Dissenting With Honor
Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 dark comedy, Network, has come to pass. A prophetic condemnation of the media and what we have come know as the 24-hour news cycle: “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” But it’s an unresolved anger. Taking down the Confederate flag and the constitutional right for same-sex partners to marry: that’s a lot of change in a week. There are plenty of very happy and very angry people. No one is surprised by our polarity. Someone is mad as hell 24/7.
Let’s start with a bit of reality. The Old South is not gone. Taking down the Confederate flag will not solve the bigotry, racism, and mistrust that continue to exist. However, focusing on the flag as a symbol of institutional racism has made it easier to accept a small, but significant shift in public opinion. “It’s got to go,” is a sentiment that is much easier to digest than doing away with racial prejudice. Hugh social changes, like racism and the public’s acceptance of same-sex marriage, cannot be measured by one major event. Instead, change happens slowly, with significant triggers inching us along. Richard John Jack Baker and James Michael McConnell first applied for a marriage license in Minnesota in May 1970. Forty-five years later, the Supreme Court made same-sex marriage the law of the land. But there were many other important steps along the way. Hindsight sheds some light on the future.
We wonder what role the Confederate flag will play in the quest for racial equality; will this be a trigger for important change or, like the killings of innocent people, just a blip in that 24 hour news cycle? Attitudes on gay marriage shifted with lightening speed compared to those of race. And for many the anger and fear continues. African Americans still fear for their children. White Americans fear they will lose the right to their long-held beliefs. So, how do we get beyond this angst and acrimony?
First, let’s acknowledge that everyone is entitled to his or her anger —even Dylann Roof, self-proclaimed White supremacist and killer of nine innocent African Americans. Yes, even killers are entitled to their anger. However, no one is entitled to spew that anger on anyone else.
Justices Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia are angry too. While many rejoiced at the 5-4 Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, Thomas and Scalia voiced their disgust in their dissents. Scalia stated, “A system of government that makes the People subordinate to a committee of nine unelected lawyers does not deserve to be called a democracy.” While Thomas said that the State can neither bestow nor deny dignity, going on to proclaim, “Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved.”
Yes, they are entitled to their anger. But their public sentiments revealed much about their characters. Justice Scalia’s words suggest that if he were an honorable man, he would immediately resign from the Court. To him the highest court in the land is merely a committee and “does not deserve to be called a democracy.” Do you believe that, Antonin, about every court ruling or just the ones you object to? Perhaps it’s time for retirement.
But Justice Thomas’ words are even scarier. While the State cannot bestow dignity on its people, it most certainly can take it away. To say that Blacks did not lose their dignity from legal slavery is ethically and morally wrong. By that definition, Jews, Gays, Gypsies and many Christians didn’t suffer a loss of their dignity at the hands of the Nazis. (Yes, his words are so misguided he has forced me to use the Nazis as the baseline for moral misconduct.)
These are dishonorable dissents. They dishonor the institution; they dishonor the importance of this court case; and they make us question those who lead. They are divisive. I can accept a more honorable anger, more like Chief Justice John Robert’s dissent:
“If you are among the many Americans – of whatever sexual orientation – who favor expanding same-sex marriage, by all means celebrate today’s decision… But do not celebrate the Constitution. It had nothing to do with it.”
Roberts clearly voiced his opposition without demeaning others or denying history. The Constitution had nothing to do with it. This is an opinion I can respond to. This is something I can debate. Scalia’s and Thomas’ anger leave me nowhere to begin. Their moral outrage meets my moral outrage at theirs. And, inevitably, any attempt ends in the shouting matches we’ve seen at rallies throughout the country. As South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley stated when she proposed taking down the Confederate flag next to the capitol, “At some point, you can’t get more disgusted than you already are.” That is exactly how many of us feel. We don’t know what to say to people who think so differently. Sequestered in our camps and provoked by our so-called political and media leaders we have built no bridges of understanding. So we often say and do very dishonorable things.
