Evolution of a more perfect union

In the biggest frickin’ deal of his vice presidency, Joe Biden became the highest-ranking U.S. official to publicly endorse same-sex marriage, on “Meet the Press” two Sundays ago. In doing so, he revitalized a national debate — and the hopes and fears of its combatants.

It’s unclear whether Biden deliberately decided “I’ll have another” maverick moment, but it led the president to follow suit — an even greater historic milestone.

“I had already made a decision that we were probably going to take this position before the election — and before the convention,” President Barack Obama told ABC’s Robin Robertson last Wednesday.

But Biden forced the clock ahead a couple of months. The usually apolitical Betty White, 90, endorsed Obama, telling the Associated Press she likes “how he represents us.” A Hollywood re-election fundraiser at actor George Clooney’s home amassed $15 million — a record for a single event. Another $2 million was raised from an email blast including a partial transcript of the ABC interview an hour after it aired.

“What I’ve come to realize is that for loving, same-sex couples, the denial of marriage equality means that, in their eyes and the eyes of their children, they are still considered less than full citizens,” he said, adding that it wouldn’t occur to his daughters that their friends’ same-sex parents should be treated any differently than heterosexual couples. “I respect the beliefs of others, and the right of religious institutions to act in accordance with their own doctrines. But I believe that in the eyes of the law, all Americans should be treated equally. And where states enact same-sex marriage, no federal act should invalidate them.”

“It was a dramatic statement,” said MSNBC’s Chris Matthews on “Meet the Press” last Sunday. “I think it’s almost up there with the first African-American president being president.”

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom agreed. “Millions of people’s lives were affirmed — not just gays and lesbians, but their loved ones,” he said. “These are people who were afraid to tell people who they are and who they love.”

But Al Cardenas, chairman of the American Conservative Union, warned, “You’re gonna have a revival of social conservatives like you haven’t seen in 20 years.”

Widely aired on Sunday morning was a video clip showing U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., ridiculing the president: “He said his views were evolving on marriage and — call me cynical, but I wasn’t sure that his views on marriage could get any gayer.”

Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post said, “I think it’s the perfect word … because the American people are evolving on this issue — and increasingly, they’re coming on the side of same-sex marriage.”

CBS’s “Face the Nation” host Bob Schieffer observed that Paul’s line “got a big laugh there,” but Tony Perkins of the Christian conservative Family Research Council was not amused: “I don’t think that it’s something we should joke about. We’re talking about individuals who feel very strongly one way or the other, and I think we should be civil (and) respectful …”

Singer and activist Clay Aiken refuted Perkins’ claim that same-sex marriage compels churches “to accept relationships that run counter to their religious tradition,” noting that a Baptist church denied his divorced mother’s request to re-marry there. He also offered a historical perspective: “I really strongly believe that in the next 20 years, we’re going to look back on this and be sort of ashamed of the fact that we were against this, just as we’re ashamed today that we didn’t let people of different races get married.”

It’s hard to believe that in 1967, interracial marriage was banned in 14 states and was opposed by 70 percent of Americans when the Supreme Court unanimously federalized it.

For cynics like Paul, it’s hard to believe that our strategically savvy president would take such a bold, principled stand so freighted with incalculable risk — unless they forget what he said in October 2010. Responding to a spate of suicides among young gay Americans who’d been “bullied and taunted,” Obama recorded a message exhorting them to “reach out to folks that you know care about you just the way you are.

“As a nation, we’re founded on the belief that all of us is equal and each of us deserves the freedom to pursue our own version of happiness.”

It’s getting better — faster than anyone had hoped or feared.