Bush Chooses Gay Marriage

Both of Chicago’s downtown dailies came out flatly against the constitutional amendment that President Bush claims he supports. But to a gay person thinking of marriage, the Sun-Times editorial was vastly more heartening.

The Tribune wrapped its nut graph in ifs, yets, and howevers. The graph, the part of the February 25 editorial a CPA would call the bottom line, couldn’t have begun more clearly: “This page firmly opposes a constitutional amendment to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.” Then it immediately went off the rails: “Were such an amendment to be adopted, it would render moot a process of debate and decision-making that the American public, through their legislatures, must be permitted to have in the years ahead.”

What’s more, the Tribune editorial hid its nut graph in the editorial’s middle, swaddled in a lecture to gays who want to marry on not reaching for too much too soon. “Now we have seen the inevitable backlash,” said the Tribune, speaking of Bush’s endorsement of the constitutional amendment. It also told anyone “outraged” by what Bush did to remember that “the president wasn’t spoiling for this fight. Until now he had avoided an endorsement of the campaign for a constitutional amendment on marriage. The events of recent weeks have forced the issue. It seems to have been lost on those who celebrated the Massachusetts ruling that a backlash was inevitable.”

And so on. The editorial ended in finger wagging. “If the proponents of state sanctioned gay marriage are to head off a constitutional amendment, they will have to recognize that actions such as that taken in San Francisco are damaging to their cause. If they are to achieve their goal”–which the Tribune didn’t quite seem to approve of–“they will have to win the confidence and support of the public.”

Let patience be the watchword.

Something the Tribune overlooked is that any serious attempt to ratify the constitutional amendment it saw thundering down the tracks would demand the “process of debate and decision-making” it was hoping for, not forgo it. State by state, legislature by legislature, the amendment would have to be argued out. Whatever anyone thinks about the late Equal Rights Amendment, introduced in Congress in 1972 and extinguished ten years later, no one can say the nation didn’t debate it.

There’s a strong possibility that President Bush slyly gave lip service to a cause that needs tow service–praising the amendment to get it out of his hair while assuming it will go nowhere. What I immediately liked about the February 26 Sun-Times editorial was its unwillingness to take Bush seriously. It began, “One need only look at the past attempts to amend the U.S. Constitution to gauge how much anxiety to expend over the current effort….Our guess: not much.”

The Sun-Times recalled campaigns under other Republican presidents to tinker with the Constitution, one of them to permit open prayer in public schools, another to prohibit flag burning. The paper called these “niche interests” that were of “tremendous importance to the Republican right” and of little importance to the nation. They failed, and here we go again. “The ‘sanctity’ of marriage does not need defending by the federal government,” said the Sun-Times. “Rather, this effort would freeze in amber a prejudice that might not exist 30 years from now–requiring a second, equally enormous effort to remove it from the Constitution.”

A “prejudice”–clearly a word not carelessly chosen. The editorial ended just as pointedly. “The last time the Constitution was significantly amended was to lower the voting age to 18. This was done because it was observed that 18-year-olds could fight and die for their country: They should have the right to vote. We would observe that, the attitude of the military notwithstanding, gay people also fight and die for this country. They, too, are citizens.”

It was a nice touch to put “sanctity” in ironic quotes, inviting the reader to think about what marriage actually is. Neither the proposed marriage amendment, which says, “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman,” nor Bush when speaking up for the “preservation of marriage,” has tackled that assignment. But this is the Constitution we’re talking about. Before changing it to protect an institution, we should consider the institution.

Marriage is a legal relationship between two people conferring on each certain advantages and obligations concerning the other. Civil union, which offers the same relationship to gay couples, seems clearly an idea whose time has come–and opponents of civil union are right to fear it as gay marriage’s foot in the door. Because the marriage amendment would allow states to sanction civil unions, those opponents don’t think it goes far enough.

It’s a public declaration of a relationship in the fewest possible words. Say “We’re married” and you’ve said what would otherwise take thousands of words to convey. No constitution can keep two people from saying “We’re married.”

Of greatest importance to the amendment’s sponsors, marriage is a sacrament. Undoubtedly George W. Bush agrees, but he can’t allow himself to say so. He’d be inviting the question: what business is it of any president to be dictating sacraments? If a gay couple finds a pastor willing to conduct a ceremony that concludes with the declaration, “I pronounce you married in the eyes of God,” what does the president think the federal government should be able to do about it?

Lastly, marriage is a bog. It keeps people rooted, because pulling out of it is simply too much trouble. And for most of us, that’s how we want it. In the halls of Congress and in the legislatures of America, lawmakers who support the marriage amendment will have to rise and explain why allowing gays into this bog would drain it.

