Mosque Building and Gay Marriage vs. Mob Rule by the Right

The
decision of a US district court to strike down Proposition 8,
the California referendum item that made gay marriage illegal after it had earlier been legalized by the state assembly, was a blow for individual rights over a tyranny of the majority. In its form, it resembles the decision of the New York authorities to allow a Muslim community center to be built near Ground Zero, which Sarah Palin and other prominent Republican Party bigots have decried as “insensitive.”

Both in the instance of gay marriage and of mosque-building, the American Right mounts opposition on grounds of majority ideas and feelings triumphing over individual rights. No one denies that Muslims have a first amendment right to build a mosque, and it is hard to see why straight people should have a right to get married (which brings substantial social and economic perquisites) but gay people should not.

The right wing argues that Muslims and gays should give up their rights in deference to the moral sensibilities and emotional sensitivities of the majority. This is called a ‘tyranny of the majority’ and it is an evil of which Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and the other Founding Generation of Americans were well aware.

One principle Jefferson put forward for taming this tendency of the majority to whittle down the rights of the minority was of non-harm. His argument for freedom of religion, for instance, was that “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
– Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82

Thus, we could argue on Jeffersonian grounds that gay marriage or mosque-building does no material harm to other individuals, and therefore should not be prohibited by the government or by factions in control of the apparatus of government. In fact the judge in the Prop 8 case pointed out that no religious group had been required to recognize gay marriage, so Prop 8 could not be held to redress a wrong to such groups.

The Founding Generation thought that the default was individual freedom. You should be able to do as you please if it does not produce a property or contractual tort toward others.

The current iteration of the American right wing does not accept this Jeffersonian principle. Sarah Palin pleaded with ‘moderate’ Muslims not to build a Muslim community center near ground zero because it would hurt her constituents’ feelings. Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, a strident component of the Israel lobbies, likewise opposes the building of a Muslim community center in New York on the grounds that it would hurt the feelings of families of September 11 attack victims (even though those attacks were by a small mad cult, not by Muslims). He said that the issue was not rights but doing what is right. But he means by ‘what is right’ that the minority should relinquish its legal rights in order to avoid an affront to the sensibilities of the majority. That way lies, e.g. refusal to oppose Jim Crow. You wonder if Foxman thinks that there should be no synagogues near the US naval academy in Annapolis, Maryland, to avoid offending those who feel strongly about the Israeli attack in 1967 on the USS Liberty. Likewise, those who oppose gay marriage do so on the grounds that they think it is immoral, and that it devalues straight marriage. I.e. it hurts their feelings.

Legislating a reduction in the rights of some so as to avoid offending the majority is a tyranny of the majority. It is an evil temptation within any democratic system. Madison thought that representative government could temper the passions of direct democracy and so perhaps avoid the worst excesses of majoritarian oppression. The California referendum system that allowed a popular vote (bought in part with Mormon funding) to over-rule the government of California is precisely the sort of outcome Madison feared. But his other hope was that a separation of powers might work against a tyranny of the majority. For the moment, an independent judiciary has indeed weighed in. But the supreme court itself has increasingly become a tool of the majoritarian establishment, and it is not clear that it is capable at this juncture of playing the role envisaged for it by Madison.

But this is what is at stake in both gay marriage and Muslim mosque building from the point of view of those who believe in the American tradition of civil liberties for individuals, in the default position that the government has no business regulating unharmful individual activity. It is nothing less than the assertion of inalienable rights over the whims and emotions of a very large mob.

23 Responses

  1. Americans pay taxes that fund the enforcing of Apartheid. Many of the Americans who don’t want their government to regulate unharmful activity, do want their government to require all Americans to back harmful activity overseas.

  2. You seem to miss the point of the conflict. Liberals argue the Right is trying to force its’ values on them, but what they want instead is to force their values on the Right. Christians who believe in the Bible as a moral compass, the same moral compass, I might add, which influenced the founding fathers because it was the dominant moral voice of their day (despite the fact many of the most famous founding fathers weren’t believers), see their faith as a lifestyle, not just a philosophy, and so find it difficult to separate their values into different arenas (public v. church for example). Those who shun traditional values or value individual rights over these views, however, are just as selfish, wanting to force those with Christian values to live under their moral rules. Is it any wonder both sides are offended by the other or that our country is so divided? The primary Christian objection to gay marriage is the word marriage. There is no reason why laws, civil laws, can’t be made for “civil unions” or “legal partnerships” or something similar. To Christians, the word “marriage” is biblically defined as man plus woman. That’s where the objection lies for most of them. A few extremists might take it further, but don’t stereotype Christians if you don’t want to be stereotyped yourself. If you want your views respected, you have to respect the views of others. And this is where both sides are so often failing. Our country was founded on the right to free speech and to practice one’s own beliefs. The problem lies in the fact that each side wants to do so at the expense of the other. Compromise must be sought. Your “Right bashing” just widens the divide. And the simple fact that they created a country with elections where the public could vote its values, negated any claim the founding fathers made against “majority rule.”

    • “Those who shun traditional values or value individual rights over these views, however, are just as selfish, wanting to force those with Christian values to live under their moral rules.”

      Really? I’ve been out of the US for a little while, but I didn’t know this debate was over liberals trying to force Christians to be gay and pray at mosques in New York. You learn something new every day.

