History will remember this month of seismic social change

June 27, 2015
A Pride flag held by Michael Harrington of Berea is backlit by the sun during the Decision Day Rally, celebrating Friday's marriage equality ruling, at Robert Stephens Courthouse Plaza in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins

Michael Harrington of Berea holds a pride flag during the Decision Day Rally, celebrating Friday’s marriage equality ruling, at Courthouse Plaza in Lexington. Photo by Matt Goins

 

Social progress can seem painfully slow. And then, almost out of nowhere, events bring public opinion and the law together to produce head-spinning change.

This month will go down in history as one of those epic tipping points on several issues that have simmered below the surface of American society for generations.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Friday that same-sex couples in all 50 states have a constitutional right to marry. It was a landmark decision against discrimination that followed a seismic shift in public opinion toward gay rights.

Just a few years ago, gay marriage would have seemed unthinkable to most Americans. It was contrary to tradition and conservative religious beliefs, which were reflected in federal and state law.

But when the legal question finally reached the nation’s highest court, there was little doubt about the outcome. The legal arguments against same-sex marriage were almost laughably lame.

Equal protection under the law is one of this nation’s most cherished values. The Supreme Court majority correctly decided that gay people should not have their freedom to marry blocked by other people’s religious beliefs.

It was public opinion, not a court ruling, that swiftly turned the tide on another issue: state-sponsored veneration of the Confederacy, which has disrespected black people and fueled racial tensions since the Civil War.

Protests Tuesday at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. Associated Press photo.

Protests Tuesday at the South Carolina Capitol in Columbia. Associated Press photo.

Conservative politicians across the South were tripping over each other last week to call for removing Confederate flags from their state capitols, Confederate emblems from their state flag and license plates and statues of Confederate heroes from places of honor.

It was a stunning reversal. Many of these politicians, and others like them, had resisted this for years. Their predecessors helped erect these symbols, either to memorialize a mythical “Lost Cause” or to express defiance against federal civil rights legislation and court-ordered integration.

Then, suddenly, a heinous crime exposed these excuses and rationalizations for what they really were. A 21-year-old white man murdered nine black worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church after touting his racism online with pictures of himself holding the Confederate flag.

Many white people defend Confederate symbols as expressions of “Southern heritage.” They view them as honoring the sacrifices of ancestors, most of whom did not own slaves and were fighting out of loyalty to their home states.

But these symbols have always had a different meaning for black people. Confederate leaders considered their ancestors to be less-than-human property, and they went to war to try to keep them enslaved.

Since the Civil War, white supremacists have often used Confederate imagery as a tool for trying to keep black people “in their place.” Celebrating the Confederacy for other reasons does not change that bitter fact.

That doesn’t mean every Confederate relic should be banished to a museum. But government, which serves all people in this increasingly diverse country, should be careful about how and where the Confederate legacy is enshrined.

Should Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ statue be moved from the state Capitol rotunda to a museum? Should statues of Lexington’s most prominent Confederate leaders, John C. Breckinridge and John Hunt Morgan, be removed from the old courthouse lawn and Cheapside?

A monument honoring the hundreds of slaves sold on the auction block at Cheapside or whipped on that courthouse lawn now seems more appropriate.

How do we preserve, acknowledge and learn from our complex history, while at the same time honoring values we want to shape our future? It is a delicate balance.

Pope Francis. Photo by Andrew Medichini / Associated Press.

Pope Francis. Photo by Andrew Medichini / Associated Press.

The last major tipping point this month has received less attention, but it was a watershed nonetheless.

Pope Francis issued a strongly worded encyclical to the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics that clearly framed environmental stewardship, climate change and related topics of social justice and economic inequality as moral issues.

But the leader of the world’s largest Christian denomination will have a fight on his hands. His views are well-grounded in Christian theology, but they run counter to the way the world works.

Many powerful people worship a God found in bank vaults rather than Heaven. By shifting the moral conversation from sex to money, Pope Francis has made a lot of people nervous. It will be interesting to see what difference his leadership makes.

As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


Wendell Berry talks gay marriage with Baptist ministers

January 18, 2013

Wendell Berry, at his home near Port Royal, Ky., December 2011. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

As an elder statesman of American letters, Wendell Berry is being given some good platforms to speak his mind. He isn’t letting these opportunities go to waste.

Chosen last year by the National Endowment for the Humanities to deliver the annual Jefferson Lecture, the Kentucky author gave a thoughtful indictment of corporate domination and the industrial economy, saying it has abused the land and people and threatens our very survival.

On Jan. 11, Berry spoke at Georgetown College to a gathering of Baptist ministers. The lifelong Baptist used the forum to sharply criticize his denomination’s opposition to the legalization of gay marriage.

Berry’s writing doesn’t lend itself well to sound bites. So here are some extended excerpts from his remarks, which created an Internet stir after Bob Allen of Associated Baptist Press News reported them:

“My argument … was the sexual practices of consenting adults ought not to be subjected to the government’s approval or disapproval, and that domestic partnerships in which people who live together and devote their lives to one another ought to receive the spousal rights, protections and privileges the government allows to heterosexual couples.”

“The Bible … has a lot more to say against fornication and adultery than against homosexuality. If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare — with its inevitable massacre of innocents — as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion.”

“Jesus talked of hating your neighbor as tantamount to hating God, and yet some Christians hate their neighbors by policy and are busy hunting biblical justifications for doing so. Are they not perverts in the fullest and fairest sense of that term? And yet none of these offenses — not all of them together — has made as much political/religious noise as homosexual marriage.”

“The oddest of the strategies to condemn and isolate homosexuals is to propose that homosexual marriage is opposed to and a threat to heterosexual marriage, as if the marriage market is about to be cornered and monopolized by homosexuals. If this is not industrial capitalist paranoia, it at least follows the pattern of industrial capitalist competitiveness. We must destroy the competition. If somebody else wants what you’ve got, from money to marriage, you must not hesitate to use the government – small of course – to keep them from getting it.”

“If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians. When I consider the hostility of political churches to homosexuality and homosexual marriage, I do so remembering the history of Christian war, torture, terror, slavery and annihilation against Jews, Muslims, black Africans, American Indians and others. And more of the same by Catholics against Protestants, Protestants against Catholics, Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, as if by law requiring the love of God to be balanced by hatred of some neighbor for the sin of being unlike some divinely preferred us. If we are a Christian nation — as some say we are, using the adjective with conventional looseness — then this Christian blood thirst continues wherever we find an officially identifiable evil, and to the immense enrichment of our Christian industries of war.”

“Condemnation by category is the lowest form of hatred, for it is cold-hearted and abstract, lacking even the courage of a personal hatred. Categorical condemnation is the hatred of the mob. It makes cowards brave. And there is nothing more fearful than a religious mob, a mob overflowing with righteousness – as at the crucifixion and before and since. This can happen only after we have made a categorical refusal to kindness: to heretics, foreigners, enemies or any other group different from ourselves.”

And those are only the highlights. Read APB’s full story here.