statement dwelt on “committed” and “monogamous” gay couples that he knows while praising their good parenting—in other words, the traditional “one man on one woman for life” applied with a lifestyle twist. So gay people, too, can struggle to shoehorn their personal lives into the institution of marriage, one of the means by which the ruling class exerts social control. And gay working people like others will keep struggling to find affordable, quality childcare, medical care and decent education for their kids, while trying to feed and house their families on diminishing wages and benefits.
The Spartacist League supports full equal rights for gays, just as we support any gain in civil and democratic rights that the working class and the oppressed can wrest from the capitalist rulers and their state. This includes the right for gays to marry—a condition for receiving a range of necessary social benefits. Marriage rights or not, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders will continue to face deadly bigotry in this homophobic society, where organized religion and the nuclear family are key institutions for the maintenance of the capitalist order. We also support the right of gays to enter the military without any “don’t ask, don’t tell” traps, which does not lessen by one iota our class opposition to the imperialist military and its wars and occupations.
Humorist Fran Lebowitz hit the target when she said in her HBO documentary that she was “stunned” that the two greatest desires of gay rights activists were marriage and serving in the military. She noted, “Usually the fight for freedom is the fight for freedom…. This is like the fight for slavery.” We say: For the right to gay marriage—and divorce! Not one person, not one penny for the imperialist armed forces! We communists fight for a workers government, under which no one will be forced into a legal straitjacket (they don’t call it “wedlock” for nothing) to get medical benefits, visitation rights, child custody, citizenship rights or any of the other privileges this capitalist society grants to married couples.
Reformist Left: Democrats’ Amen Corner
However cheap it came, the president’s “evolution” on gay marriage was greeted with effusive praise in the expected liberal quarters. The New York Times raised comparisons with Lyndon Baines Johnson’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The National Organization for Women issued a statement “celebrating” Obama’s views, while the gay and transgender rights organization AllOut.org sent him a thank you card, “Obama Stood Up for Love,” with 75,000 signatures. Also unsurprising was the praise, coupled with some mild criticism, coming from the reformist left. The Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) called Obama’s comments a “sea-change” analogous to the “major historic moment” of his election as the first black president (Liberation, 12 May). The International Socialist Organization (ISO) chimed in that the statement “is, of course, historic,” while chastising Obama for being a “latecomer” on “marriage equality” (“What Took Him So Long?” Socialist Worker, 14 May).
The reformists decry Obama’s deference to states’ rights as well as his flip-flops on gay marriage, which Obama supported in 1996 during his first campaign for the Illinois state senate, only to reverse course when he went on to run for the U.S. Senate. In the 2008 elections, his opposition to gay marriage was perhaps the most effective tool in the passage of California’s Proposition 8, which enshrined marriage as being between heterosexuals only. “Robocalls” were placed to people’s cellphones with recordings of Obama declaring: “I believe marriage is a union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian, it is also a sacred union.” This was hardly a first for the Democrats. Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that pronounced, “The word ‘marriage’ means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife.”
But the complaints of the ISO, PSL & Co. about the Democrats’ waffling on gay rights are in the service of their main selling point: that it was pressure exerted by gay and lesbian activists that got Obama to do right, and now it’s time to keep the pressure on. Thus, the PSL opines that Obama’s announcement was “a victory for the marriage equality movement,” one that “will help fuel more resistance against the entrenched reactionaries who seek to push the LGBT movement back.” Similarly, the ISO opines that “activists may be right in hoping the statement will make it harder for Democrats to back away from future action in defense of equality.”
Like the editorialists at the New York Times, the reformist “socialists,” who were gaga over Obama’s election four years ago, worry that his record as U.S. imperialist Commander-in-Chief has alienated the working people, blacks, immigrants and youth who bought the lie that his administration would bring some relief from the attacks of the Bush gang. Fat chance! As the world capitalist economic crisis grinds on, working people have been made to pay through home foreclosures, massive and long-term unemployment and the shredding of pensions and other benefits. While unions have taken it on the chin, the White House has steadily increased attacks on fundamental civil liberties at home while refocusing U.S. imperialism’s murderous operations abroad, from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Yemen and Libya.
