The title of this month’s blog is inspired by the NPR Podcast Series “This I Believe.” If you have never listened to it, I highly recommend you check it out.
This I Believe: Civil Rights are Equal Rights
This month, the Supreme Court will rule on marriage equality. In the court of public opinion, the issue has already reached the tipping point. In 1996, the first time Gallup polled on the issue, only 27% of the public thought that same-sex couples deserved marriage equality, but in 2014, the poll showed that 55% of the public now believes that civil marriage is a civil right for all people. (A separate poll by the Wall Street Journal has 58% in support of marriage equality.) That’s an amazing shift, and I can only really attribute it to one thing: people have realized that gay people are not trying to destroy them! That’s right: gay people are just people trying to live their lives. They do not want to wreck your life or your marriage. I am in a same-sex marriage (Thank you, Maryland!), and I can attest that there is nothing about my relationship that adversely impacts the heterosexuals around me.
I believe the experience of actually knowing a gay person is what changes minds and hearts. I did not meet an openly gay person until I went to college, and since I went to college pretty late in life, that was when I was almost 30 years old. It caused quite a bit of cognitive dissonance for me. On the one hand, I grew up in an environment that told me that homosexuals were abhorrent – that God hated them. On the other hand, I knew this nice, funny, creative, and warm man who would become one of my lifelong friends. How could he be abhorrent? Worst of all, he knew I was “religious,” and the idea that he might think I hated him for who he was sickened me. Most of all, knowing him got me to think about what I had always heard and been taught. I always say, if you want your faith to mean anything, it has to be your own – not merely an uncritical repetition of what has come before. I ought to know why I believe what I believe.
There are some who argue that the Bible defines marriage as the union between one man and one woman. Actually, this is not consistently true. In various places in the Bible, marriage is defined as the union between a man and “at least” one woman. Men with multiple wives are described as “highly blessed” in their marriages. Abram cheated on his wife, and the servant woman that he took as a second wife bore him a son. That’s not exactly what traditionalists think of as a traditional marriage.
In fact, there were a variety of marriages that were permissible in the disparate cultures that produced the Bible. Titus 1:6 describes a monogamous relationship. But Deuteronomy 22:28-29 has a less romantic view of marriage wherein rape victims are given by their fathers to marry the man who raped them – after, of course, the rapist pays the girl’s father 50 pieces of silver. In another passage of Deuteronomy (25:5-10), a man is commanded to marry his brother’s widow – even if he himself is already married. This is also mandated in Genesis and Ruth. These are just a few examples of how marriage was practiced in these distinct moments. But we might also argue that as members of a pluralistic society, it doesn’t matter what the authors of the Bible thought. We are a society of many religions and many beliefs – the beliefs of one religious group should not define the rights for all people, especially for an institution that has long been more secular than religious.
I think the key to understanding this is acknowledging that the definition of marriage has always been produced by culture, and culture changes. Now, our culture does not look favorably on polygamy. We do not think a rapist should be able to buy his victim or that having sex before marriage makes a woman unworthy of marriage (and thus more inclined to marry the man who raped her). We don’t think a man should be compelled to marry his brother’s widow. We do believe in marital monogamy. And as we have seen, we are now culturally ready to believe that loving same-sex couples deserve a chance at happiness.
It’s about more than just happiness though. It’s about rights and dignity. When opponents of same-sex marriage argue for civil unions instead of marriage, they perhaps don’t realize that what they are asking for is a version of the “Separate but Equal” fallacy that suppressed African-Americans for so long in this country. They are right about this: our culture views marriage as a sacred right. This is precisely why same-sex couples should share it. We don’t get to pick and choose who gets rights and who doesn’t – in our society, we demand equal rights.
You might not know that much of our country’s philosophy was influenced by the English philosopher John Locke. Locke advocated for natural rights – the basic rights of all human beings to be treated with dignity and respect by virtue of their very humanity. Locke wrote that all human beings are equal in the sense that they are born with certain “inalienable” natural rights. That is, rights that are inherent to every individual and can never be taken away. Locke also argued that individuals should be free to make choices about how to conduct their own lives as long as they do not interfere with the liberty of others. Thomas Jefferson thought these were pretty good ideas – so much so that he put them into the Declaration of Independence.
Marriage is not the only right we are talking about. For example, free speech is a civil right we are all entitled to. What’s hard is that we have to honor free speech even when we don’t agree with what is being said. The Westboro Baptist Church’s message is abhorrent, but we have to respect their right to be abhorrent. We have to respect them because we also respect the rights of union workers and Million Mom Marchers to picket, assemble, and protest. Everyone gets the same rights or else they are not sacred. And we believe that our rights ought to be sacred – that is the society we want to belong to.
In his book, A Theory Of Justice, philosopher John Rawls asks us to imagine that we belong to a group of people who are gathered to plan our own future society, a just and fair society that operates under a Social Contract. Rawls calls this scenario the “Original Position.” In the Original Position, we don’t know who we will be in society, what status we will have. So, we must design our society behind what Rawls calls the Veil Of Ignorance:
“No one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.”
The goal, then, is to create a society in which you are guaranteed to be treated fairly. You might be gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, male, female, transgendered, fit, or physically limited, but it will not matter. If you have created a truly just and fair society, everyone will have the same opportunities, the same challenges, and the same freedoms.
You might be thinking: but the people who wrote the Bible never imagined that people of the same sex might want to get married. For the most part, I think you’re right: they couldn’t imagine it. Just like there was a time when we in America could not imagine people from different races getting married. We could not imagine that African Americans could be more than slaves. We could not imagine that women ought to be allowed to vote. We could not imagine these things – until we did. Culture evolves because people change. In every instance, we lean into inclusion. I believe we have crossed the Rubicon now with marriage equality and other gay rights, but there are still many important issues for us to consider on our way to a fair and just society. For example, Bruce Jenner’s recent interview and transition to Caitlyn Jenner has pushed transgender issues, finally, into the national conversation. It’s a dialogue that is long overdue and will be difficult. But I have faith that as long as we consistently do the human thing, that as long as we consistently value the natural rights of individuals, we will find our way. As Dr. King so wonderfully said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Next month on Friday Nite Writes: This I Believe – Part Two
© 2015 Ryna May