How Do You Define Civil Rights?

As the Senate geared up to vote on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage last week, derisive howls were heard throughout the country when Senate Majority Leader Frist declared it a legislative priority. Though it’s clear that this ultimately doomed gesture was nothing but the purest pandering to cultural conservatives, there is a hidden truth to Frist’s point. The issue underlying the gay marriage debate is of paramount importance to America.

As I’ve said before, gay marriage is a civil rights issue; specifically, an issue of religious rights. Now, the religious Right’s concept of religious rights is the polar opposite of everyone else’s. No wonder; evangelical Christians supposedly make up a full half of the American populace, and the fundamental concept of civil rights is the protection of minorities from what John Stuart Mill (and others) called “the Tyranny of the Majority.”

This is the primary fault line in the kulturkampf of American politics: there is a fundamental disagreement on what ‘civil rights’ are. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than the following exchange between a reporter and our new Press Secretary, conservative former columnist and radio host Tony Snow:

WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY TONY SNOW: Whether it passes or not, as you know, Terry, there have been a number of cases where civil rights matters have risen on a number of occasions, and they’ve been brought up for repeated consideration by the United States Senate and other legislative bodies.

Q: You mentioned civil rights. Are you comparing this to various civil rights measures which have come to the Congress over the years?

MR. SNOW: Not — well, these — it —

Q: Is this a civil right?

MR. SNOW: Marriage? It actually — what we’re really talking about here is an attempt to try to maintain the traditional meaning of an institution that has maintained one meeting for — meaning for a period of centuries. And furthermore —

Q: And you would equate that with civil rights?

MR. SNOW: No, I’m just saying that I think — well, I don’t know. How do you define civil rights?

Q: It’s not up to me. Up to you.

MR. SNOW: Okay. Well, no, it’s your question. So I — if I —

Q: (Chuckles.)

MR. SNOW: I need to get a more precise definition.

So does the rest of your party, apparently. Quoth Merriam-Wester: “the nonpolitical rights of a citizen; especially : the rights of personal liberty guaranteed to U.S. citizens by the 13th and 14th amendments to the Constitution and by acts of Congress.” Then there’s the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states, in part, “All persons shall be entitled to the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, as defined in this section, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin.”

Though the Civil Rights Act doesn’t explicitly mention sexual orientation, it does mention religion as an axis of discrimination, which is what’s at stake here. But in the view of the religious majority, the concepts of freedom of religion and civil rights become flipped on their head. The idea of personal freedom of conscience becomes a question of public morality. The freedom to practice becomes the liberty to subject others to personal beliefs, or in other words, to exact binding judgment upon others. Thus, for example individual prayer becomes supplanted with mandated group prayer, whose only purpose is to coerce non-believers. The impunity with which Christians expect to coopt public institutions such as school and government becomes a religious liberty.

In this way, civil rights, which meant freedom from discrimination, suddenly become the freedom to discriminate for this Christian movement.

This inversion of values is nothing new. My theory about the transformation of Christianity from a subversive proto-hippie sect into the weapon of the Crusaders and Inquisitors is that Europeans never completely let go of their warlike paganism, but that’s neither here nor there.

In the upside-down world of the religious majority, the freedom to practice one’s own religion is now somehow impinged by other people’s freedom to practice theirs. One wonders how far the principle extends; should Christians have to ‘recognize’ marriages officiated by a shaman or a justice of the peace? Should racists have to ‘recognize’ interracial marriages? And what exactly does ‘recognize’ mean, anyway?

Some clues lie in a recent New York Times article entitled, “Will Same-Sex Marriage Collide With Religious Liberty?” The article quotes to some of the lawyers who attended the Becket Fund symposium on the legal challenges posed by gay marriage (the link is to the infamous Maggie Gallagher’s story in the Weekly Standard about the conference). It explains some of the potential conflicts between having the government legalize gay marriage and those religious institutions which claim that discrimination based on orientation is literally their god-given mandate. It mentions, for example, that Boston’s Catholic Charities gave up its adoption license because it feared it would have to consider same-sex couples on the same basis as heterosexual couples in their adoption services, even though it was revealed that Catholic Charities had, in fact, given children to same sex couples before their decision to close down.

In all of these conflicts listed, one can’t help but draw parallels (as Gallagher does in the Weekly Standard) to cases like Bob Jones University v. United States, where the school famously lost its tax-exempt status for claiming that its ban on interracial dating was Scripturally mandated. The school only dropped the prohibition in 2000 after Bush’s campaign appearance there, presumably because the actual words of the Bible had changed in the intervening 16 years. Then, as now, conservatives behind the cultural curve of tolerance for various minority groups claimed that Jesus told them to discriminate against Jews, or blacks, or gays, or whomever.

Need I remind Christians that Jesus himself told them to “judge not, lest ye be judged?” One wonders why homosexuality gets this special designation as an abomination not to be tolerated among their fellow citizens, as opposed to coveting thine neighbor’s oxen or keeping the Sabbath day (watch out, NASCAR fans!). All an anti-discrimination statute requires is judging not, but still, the heathens persist.

Somehow I don’t think Jesus would have looked too kindly on all of this reactionary mishegas. Back when school prayer was still being practiced, kids used to have to recite the Lord’s Prayer. But curiously, they never had to recite the preceding paragraph from Matthew 6:6-7, which goes something like,

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Daddy, who is invisible. Then your Daddy, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Now, I hear you complain, “D. J., you’re an atheist—who are you to dictate to Christians what Jesus said?” I claim the same amount of authority over Jesus’ words as the people who mandate that I live by them. If our government’s policy is going to be dictated by “Judeo-Christian values” or similar phrases, then the interpretation ceases to be a theological matter and becomes political discourse. But really, enough about Christian theology. The state is secular, and our law is based on secular codes, not the Bible. Whenever I hear some Christian Patriot babble on about how X goes against the will of God and ought, therefore, be illegal, I always wish I could ask them: “ought it be legal, in America, to reject Jesus Christ as your Lord and Saviour?” To me, that’s always the issue. Religious laws are always voluntarily self-imposed. Truly religious people don’t need to be coerced into living according to their religion’s precepts.


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