Civil and Religious Rights

It’s cherry blossom time again in Washington, D.C., as I write these words. The groundhog shadow thing let us all down a bit this year, and the lingering winter chill threatened a bracing festival in the nation’s capital.
Cherry blossom time in 1968 was of course far more fraught. On Thursday evening, April 4, Martin Luther King, Jr., was gunned down by an assassin in Memphis, Tennessee. The next day rioting began in Washington, and lasted for five tumultuous days. In fact, cities all over the United States spontaneously erupted in violent protest.

I can never forget Washington during those several days. It was not much more than a year since my family had relocated from Sydney, Australia, to Takoma Park, a suburb of Washington within sight line of the iconic downtown structures from any upper floor of a typical office complex. At least 10,000 troops were called in to patrol the city and close environs. Their jeeps and other vehicles gave an air of siege to the moment. Thousands of police in riot gear and with crosshatched, taped-over windows, joined the military in riot control. From a distance of many miles we could see the huge and high pall of smoke from a city on fire. The tension was as palpable as any war zone.
I cannot bring to mind any picture of the cherry blossoms that year. I am left only with images of burned-out storefronts, debris in the streets, and huge piles of antique brick from bulldozed buildings.

On the Monday afternoon I traveled to my after-school job as a bricklayers’ laborer and took the time to talk with some of my African-American coworkers who lived downtown. I wish they had told noble stories connected with the landmark civil rights movement, but they seemed more interested in just participating in the meltdown of their world. As I remember, two of them were even taking orders for the electronics some of our crew wanted. The civil rights issue was central to the disruption of the time, but many were too immersed in the upheaval itself to make much sense of it. And as always, there were vested interests at work. We knew that for sure, when it became obvious that the liquor stores, the first buildings to be torched in the riots, would be the first to be rebuilt in neighborhoods that resented them.

It amazed me that the United States was still struggling with freedom issues. It was more than 100 years removed from the Civil War then, and a nation possessed of a fine Constitution that, while it specified the electoral value of slaves, also held out the high aim of securing “the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”
It amazes me now that the civil rights movement, which finally accomplished what the Emancipation Proclamation had once presumed, is so little remembered that it is equated with any number of real but not analogous special-interest movements.

Which again brings me to the present, which happens to be another of those waiting moments to see what the Supreme Court will bring forth—this time on the Prop. 8 initiative in California, which attempted to head off gay marriage by defining marriage by historic norms and moral models suggested by faith positions. Listening to the justices interact on this case, it would not be surprising if they strike down the federal Defense of Marriage Act as improper for the federal government, absent a direct constitutional charter, and leave it to the states to define this sort of thing severally.

I have written before and often spoken on this California initiative as not so much wrong as an ill-advised change in dynamic that might pass to the state the role of defining what is an acceptable religious model of—in this case—marriage. Often unthinking religionists have been in a rush to blockade a civil shift that runs against their religious viewpoint. I happen to share their general moral viewpoint, but so far as civil models go, it is worth remembering that the real engine of slavery and its post-Civil War carryover racial repression was an enabling theological model. The theology was suspect, of course, but its application real enough. And in the ideological positioning that accompanies the debate over gay marriage and other yet barely visible social shifts that faith finds offensive, we must be careful to keep to a true separation of church and state.
With no intention of dismissing very real arguments for marriage equality before civil law, I must say that to equate this with the civil rights movement of the 1960s, which freed a whole people from the most intense repression because of their racial heritage, is not only wrong but trivializes that time.

It is a false analogy to compare a racial state of being to a behavioral model—whether learned or inherited. It might also be a false analogy to compare the lack of gay lifestyle entitlements to the prejudice suffered by the mentally ill or the once mentally ill (again there is a state of being, compared to a moral or lifestyle model—something that societies have historically shown great concern to adjudicate apart from religious criteria.)
All of which is a rather long way of saying that we people of biblical or koranic faith, who have religious inhibitions about any number of social behaviors extant in civil society, had better be careful how we proceed in seeking restrictions on them.

There is a separation of church and state in the United States, and the principle of noncoercion in faith matters might mean we have to allow further variance between the body of faith and the marketplace. What we should insist upon is the right of people of faith to live their moral code and speak freely of it to the larger society. I think that the greatest religious liberty battle is ahead—a time in which faith views will be defined as hateful and against others’ civil rights.
One aspect of the current debate over gay marriage does seem to have been shortchanged—perhaps because so many have tried to interject a blocking legal dynamic that is a proxy for their religious morality. I do not think the whole gay movement/gay marriage thing has been given appropriate analysis by society at large from civil logic. Reviewing recorded history, I can think of only two major sociological shifts that can compare in potential for massive structural change. The first was the effect of a die-off of as much as one third of the population of Europe and Asia because of the Black Death. The other (and not yet fully worked out) shift occurred with the Industrial Revolution and the change wrought on gender roles and family structure and nurture.

Years ago I wrote an editorial titled “Convergence,”—which pointed at how certain elements of Communist and totalitarian states were moderating, while the liberal democracies were drifting toward those very tendencies themselves. Would the two intersect at one point? I might be the wag and say, Well, that’s globalism! But there is a dangerous irony in that the social blurring aimed at by the Communist-Marxists—where marriage was demoted to utilitarian arrangements and children the clustered wards of the state—is actually beginning to look like our emerging social model. Not to mention the surveillance state that is descending upon a West that long howled at the Stasi, KGB, and mikes in potted plants.

This issue of liberty deals with the great heritage of civil and religious freedom. It didn’t come easy—it was a “battle.” Ronald Reagan was inclined to talk of “evil empires” and Armageddon. His religious imagery might have been mostly the evidence of his freedom of religious expression. However, as this issue points out, there are huge forces at play: civil and religious. The stakes are high.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."