President Barack Obama's surprise backing of same-sex marriage got mixed reviews around the world Wednesday, but appeared to be doing him no harm in this U.S. election year.
Obama surprised the world by saying he now personally supports same-sex marriage. He had been expected to navigate more cautiously through the issue after Vice-President Joe Biden caught many off-guard with a clear statement of support on Sunday.
Most organized religions were reserved at best, while gays and liberal Christians marveled at the president's move, which distances his Democratic Party campaign significantly from the Republicans and their expected candidate Mitt Romney.
"We cannot be silent in the face of words or actions that would undermine the institution of marriage, the very cornerstone of our society," Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said in a statement. "The people of this country, especially our children, deserve better."
Public opinion in the U.S. is split on the issue, according to a recent Gallup poll cited by the website Politico. Fifty per cent of Americans believe same-sex marriage should be legally recognized, the latest poll suggested, a slight drop from last year's 53 per cent.
While most conservative Christians were predictably appalled, others found a perverse political hope in Obama's position.
"This could definitely get them riled up … hopefully," Caryl Scales, a member of Hampton Road Baptist Church in DeSoto, Texas, told Reuters. "I'm not happy with it. I believe scripture. God's word says gay marriage is wrong."
On Wednesday, Obama called Rev. Joel Hunter, who prays often with the president, and told him what he was doing. Hunter, an evangelical pastor and founder of the 15,000-member Northland church in the Orlando, Fla., area, told The Associated Press they spoke for about 15 minutes.
"I said I disagreed with this decision," he said. "I said, more precisely, 'This is not how I read Scripture,' and he totally understood that. In the end, he was doing what he believed was right, what he thinks is authentic for him at this time in his life."
Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani told CBS News that how the issue plays in New York or California matters less than how the reaction goes in swing states such as Ohio and North Carolina that will decide the outcome of the presidential election.
Giuliani himself, a Republican, favours same-sex civil partnerships, though not marriage.
"Its time has come in New York," he said. "Its time has not come in North Carolina."
'Fire up the base'
North Carolina passed a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage Tuesday by 61 per cent to 39 per cent, which presents risks for Obama.
Republican strategist Ford O'Connell, who advised candidate John McCain in the 2008 campaign, was asked Thursday by CBC News how he would counsel Romney this year on the issue of gay marriage.
He said he would suggest Romney use it "to fire up the base … and basically try to lock off the southeast, which will be Virginia and North Carolina and Florida" in terms of Electoral College votes needed to win the election.
"President Obama made a very powerful personal statement, but at the same time, though, he actually hurt his sort of electoral ceiling, if you will, and we could be in for a very tight election.
In the Muslim world, reaction was cautious and somewhat wary.
Ibrahim Ali, an independent member of Malaysia's parliament and leader of a rights group for the country's majority Malay Muslims, said: "We want good relations with America, but America must not interfere in other countries' policies on this issue."
Activists hail Obama's support
"They can practise this in America if they want, since it's their right, but we are still very concerned, because whatever America practises, it often wants other countries to follow suit."
Gay-rights activists around the world hailed Obama's support as a symbolic victory. For many, the idea of legal unions between two members of the same gender is a distant dream. Gay people in many countries would settle for simply getting to be themselves without fear of being attacked or thrown in prison.
While Malaysia rarely enforces its sodomy law, it was used twice against Anwar Ibrahim, a leader of the opposition party who went to prison after a conviction in 2000 and was acquitted in a separate case early this year.
"This is unacceptable, because it is against religion, traditions and against God," said Shady Azer, an engineer in Cairo. "God created Adam and Eve. He didn't create two Adams or two Eves."
In China, "the government treats homosexuality like it does not exist," said Xiong Jing, an activist who volunteers in gay support groups in Beijing. She said Thursday that legalizing gay marriage there would be "unrealistic and impossible."
China's authoritarian government shows little tolerance for activism of any kind, and sodomy was a crime until 1997. Even today, gays are frequently discriminated against and ostracized. While Xiong welcomed Obama's support for gay marriage, she didn't think it would make much difference.
Not on Philippines agenda
Homosexuality also remains taboo in India, despite large gay pride parades recently in New Delhi and other big cities. Only this year, the government accepted a court ruling that struck down a colonial-era law banning gay sex, and the Supreme Court is now hearing appeals.
In the overwhelmingly Catholic Philippines, the only country in the world apart from the Vatican where divorce is illegal, the issue of gay marriage is not even on the agenda of gay rights groups because some of their members oppose it.
Politicians tied to Pentecostal and Catholic churches in Latin America spoke out strongly against Obama's statement.
"Barack Obama is an ethical man and a philosophically confused man," said Peruvian Congresswoman Martha Chavez, a member of the conservative Catholic Opus Dei movement.
"He knows that marriage isn't an issue only of traditions or of religious beliefs. Marriage is a natural institution that supports the union of two people of different sexes because it has a procreative function."
There are other places where Obama's endorsement of gay marriage was a ho-hum affair. Many European countries, as well as Canada, Argentina and South Africa, already allow gay marriage. So do six U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
"It seems to me that by taking this position, Obama is aligning himself with the entire world, with these times we're living in, with the achievements of rights in other countries," said gay-rights activist Cesar Cigliutti in Argentina, which in 2010 became the first Latin American country to allow gay marriages.
Australian PM still opposes same-sex unions
Prime Minister John Key of New Zealand broke his long silence on gay marriage and said his government may consider allowing it "at some stage."
But in Australia, where polls show that most people support gay marriage, left-leaning Prime Minister Julia Gillard said Thursday that she remains opposed, and three bills in Parliament that would allow same-sex couples to marry are unlikely to be passed.
France also has a population largely in support of gay marriage and a head of state who opposes it, but that is about to change. Francois Hollande, who defeated President Nicolas Sarkozy in elections Sunday, made "the right to marry and adopt for all couples" part of his campaign platform, and has set legislative passage for no later than June of next year.
In Thailand, gay activist Natee Teerarojjanapongs was energized by Obama's statement. Though Thailand is often seen as gay-friendly by tourists, Thai society remains deeply conservative and there is little support for expanding gay rights.
"I was starting to lose hope in fighting for gay marriage legalization in Thailand," Natee said, "but now Barack Obama's endorsement is rekindling my fire and is giving me the encouragement to go on."
With files from The Associated Press