Whether it’s defense of abortion rights and gay rights or the struggle against racist terror, the reformists, whose political activity is entirely defined by the framework of bourgeois society, peddle the notion that the Democratic Party is the vehicle through which the exploited and the oppressed can satisfy their demands. This lie, which is sold by the trade-union bureaucracy to its working-class base, is fundamental to keeping working people politically chained to the decaying capitalist system, having led countless struggles against oppression and war to the graveyard. In contrast, our activity is directed to forging a class-struggle workers party, the necessary instrument to lead the proletariat in the overthrow of the wretched capitalist order. Key to this perspective is breaking the working class, blacks and others on the receiving end of the rulers’ attacks from all illusions in the Democratic Party, the “lesser evil” face of U.S. imperialism.
In the Beginning Was Jimmy Carter
As November approaches, the public is due for yet more nauseating doses of the contest for the title “holier than thou,” now a staple in U.S. elections. Today, it’s unthinkable that a U.S. president would repeat Ulysses S. Grant’s 1876 statement: “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church and private schools entirely supported by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.” This pronouncement, which was commonplace at the time, was uttered barely a decade after the defeat of the slaveholding South in the American Civil War, the U.S. bourgeoisie’s last progressive war. It is a mark of the degeneracy of U.S. capitalist class rule in this epoch of imperialist decay that a fundamental tenet of the Bill of Rights—the strict separation of church and state—has all but withered away.
Stoking the fires of religious and social reaction, Mitt Romney echoes the loony religious right’s claim that Obama wants to make the U.S. into “a less Christian nation.” Obama has himself pandered to the forces of religious reaction, from overruling the FDA’s approval of the “morning after” birth control pill for teens to agreeing to exclude women workers of Catholic institutions from mandatory contraceptive health insurance coverage (see “Obama Panders to Religious Reaction,” WV No. 997, 2 March).
In fact, the mobilization for Christian “family values” has long been a bipartisan effort. It was Democratic president Jimmy Carter who hyped the values of Christian fundamentalism, as a weapon to roll back the gains of the civil rights and other struggles of the 1950s and ’60s. To the extent that some democratic rights have been extended to gays, it has primarily been as a by-product of those struggles, including the fight against the dirty imperialist war in Vietnam. Carter’s crusade was part of a major bourgeois ideological assault aimed at overcoming the “Vietnam syndrome” and instilling an unquestioning acceptance of capitalism, God and family, including the desirability of dying for one’s country. Since that time, God has been the close personal friend of every American president, Republican or Democratic, while abortion rights, affirmative action in education and other gains have been under constant assault as part of a generalized onslaught against labor and the oppressed.
The push for “family values” has prominently served as a battering ram in this effort. A case in point was the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act” signed by Democrat Bill Clinton the same year he approved the Defense of Marriage Act. Part of his ending “welfare as we know it,” the Personal Responsibility act consigned millions of impoverished women to the scrap heap. It authorized government control over the personal and sexual lives of welfare recipients by enabling states to use their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds to promote marriage and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Now, as the New York Times (7 April) reported, the cash welfare rolls have barely budged despite four years of the worst economy in decades. The victims are primarily single mothers, who resort to selling their own blood and food stamps for cash or rummaging through garbage cans to feed their children. As always in this country founded on black chattel slavery, any attack on the poor hits black people hardest.
The four-decade-long assault on the gains made by blacks, women and others underscores that democratic rights are indivisible. The Spartacist League has stood out in opposing state repression of the most oppressed and marginalized, from Mormon polygamists to NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association), a group vilified by mainstream gay rights organizations and opportunist “socialists” for advocating the decriminalization of consensual sex between men and boys. We oppose all laws that enable the state to regulate consensual sexual activity, including those that allow the government to exercise social control under the guise of “protecting children.”
It is a vital task of the revolutionary vanguard to champion full democratic rights for gays and to fight to win the working class to this cause. Like the oppression of women, the oppression of homosexuals is not primarily the result of narrow-mindedness. Both are fundamentally grounded in the institution of the family—the root of the patriarchal subjugation of women—and in organized religion. Ending the dominance of church and family, which are necessary props of the capitalist system of exploitation, will require overthrowing bourgeois rule through workers socialist revolution. Through the expropriation of the productive property of the capitalist class, a workers government will lay the basis for a planned economy that qualitatively expands society’s productive forces, eliminating scarcity and vastly expanding the range and depth of scientific knowledge. This will mark the beginning of the socialist epoch of human freedom, destroying the last vestiges of religious and social backwardness.