Republican Presidential contenders are no exception. Mike Huckebee said, “The Supreme Court can no more repeal the laws of nature and nature’s God on marriage than it can the law of gravity…” And Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal stated: “Marriage between a man and a woman was established by God, and no earthly court can alter that… This ruling must not be used as pretext by Washington to erode our right to religious liberty.” Donald Trump’s vitriol against Mexicans… Well, I can’t get more disgusted than I already am.
Not every religious person feels the way Huckebee and Jindal do. Father William Terry of New Orleans’ Saint Anna’s Episcopal Church said to his parishioners, “I know we say we don’t preach politics from the pulpit. I’m not preaching politics, but how dare the governor presume to speak for Jesus Christ and God.” And that’s my point. Scalia, Thomas, Huckebee, Jindal and others don’t speak for me. I wouldn’t ever presume to speak for them nor any American.
We could agree to disagree, debate the issues, respect our opposition, and love our enemy as Donna Red Wing and Bob Vander Plaats have done in Iowa. Red Wing, a proponent of gay marriage and head of One Iowa, and Vander Plaats, founder of The Family Leader, a conservative organization, advocating against same-sex marriage, have done just that. Vehemently disagreeing, they have become friends, respecting each other as people, if not their social stances. One of the primary reasons gay rights have been accepted by so diverse group of Americans so quickly is that many gays and lesbians have come out and told their stories. These narratives are woven into the lives of their friends and families, people who know and care about them.
We are now facing additional debates: can an individual’s personal beliefs dictate his actions in the civil realm? Can a pharmacist refuse to sell contraceptives? Can a baker refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding? Where does dogma in the marketplace leave citizens who don’t believe as others do? Rick Santorum tweeted, “Today 5 unelected judges redefined the foundational unit of society.” Just who defines that foundational unit, Rick? Just you and other fundamentalists?
The Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges does not force a church or a minister to marry anyone. In fact, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion: “Finally, it must be emphasized that religions, and those who adhere to religious doctrines, may continue to advocate with utmost, sincere conviction that, by divine precepts, same-sex marriage should not be condoned.” This was civil issue based on the majority’s interpretation of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection clauses.
Yet, as welcomed as Justice Kennedy’s opinion on Obergefell is to many, it leaves the future debate muddied. If he had declared sexual orientation a “protected class” under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, like race, sex, and religion, gays and lesbians would be entitled to the same protections under the law. And, refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding would clearly be illegal discrimination. The majority opinion, instead, expands citizen’s right to include a life with dignity, a fundamental right under Due Process. Yet, what that means is unclear. And there will be judicial and political decisions yet to come. So all of us must find ways to move forward: all the more reason to approach our differences on a more personal, one-to-one level.
In order to have these discussions and debates we will have to agree that all of us have the right to determine the makeup of our society. There are compelling reasons for the separation between church and state. Separating the religious from the civil would give us a simple framework in which to work, like an outline does when writing. There is civil marriage and there is religious marriage. The State supports the right of all couples to file joint tax returns, visit sick spouses in hospitals, and to have access to all the benefits the government gives married people. While the churches support marriage by the tenets conveyed by each religion. Most of all, isn’t time to stop pandering to the lowest common denominator? Isn’t it time to start governing instead of obstructing and talking instead of yelling and pontificating? This would be true American Exceptionalism.
For years those who have felt there is only one right and one wrong way to live have held our country hostage. It has stunted our growth as a nation, our place in the world, and our regard for the rights of others. There are many ways to be and that’s what this is all about. We are a pluralistic society with a wide breadth of opinions, experiences, and lifestyles. We are all entitled to our anger but we aren’t entitled to let that anger define others or their beliefs. I’m tired of being angry. Let’s continue to dissent but dissent with honor, one that allows us to talk and exist together. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. That’s where we begin. And in its own way, the Supreme Court has affirmed it. But it’s our job to implement it!