Paul Greenberg

Keeping up with this president and C-in-C requires a certain patience, for in his case "the fierce urgency of now" keeps giving way to the political prudence of later. First he was for Gay Marriage, then he was against it, and now he's for it again -- but only personally. It seems that, whenever he comes to a fork in the road, he takes it. (Berra, Y.)

No wonder the country loses interest in just what he'll say next, since he's bound to take a different tack soon enough.

The president's meandering course on this issue, and not just on this issue, reflects how American society in general has dealt with moral issues in what Walker Percy called this post-Christian era: vaguely. Which was to be expected in the absence of the sacred in a society. Belief, like nature, abhors a vacuum. For man is the animal that worships; it's the nature of the species. As the old faith dwindled, it was bound to be succeeded not by emptiness but by a prolixity of new faiths -- faith in politics, in ideology, in science or art or revolution, pick your own favorite, inadequate substitute.

It happens when people begin to think of faith as something for other, lesser breeds who, as our president once put it so elegantly in an unguarded moment, "cling to their guns or religion." Mr. Obama's telling comment seemed to come naturally. It would for someone who long ago began to look on faith as only another factor to be taken into consideration in his political plans.

When it comes to faith, our president -- except on the ceremonial occasions that civil religion is so full of -- tends to speak from the outside looking in. As he did even as he attempted to explain his earlier position(s): ". . . I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot people the word 'marriage' was something that invokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs, and so forth." (I especially liked the "so forth." As if one were to refer to God, country, "and all that other stuff.")

Those benighted souls the president mentioned may think of marriage not primarily as a civil contract or something the state invented but, well, holy matrimony, to use a dated phrase. Yes, some of us still think of marriage as "an honorable estate, instituted of God." And have yet to come up with a better delineation of it than the one in the Book of Common Prayer. The state, like the president himself, might do well to stop fiddling with it.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.