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The Boston Globe

Opinion

JEFF JACOBY

Benefit of doubt on ‘evolution’

It was hard to suppress the cynicism after President Obama announced the outcome of his much-hyped “evolution” on same-sex marriage last week. He had “just concluded,” he told ABC’s Robin Roberts, that “same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

Just? That was the position he’d held in 1996, when he was running for the Illinois Legislature from one of Chicago’s most liberal neighborhoods. Once he became a candidate for national office — the US Senate in 2004 and the White House four years later — Obama reversed course, insisting that “marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.” Now, with polls showing that support for gay marriage nationally has reached 50 percent, and with pressure from liberal Democratic donors growing more insistent, Obama has revolved — I mean, evolved — into endorsing same-sex marriage again.

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As John Kerry might put it, Obama was for gay marriage before he was against it before he was for it. The Weekly Standard snarkily professed to admire Obama’s gutsy willingness to stand with “the Hollywood elite, the New York Times editorial page, [and] the American professoriat.’’ Even Obama’s real fans, including ardent proponents of same-sex wedlock, admit that his 360-degree “evolution” has been a political calculation.

But suppose it weren’t.

Suppose for the sake of argument that Obama was telling the truth when he said two years ago that the question of how to define marriage “is an issue that I wrestle with and … that I think a lot about.” Suppose he was being sincere when he argued in 2004 that while gays and lesbians are as entitled to the rights of citizenship as anyone else, there is no civil right to same-sex marriage. And when he wrote in “The Audacity of Hope” that society had the right “to carve out a special place for the union of a man and a woman as the unit of child-rearing most common to every culture.”

On all sides of this debate, there are reasonable people and legitimate concerns.

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Let’s give Obama the benefit of the doubt, if only for a moment. Let’s assume that when he claimed to be evolving on the subject, it wasn’t merely a dodge for crass political reasons. Let’s grant that his long reluctance to embrace same-sex marriage really was based on principle, not ill will or lack of feeling: He understood why many people believed that fairness and equality require making gay matrimony lawful, but he disagreed with them — in good faith — for reasons he found equally compelling. And let’s imagine that his latest evolution is just what he says it is: a personal change of view, not a condemnation of the people he used to side with.

“I’ve got a lot of friends on the other side of this issue,” the president told ABC. “And I understand their perspective in part because their impulse is the right one. They want to preserve and strengthen families.”

Admittedly, it’s hard to swallow the notion of Obama as a paragon of candor, genuinely conflicted on the question of same-sex marriage. The point is that he could have been — and nothing would have changed. Obama may be a dissembler whose “evolution” was all for show, but millions of Americans really have wrestled with the question of redefining marriage. As shifting opinion polls attest, many people who once opposed gay marriage now support it. And as the unbroken string of ballot-box victories for preserving the marriage status quo attests, many do not. In 31 states, voters have been asked to confirm the definition of marriage as the exclusive union of male and female. In 31 states — including states, like North Carolina, that voted for Obama in 2008 — they have done so.

The way too many gay-marriage advocates talk, anyone who opposes same-sex wedlock must be an ignoramus or a bigot, deserving only contempt. It’s an outrageous canard. On all sides of this debate, there are reasonable people and legitimate concerns. Whatever might be said about Obama’s twisting path, it reflects the nation’s serious divisions over a thorny and emotional issue. Give him credit for recognizing — on this issue, at least — that the best way to manage a passionate political controversy is not to ride roughshod over those with a different view.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.

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