LGBT & the USA: Are We/Aren’t We (a Nation That Separates Church and State)?
Note: The following editorial is an opinion piece. –E.N.B.
Depending on who you talk to, our nation is one of several things. Many say She is a bastion of liberty, equality, and opportunity. To others, the U.S. is nothing more than a double-tongued hypocrite who makes false promises about tolerance, only to crush non-conformists. Still more would argue that a combination of the two is probably more accurate. Within the lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities, feelings about the land of our Lady Liberty are undoubtedly conflicted, as well.
While in the struggle for equal treatment under law, the movement has had more than enough cause to celebrate (e.g., the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, the Supreme Court’s rejection of the Defense of Marriage Act or DOMA), there still exists an outspoken contingent of Americans who would deny non-traditional* citizens any rights or official acknowledgement, whatsoever. Yes, it is true that LGBT enjoys a level of mainstream acceptance unprecedented in U.S. history, and the number of people who feel comfortable enough to live “openly” in our society is higher than ever before. On the other hand, many rights and privileges enjoyed — perhaps even taken for granted — by traditionals have been stubbornly denied LGBT.
In the decades long struggle for equality, the most resistance from established forces invariably comes from the areas where legality and morality seem to overlap. However, as this is the case, can the U.S. continue to claim a separation of church and state, or does our government have an obligation to grant LGBT all of the rights and privileges afforded traditionals before we can honestly make that claim? The way in which we, as a nation, choose to answer this question will determine whether or not we may continue to refer to this country as the land of the free.
State and Church
In the same way that a slave owner once had the audacity to proclaim that “all men are created equal,” we, as a nation “under God” boast the separation of church and state. Apparently the long understood (and unspoken) tradition in the U.S. has been to adhere to the lofty principles upon which our nation was founded when it has suited us, and to pay them lip service when they have not. These statements are not made derisively — your author considers himself to be as patriotic as the next person — but objectively. It is dangerous to assume that our country is perfect as is, and refuse to evolve on those grounds. After all, in the world which our founders lived, it seemed perfectly natural to proclaim some more equal than others. In fact, the idea of equality between commoner and noble was a radical concept as far as the British ruling class was concerned! Still, the words and actions of our forebears made very real and important strides in the advancement of ideas that transcend any one time period (i.e, liberty and equality).
The great multifaceted human endeavor has been a two hundred thousand year long war of advancement and reversal, and it is still very much up for debate whether we will reach our top potential, or blast ourselves out of existence. Still, if only in the area of societal evolution, your author would argue that the founding of the U.S. was a victory. No doubt, many Native Americans and African Americans would disagree with that assessment. But again, considering the overall climate of colonialism and imperialism at the time, the democratic experiment and various other events surrounding our country’s birth were extraordinary things.
However, there is still more work to be done. Responsible Americans will realize that to love their country — warts and all — is more genuine than love for an idyllic utopia which does not exist anywhere outside of political rhetoric. It is dangerous to assume that our nation was infallible from the moment of its inception, and refuse to improve upon our shortcomings. Similarly, a serious study of any accomplishments made by our Founding Fathers must be tempered by simultaneously considering their failures. The disturbing tendency (of some) to venerate the likes of Washington and Jefferson with religious fervor akin to acolytes of a Greek hero cult is dangerous. These were great men to be sure, by our estimation. Yet, they were men — and what man is infallible? (I.e., They made mistakes, and it is unwise to ignore them.)
Furthermore, we must not forget that these men never had to deal with (many of) the issues that we face in a post-industrial, globally accessible world. Just as we would not ask a blacksmith for advice on how to fix an automobile, we would not ask the president of an entire nation of Caucasian Christians how to effectively and harmoniously oversee the legislative process of a diverse multitude! There is no way to determine if these great — yet flawed — individuals would have responded to the issues we now face commendably. For instance, no doubt the vast majority of the Founding Fathers would have been confounded by LGBT. As such, we should thank these giants of our national heritage for their noble contributions to our way of life, learn what we can from their successes and their failures, and yet honor what they stood for by remembering the limitations of their frame of reference. We must improve upon their ideals and their dreams as we strive for the day when they are universally realized, rather than depend on men two centuries in the grave to provide us with the answers to all of our questions — past, present, and future. To act (or not act) in such a way, is to remain stagnant. This is contrary to the progressive attitude with which our country was forged. The soul is nourished through reflection, and strength comes from adaptation. Otherwise, we consign ourselves to irrelevance, and invariably lose our place of prestige and leadership in the world. It is therefore of necessity that we advance, seeking to continue the work of our founders, until the day when our core beliefs are denied to none: “Liberty and justice for all.”
Caretakers of the American Dream?
To our lawmakers, it cannot matter that they find the preferred lifestyle of some to be personally distasteful. Their job, as alluded to in the Constitution, is to promote the general welfare regardless of personal bias, passion or prejudice. If individuals are unable (or unwilling) to carry out this duty, then they have failed. Unfortunately, there exists no shortage of bias, passion and prejudice within our legislative body.
Unswayed by Socratic dialogue, and fueled by moral certitude, there are those among the official “Representatives” of our democracy who would seek to drag others — kicking and screaming — into the light. These forces are not deterred by the irony inherent in denying freedoms to people in a country founded on the idea of freedom, nor even by the hypocrisy they perpetuate while enforcing the regulations of a single religious dogma en masse, in a country that purports to separate church and state. But, this is an all to common theme of humanity.
