Obama.

Yes you can ... President Obama follows Vice President Biden in his support for gay marriage. Photo: AP

A week before the President said he believed gay couples should have the right to marry, Reverend Sean Harris told the fathers in his North Carolina congregation to punch their sons if they suspected they were gay. It was one of those passionate sermons common enough in parts of America, but quite alien to most Australians, used to our own clergy's safe drone.

''Dads,'' he said, his voice high, hard and urgent. ''The second you see your son dropping the limp wrist you walk over there and crack that wrist!''

Laughter and a loud ''Amen!'' from among the congregants.

''Give him a good punch, OK?'' More laughter.

When the church's own internet feed of the sermon went viral, Harris and his congregants seemed a little bewildered.

Some told reporters he had been taken out of context, though could not articulate how. Harris agreed. He told CNN he did not really mean punch.

He meant shove, he explained.

This is, of course, an extreme view. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 50 per cent approved legalisation of gay marriage and 48 per cent disapproved.

But there are two Americas, red states and blue. Many evangelical Protestants in the red states of the South and Midwest believe homosexuality is an abomination before a God with whom they have a direct relationship.

 

President Barack Obama came out on Wednesday only because his Vice-President, Joe Biden, voiced his support for gay marriage in an interview on Sunday. Reporters demanded to know the President's position, but Mr Obama allowed his spokesman to face the flak, and say that the President's position was ''evolving''.

The position was not only clumsy it was untenable. Not only did people instinctively believe that Mr Obama privately supported gay marriage - as Australians do with their Prime Minister - they had seen federal laws protecting same-sex relationships moving in that direction.

The White House is now conceding that the Vice-President forced the issue, but it is claiming, quite credibly, that it had planned to make the announcement on its own terms before the Democratic convention in September.

By one account this would have happened at a rally on Monday attended by Ricky Martin, perhaps the only man in America who once had a worse kept gay secret than Obama.

Biden went to the Oval Office and apologised though it seems unfair that he should shoulder the burden for this political fumble.

The political implications for the President are not entirely clear, though you can bet his campaign would have thoroughly run the numbers; and it has embraced the announcement fully.

On Wednesday it was already running a TV advertisement highlighting the announcement and emphasising presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney's objection.

On Thursday the Obama campaign's gay finance director, Rufus Gifford, sent an email to supporters beginning, ''I am just so happy. If you are proud of your President this is a great time to make a donation to the campaign.''

Romney has confirmed he is against gay marriage, a position in line with his party's conservative base and with his Mormon faith. But Romney has always appeared a reluctant culture warrior and he avoids raising the issue unless directly asked. When that happened on Fox TV on Thursday he restated his belief that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but then said he supported gay rights to adoption.

Though new polling is not yet available, the pros and cons appear to balance for Obama. He will antagonise many in the African-American community, which remains more conservative than the broader Democratic base, but he is unlikely to lose their vote over the issue.

His decision will doubtless appal many conservatives, but he will surprise none of them. And freed of his prevarication, Obama has sounded more like the leader of conviction that so many liberals embraced in 2008.

But there is real risk, too. In a political system without compulsory voting politicians must not only attract voters, but must also try to avoid energising those of their opposition. This is precisely the sort of issue that might draw single issue voters out for Republicans in conservative states that he won four years ago and must retain - states such as North Carolina (which just voted to ban gay marriage and all civil unions), Virginia and Iowa.

So how is it that Obama could make his statement, but in Australia an unmarried atheist Prime Minister cannot? After all, Julia Gillard does not face a political machine as large as America's Christian right. And she has no problem appointing homosexuals to senior positions.

One senior Labor figure points out that Gillard's problem is as much internal as it is external. Many in her caucus are drawn from conservative Catholic unions. It is possible Gillard is keeping an eye on her party room as much as she is on the electorate.

Amid all the bloodless analysis of Obama's statement, a prominent gay conservative blogger, Andrew Sullivan of The Daily Beast, revealed just how significant the announcement was.

''I thought beforehand that this is a state issue. The President's role in this is really circumscribed,'' he told National Public Radio. ''And then I watched the interview and the tears flooded. There is something about hearing your President affirm your humanity that you don't know what effect it has until you hear it.''