It’ll be interesting to see just how much political good Bush has done himself. Two days after the Tribune editorial appeared I spotted a number of sharply worded letters on its editorial page wondering why the state would concern itself with the Lord’s work. And here’s the Wall Street Journal’s front-page coverage of Bush’s endorsement:

“Bush backed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriages. In a bid to fire up his conservative base and a sign he’d prefer to battle for re-election on the field of cultural discord, the president gave his long-implied blessing to a course of action he said was forced upon him by activist Massachusetts judges and municipal disobedience in San Francisco. Critics called it an effort to shift debate away from issues that have been pulling him down in polls.”

With friends like these…

Passion Is No Ordinary Word

I’m thinking of waiting for The Passion of the Christ to come out on DVD and then not renting the DVD. But props to Mel Gibson: his new blockbuster has set off a fierce, healthy argument over a text even more sacred to the American people than the Second Amendment. That’s an accomplishment.

Months before the movie was released a debate broke out between those who worried that it was anti-Semitic and those who didn’t. That hasn’t been settled, but the arguing has spread to viewers who think the film is irredeemably violent and ignores the Christ of love and mercy and viewers who admire it for reminding us that when Christ died for our sins he didn’t die in bed.

In an essay in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Stephen Prothero, chairman of the department of religion at Boston University, identified a deeper debate–“a battle between secular humanists and true believers.” Some reviewers and commentators accept Christ as their savior and are responding to The Passion as Gibson’s confrontation with the most important event in human history. Others don’t and aren’t. Writers who’ve made an issue of Gibson’s pre-Vatican II Catholicism and explored the ways in which his movie fails to reflect modern biblical scholarship are often interesting, but only occasionally is there the ardor of faith answering faith.

The Passion raked in $117.5 million in its first five days, a staggering amount that makes me suspect there were some secular humanists in the audience. The Crucifixion haunts people who don’t even believe in it–people who think it’s mythology as illogical as it is profound. I used to think about Christ dying for our sins and wonder why we were supposed to be so impressed. How long was he dead? Three days? I could do three days standing on my head.

Finally I decided the Gospels got it right. Once you’re dead, a day’s the same as eternity; it’s dying that’s hard. I imagine Christ hanging on a cross beyond human touch and saying a slow farewell to human existence–to its fears, rages, and delights, to his own flesh, to the sweet aromas of the cooking fires at dusk. What a staggering price to pay, even to one who knows he will soon pass this way again as God. Scourging has nothing to do with my understanding of Christ’s torment, constructed of overwhelming loss and loneliness. But to each his own. Scourging is central to Gibson’s understanding, and he’s the one who made the movie.

News Bites

Last Sunday night during the Academy Awards, United Airlines introduced a new TV ad campaign. The animation line was original, but the theme music was the old, familiar Rhapsody in Blue. The commercial was a deft way of declaring, “We’re whole again.”

The next morning the Sun-Times did the same thing. Chicago journalists of a certain age still refer to the Sun-Times with affectionate irony as “the bright one,” which is what the paper chose to call itself during the 1970s when it was winning a fistful of Pulitzers. A handsome ad on page three of the Monday issue proclaimed it “the bright one” once again.

It’s the Sun-Times’s first marketing campaign in seven years, says Jaclene Tetzlaff, whose marketing department created it. The last one “was horrible. It was called ‘The Sun-Times is your times’ or something. It was produced in 1997, but it looked very 70s.”

While “the bright one” actually is very 70s.

“That’s the beautiful thing called brand equity,” says Tetzlaff. There were doubters, she says, but they caved. “It takes a lot of maturity to say, if this is the right thing for the product, let’s do what’s right. ‘The bright one’ says everything we are. Fast, edgy, quick, on the ball. Who doesn’t want to be bright?”

The new tag suits the present interregnum, this odd, happy period after Conrad Black and David Radler and before whatever and whoever come next. While Hollinger International writhes in agony in various courthouses, John Cruickshank and Michael Cooke are being left alone to put out a paper. They’re actually hiring, and they shifted some resources to investigative reporting.

“Kind of reminds you of the old days when editors owned their newspapers. William Allen White and all that,” Roger Ebert e-mailed me. He added, “By the way, I have been recommending the return of the slogan ‘The Bright One’ for 20 years.”

The press has taken one cheap shot after another since Ralph Nader announced he’s going to make another run for president. Nader has every reason in the world to seek vindication–in a more just society he’d be president today. In 2000 Gore defeated Bush–and Nader defeated Gore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William L. Brown.