There is a primal urge within us all to cling to what is familiar, to shy from the uncertainty of change and to stagnate. That we have lasted so long as a species is due, in no small part, to the ability of a select few to overcome their fears and convince their fellows to do the same. Still, it must be expected that those who are inspired by such rigid thinking will perpetually try to seize the reigns of power. For example: slavery, anti-suffrage and segregation were all once fiercely defended by those who feared change, just as the anti-LGBT agenda is.
The politicians of today who reason exclusively with their religious beliefs — as well as American philosophical determinations from the eighteenth century — devoid of contextual restrictions, do not think of themselves as malicious. Indeed, they consider themselves the caretakers of the correct interpretation of the American dream, as laid out by God and the Founding Fathers (in that order). In reality, it is just another incarnation of that old human instinct — the fear of change. To have this fear is natural, to be ruled by it is to defame the ideals to which we have aspired, but not yet acquired.
In short, to sit idle and rest on the laurels of our founders (without improving upon our shortcomings) is to betray the idealism and core philosophy wherein lie our country’s heart.
Church and State
In the spirit of equal treatment under law, it might at first glance seem that traditional religious organizations also share an obligation to follow suit, and to extend an offer of acceptance to those who live non-traditional* lifestyles. Here, on the mortal plane, that which seems right is often difficult, as we must constantly struggle with our lesser natures. However, surely the forces of eternity who are both blameless and benevolent — to whom we owe our immortal souls (if you believe that sort of thing) — would applaud their earthbound representatives were they to make overtures of acceptance towards non-traditionals?
Perhaps so, but that determination must not legally be made for them. The entire argument that non-traditionals ought to be treated equally under law, despite the religious objections of some lawmakers, becomes contradictory if still other lawmakers seek to impose arbitrary moral standards based on their ethical imperatives on non-government entities. In essence, the separation of church and state must work both ways, or it is not logically sound. To truly achieve the ideal, no agent of the State may seek to legislate criteria or statutes which seek to effect, or in any way influence, a church’s free interpretation of it’s own tenets.
Similarly, no agent of the church may seek to effect, or in any way impose, moral standards derived from the interpretation of its own tenets onto the State. The general function of our government is to promote the common welfare for all U.S. citizens — regardless of race, creed, or sexual orientation — and to ensure that each individual has complete autonomy to seek happiness in any way he or she sees fit (so long as he or she does not infringe upon the liberty of others in that pursuit). That is where the State’s ethical responsibility ends. Any further mandates enacted by the government that are designed to impose standards of morality constitutes an overreach.
As such, it follows that no language, no government structure, nor even any legal tender should bear religious language or iconography of any kind. The argument that our nation was founded upon, and should therefore continue to invoke, any one religion specifically is counter-productive. As discussed in the preceding section, your author proposes that we thank our Founding Fathers for their contributions and then continue to adapt and evolve. It is essential that we do so, in order to better serve the common welfare of a diverse and changing people. That is not to say that we should forget the history, heritage and philosophy (of one religion in particular) that served as the inspiration for a large part of our founders’ efforts. Rather, we should recognize ourselves for what we then were, and yet are — a work in progress.
In the world of our forebears, the very suggestion of a government bereft of parochial guidance would have been unacceptable. It’s amazing that such language even made it into the Constitution without the authors getting lynched! No doubt they advanced the principle as far as they were able, entrusting posterity to do the rest. But even if that was not their intention our duty remains clear. Whereas our founders did the best they could to see to the needs of — and promote the common welfare for — the people of their day, so too must we for the people of our day.
In the time of Jefferson, it was (arguably) necessary to include specific religious references within legislative parameters, if only because of the common religious school of thought shared by the vast majority of citizens. To have ignored this simple fact would have been imprudent. Even taking into account his progressive religious philosophy, Jefferson must have realized that!
Undoubtedly, the people of our new nation would have needed to see “their” religion so reflected, even as watered down as the language must have seemed to the average American. Such is no longer the case. In the U.S. of today, the number of different ideologies held by citizens are so varied that continuing to single out just one has become impractical — not to mention foolhardy. Consider what history has shown us about situations where a group of people decide that their needs are not being adequately addressed by the government.
Are We/Aren’t We … ?
In the relatively short time that has elapsed since Queer Nation popularized the phrase “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!”, the LGBT movement has shown remarkable momentum, catapulting unapologetically from the fringes of societal awareness into the mainstream. Marching to the discordant (yet familiar) beat of applause and disdain that seems so often to mark great cultural change, non-traditionals have demanded that we, as a nation, finally put to rest the question of whether or not the U.S. will consent in practice to be a nation that separates church and state. In the strictest interpretation of our core philosophy, this question should have been answered already. However, the legislative forces at work who are convinced that it would be a mistake to upset the status quo, as established by our founders, will resist the process of granting LGBT all of the rights and privileges that traditional citizens enjoy for as long as possible.
As for the question of whether various religious institutions throughout the land should be obligated to accept non-traditionals as a matter of law: it is your author’s opinion that they should not. The First Amendment is not always easy. In fact, it is frequently maddening (especially when a person — or group of people — simply refuse to see reason)!
Still, it is important to remember that just as you are frustrated by someone whom you perceive to speak in error, so does that someone often perceive you. Also, while it is possible for the aggrieved to dissociate themselves from a religious organization, such is not the case in matters of law. We must strive to improve the legislative infrastructure of our land until it ensures the free thinking liberties of all people. Otherwise, how could we ever take ourselves seriously? How could we expect anyone to?
* The words ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional,’ as used descriptively in this editorial, are your author’s own designations.