This week I spent an evening with my daughters shopping for my wife Annie’s Mother’s Day present. While shopping isn’t my favorite activity, spending an evening with the girls to find a way to express their appreciation for their mother seemed a highly worthwhile endeavor. I know very little of the history of Mother’s Day. Many of you may see this as a “Hallmark holiday”, fueled by retailers’ desire to stimulate spending. But to me, Mother’s Day is always a much needed reminder of how grateful we should be to those who raise us – and an equally welcome opportunity to celebrate the critical role that family plays in our lives. 

But Mother’s Day is hardly the only reason that family is front and center in the minds of many Americans right now. That’s because this week, for the first time in US history, a sitting president said that he believes that same sex couples should have the right to become families in the eyes of the law. In an interview on ABC News, President Obama admitted that his thinking has evolved in recent years on this issue but that “At a certain point I’ve just concluded that for me, personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

President Obama had at one time opposed gay marriage in favor of civil unions. The president said that he was “sensitive to the fact that — for a lot of people — that the word marriage is something that provokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs.” But he said he had changed his stance on this issue after witnessing committed same-sex marriages and thinking about U.S. service personnel who were bravely serving their country but “not able to commit themselves in a marriage.”

People in the United States have widely varying perspectives, with the population now pretty evenly split on the issue of same sex marriage. Often, deeply held religious beliefs figure strongly for those who feel that the opportunity for marriage between same sex couples should not be the law of the land. As many people of good faith wrestle with this issue, there is no doubt that for most this is a sincere struggle in which issues of their tradition, culture, and religious beliefs weigh heavily. Not surprisingly, many left-wing groups strongly supported the President’s statement as a significant step in the right direction. Liberal congressional leader Barney Frank said that “no president could have made such a statement” as recently as 10 years ago. Some might say, well, that’s Barney Frank.

But the desire to put this issue into an ideological box is not so easy to do. Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican presidential nominee, was arguably the most politically conservative candidate for President of the last half of the 20th century. He was often called the Godfather of Modern Conservatism – a fervent believer in Thomas Paine’s philosophy (also sometimes attributed to Thoreau) that government that governs best, governs least. Senator Goldwater spent considerable time in his later life supporting gay rights, including gay marriage. Goldwater believed that no true conservative would want more government intrusion in people’ personal lives and said, “It’s time America realized that there was no gay exemption in the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in the Declaration of Independence.”

Former Vice President Dick Cheney, another staunch conservative and supporter of gay marriage, has said “Freedom means freedom for everyone … People ought to be free to enter into any kind of union they wish”, although Cheney, like Obama, believes this issue should be handled at the state, not national, level. 

In making his historic statement, President Obama discussed the fact that his daughters have friends whose parents are same-sex couples. Obama stated that “It wouldn’t dawn on them that somehow their friends’ parents would be treated differently. It doesn’t make sense to them and frankly, that’s the kind of thing that prompts a change in perspective.” By invoking the image of his two young daughters, the President reminds us that the most  significant divide on this issue is generational. As recently as 8 years ago, one national poll suggested that Americans were against gay marriage 2-1. But today, according to the Pew Research Center, 64% of Americans born after 1981 (the next generation of policy makers) support same sex marriage and this statistic may offer the greatest insight into what the future holds for this issue.

So while this week’s vote in North Carolina to protect that sanctity of marriage (i.e. outlawing gay marriage in that state) demonstrates that strong feelings persist on both sides of the gay marriage debate, and while there is no clear consensus in sight, this week seems to mark another shift toward the acceptance of a new and broader definition of family in the United States. 

Happy Mother’s Day!



The Boston College Center for Work & Family is a global leader in helping organizations create effective workplaces that support and develop healthy and productive employees. Please visit us at www.bc.edu/cwf
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