icon caret-left icon caret-right instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads question-circle facebook circle twitter circle linkedin circle instagram circle goodreads circle pinterest circle

Doris writes a weekly column for LaGaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper, which has pages in English, Spanish, and Italian.  Begun in 1922 for Tampa's immigrant community, it continues to thrive more than a century later.  Her column is titled "In Context," as it aims to put contemporary issues in the context of the past.

A real United States

Last week, we took a long step towards becoming the United States of America instead of the United States

It’s always been confounding to me that conservatives who extol personal liberty and freedom nonetheless are the first to argue for “states rights.” What most really mean, I think, is liberty and freedom for themselves and not for those they deem inferior. They mean their freedom to oppress, enslave, lynch, and otherwise destroy the freedoms of the rejected class. They wrote state laws to promote these goals, and even today, are not embarrassed to place states rights over human rights.

That philosophy also pretends to revere small government. But the more a society empowers the state over the individual, the more controlling and less democratic it becomes. The ultimate result can be fascism, which, ironically, uses rhetoric that is the reverse of its true values. Fascism (indeed, militarism under whatever name) depends on soldiers and police who unquestioningly follow orders -- the very opposite of the freedom and rugged individualism that its politicians proclaim. Nations such as Nazi Germany couch their evil intent with terms such as liberty, but they never intend that for everyone. The true rulers are the powerful, including the bullies who win elections by convincing the racially and/or religiously privileged that a strong state – even an absolute dictatorship – is necessary to preserve their “freedom.”

In fact, all of human history can be seen as a long struggle between individual rights and the rights of states, in the form of a king or emperor or dictator who often claims to be ordained by God. Watch for that rhetoric. See it for what it is.

* * *

It was a hard week to be a conservative, and I mean that sincerely, not sarcastically. I don’t want to be in-your-face like so many (mostly male) pundits and celebrate these Democratic victories with gleeful smugness. Having spent years moving beyond the prejudices of my youth in both Arkansas and Minnesota, I know how hard it is to question long-held tenets that our parents and preachers taught us as Truth. I sympathize with those who sincerely believe that homosexuality is a sin and therefore its practitioners should be subject to legal punishment. That conclusion is the understandable, but unfortunate, result of confusing church canon with civil law. It goes back to the earlier paragraph about kings who convinced people that they were God on Earth.

When American colonies were settled, most people still believed in the divine right of monarchs – they merely (and fatally) disputed about whether God’s spokesperson was the Protestant queen of England or the Catholic king of Spain. With the possible exception of New York and Rhode Island, church and state mingled together unquestioned in the early colonies. Especially Massachusetts routinely executed people for theological heresy, including Mary Dyer, who was hanged on Boston Common in 1660 for the crime of being a Quaker. In 1688, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts tried hundreds of people for witchcraft and executed many of them. These trials and executions were state procedures conducted by church leaders.

New England’s Puritans truly believed that the Devil walked among them, and most of the clergymen who sentenced innocent people (especially women) to death never repented of their rulings. Homosexuality also was a capital crime and subject to the death penalty. Again, this was based on the Bible – although other Old Testament injunctions were ignored. Puritans never ritually sacrificed animals (or children, as Abraham almost did) to obey that mandate, and they gladly ate pork and shellfish. Neither they nor their descendants ever brought any legal action on what I consider the most interesting of many bans in Leviticus, the Old Testament chapter on laws.

Using the language of King James, Leviticus 20:19 reads: “Thou shalt not let thy cattle gender with a diverse kind; thou shalt not sow thy field with mingled seed; neither shall a garment mingled of linen and woolen come upon thee.” In other words, we are not to hybridize beef or plants (the GMO folks would be glad to hear that), nor can we weave any kind of mixed fabric, not even from natural fibers. For our further edification, this is repeated in Deuteronomy 22:11. Again, I do not want to mock sincerely held beliefs, but simply to point out how selective biblical injunctions can be. Why should these very specific rules be ignored, while more vague pronouncements on homosexuality were enforced to the point of death?

* * *

It’s the mixing of church belief with state enforcement that really matters, and that is what the Supreme Court addressed on Friday. Despite outrage on the right, the 6-3 decision had several constitutional legs to stand on.

The most potent constitutional basis is in Article IV, Section 1: “Full faith and credit shall be given in each State to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other State.” The “full faith and credit” clause became especially controversial in the mid-twentieth century with divorce laws. Yes, children, divorce still was a whispered word when I was a child, and very few states allowed an amicable one. During World War II, South Carolina – now once again at the heart of national debate – had no divorce law at all, as its politicians proclaimed the marital contract to be forever. If a South Carolina couple wanted to divorce, one of them – usually the woman -- had to pretend to be a resident of Nevada for six weeks. That state then granted a divorce, and the Constitution’s “full faith and credit” clause forced South Carolina to accept it. Now two generations later, the same clause ensures that gay people can marry in any state, and their personal rights outweigh any states rights.

The second rationale, which is most commonly used in civil rights cases, is the “equal protection” clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Adopted in 1866, just after the Civil War ended, the last sentence of Section 1 said that no state could “deny to any person…the equal protection of the law.” Congress and the state legislatures that ratified the amendment were clear in their intent that personal rights are more important than states rights. Using this as additional ballast, the Court decided that no state can deny a marriage license based on a person’s intended bride or groom.

The main problem for people who have trouble accepting the decision is that civil marriage became so historically confused with religious marriage. No one is insisting that pastors or priests or imams with different beliefs must perform wedding ceremonies: just as the gay couple is free to marry under the law, members of the clergy are free to refuse to bless them. Choice – that’s what it’s all about. So many people, though, are accustomed to thinking that they, via the state, have the authority to make other people’s choices.

And way too often they wax wise on how their constitutional rights are being taken from them. I wish they actually would read the document. They might notice that the Constitution has absolutely no reference to God or Christianity or any other mention of religion – except for the very clear prohibition against a state religion. Having witnessed endless wars over theology (especially in Europe, but also here in colonial civil wars), the Founding Fathers attempted to draw a specific line between church and state. The very first clause of the very first sentence of the Bill of Rights says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Despite what you hear on right-wing radio and TV, the founders did not create a Christian nation. In fact, with forethought and a clear statement, they did the opposite.

The Declaration of Independence, an earlier document, did have a religious mention – but only to a Creator, and certainly not to Christ or Christianity. Its prime author, Thomas Jefferson, was an agnostic on a personal level, but his argument against mixing church and state was not based on that. Instead he argued for a truly civil society that tolerated dissenters from the norm. Jefferson wrote: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”

Finally, it would be nice if people who say they are dedicated to the Constitution also would ponder its preamble: “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” A more perfect Union – sounds like the federal government to me. Establish justice – sounds like courts that protect individuals from state power. And so on, especially with “promote the general welfare” as a proclaimed goal for the United States. These are the values that right-wingers deride as “liberal.” Please think about it.


Doris Weatherford writes a weekly column for La Gaceta, the nation's only trilingual newspaper. With pages in Spanish, Italian, and English, it has been published in Tampa since 1922.
Make a comment to the author