Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Best of Times, Worst of Times in America; Arc of Moral Universe Bends Toward Justice

     As discussed last time, the five individuals profiled in Radicals in Their Own Time - Roger Williams, Thomas Paine, Elizabeth Cady Stanton W.E.B. Du Bois, and Vine Deloria, Jr. - did as much or more than any other persons in their respective generations to advance the principles of liberty and equal justice in America.

     Even so, America in the twenty-first century exists still in a perpetual Dickensian “best of times, worst of times” state when it comes to putting into practice these sacred principles.  On one hand, the once-unthinkable occurred in November 2008 when the nation – a land that had permitted and promoted human slavery for more than half of its four hundred year history - elected an African-American man president.  The symbolic importance alone of placing Barack Obama at the pinnacle of power in the United States, given its sordid past practices, cannot be overstated.  Yet, on the very same day, a majority of voters in the most populous state in the union, California, voted to deny thousands of their fellow citizens, gay Americans, the equal right to marry.  The California experience is only one of numerous legislative-judicial struggles beginning to play out on the issue of gay marriage in other states around the nation.

     Taking the long view, if history is any guide (and it is), there is little doubt the discriminatory laws against gay marriage will eventually end up on history’s scrapheap.  The current battles will soon go the way of those of some fifty years ago involving interracial marriage, during which one Virginia trial court, in upholding the state’s anti-miscegenation statute, reasoned:  “Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents.  And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages.  The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”  Most Americans today would view such language with a mixture of shock and disbelief - but it was not long ago that legislative majorities in sixteen states gave official voice to such ignorant biases.

     Fifty years from now, the current arguments against gay marriage will seem similarly archaic.  As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. limned, “the arc of the moral universe is long; but it bends toward justice.”  For all its faults, the United States Constitution has, over time, provided a one-way ratchet toward greater, not lesser, liberty and equal justice – every constitutional amendment but one (the eighteenth, itself repealed by the twenty-first just fifteen years later), for example, has, if anything, expanded Americans’ freedoms.

NEXT TIME:  Best & Worst of Times for Liberty & Equal Justice in America (cont'd)

Radicals in Their Own Time:  Four Hundred Years of Struggle for Liberty and Equal Justice in America is available HERE for pre-order on