    • I think it is you who is missing the point. Only one side here is trying to create a law which imposes restrictions on the behavior of the other side. The anti-gay-marriage side is trying to impose its will in this way. It passed a law restricting the marriage rights of a class of people. Nothing the pro-gay-marriage side has done or wants to do infringes on the rights of a class of people in this way; rather they want to remove a restriction.

      The constitution and the checks and balances of our government work by limiting the power of government (and majorities) to impose restrictions on the freedom of the people. Even if 90% of us wanted to make a law that infringes on the civil rights of a particular group, the constitution would not allow that infringement.

      No pro-gay-marriage people want to force anyone to live under their moral rules. Rather, they want to end the majority’s practice of forcing them to live under their moral rules. They will not (and cannot) force anyone’s church to perform gay marriage. They will not (and cannot) force anyone to participate in gay marriage. They only want to be allowed to do so themselves.

      You say that Christians have difficulty separating their “values into different areas.” Sure, that can be difficult. But it is no different from strictly observant Jewish people who must live with us being allowed to eat pork, just as Hindus must accept that we are allowed to eat beef. Just because Christians are the majority does not mean that they can curtail the rights of others because of their personal values.

    • Some fairly important people signed a document with some fairly kooky ideas that Americans seem strangely attached to. One of those ideas was:

      We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed

      Basically, when they signed off on the document they were saying that it’s okay for people to do whatever they like, and that everyone should have should enjoy equal rights. If it’s not hurting someone else, they should be able to do whatever they want and to heck with anyone who disapproves because they should be more concerned with their own conduct instead of finding fault with others.

      Those who shun traditional values or value individual rights over these views, however, are just as selfish, wanting to force those with Christian values to live under their moral rules.

      Demanding the same rights for all isn’t the same as forcing your values under others. At least, no more than giving black people and women the same rights and responsibilities as white men.

      In any case, on a scale of harm denying people rights can usually be taken for granted as being more injurious than granting them.

    • Your argument makes no sense. Christians do not own the word nor the institution of marriage. Neither did Christianity invent the concept of marriage. This is about one issue: equal treatment under the law.

      The legal term of “marriage” needs to be applied equally. By no means would this infringe on the rights of Christians or hetrosexuals. No one is attempting to void hetrosexual marriages. Prop. 8 proponents were seeking to void only gay marriages and it failed in court because it could not prove any harm in allowing gays to marry. Moral outrage at the lifestyle of another person is not actual harm with any legal standing. If it was, we’d all be targets for someone. It would be chaos.

      If gays are to have “civil unions”, then that should be the legal term for ALL marriages. So that in addition to civil unions, if some people want to have ceremonial “Christian marriages” for heterosexuals only in their churches, that’s fine (although they should loose their tax-exempt status).

      • But he’s not making an argument. He’s trying to shed light on the issue to help the left understand where the right is coming from. All of your responses exemplify what he is saying…

        “If you want your views respected, you have to respect the views of others. And this is where both sides are so often failing. Our country was founded on the right to free speech and to practice one’s own beliefs. The problem lies in the fact that each side wants to do so at the expense of the other. Compromise must be sought. Your “Right bashing” just widens the divide. And the simple fact that they created a country with elections where the public could vote its values, negated any claim the founding fathers made against “majority rule.”

        He didn’t say that he doesn’t believe the mosque shouldn’t be built or that homosexuals shouldn’t be allowed to marry, he did try to shed some light on WHY people are against gay marriage though.

        How about we read what is written by others and not what we think is written in to it.

  3. hmmm No criticism from Palin, Abe Foxman and others about the building of the “Museum of Tolerance” on a Muslim cemetery in Jerusalem. Maybe it’s a matter of whose feelings are hurt?

  4. The thing about marriage, that many people forget, is that there are two kinds: civil and religious. What the LGBT community is fighting for is civil marriage, which would give them all the civil rights of married couples–the right to sit by the bedside of a sick spouse, among many, many others. They aren’t asking Christian communities to marry them. All that’s needed is a JP.

    They just want a chance to be happy, like anyone else. What’s wrong with wanting the same chance, and getting it?

    That’s where I get lost in the gay marriage debate. I think love is love, and shouldn’t be limited by narrow definitions of gender and sexuality.

  5. My grammar is awful due to lack of adequate morning coffee. My apologies. Trust me, I am embarrassed.

  6. B Schmidt, your argument doesn’t hold water. You are basically saying that ‘your’ religion trumps others, so ‘liberals’ have to compromise. This ignores the fact that evangelical & fundamentalist Christians are just sects of Christianity. The Methodist church I grew up at is now 75% gay male, & won’t let weddings of straight couples take place in it until gay couples can marry. And the part of the Bible you are basing your ‘morals’ on also says you are supposed to sell me your sister if I ask you. The compromise is separation of church & state. No religion or sect gets to make its’ dogma the law. The Founding Fathers thought this was the best way to do things, & they were right.

    • And the part of the Bible you are basing your ‘morals’ on also says you are supposed to sell me your sister if I ask you.

      Can she cook, can she sew?

  7. shameful. at least bloomberg is carrying the torch for what this country really represents. of course, he’s getting shouted down by right-wing no-nothings. but that’s to be expected.

  8. The problem lies in the confusion in the public mind of civil marriage (a legal contract) with marriage as a religious ritual/sacrament. There’s nothing inherently sacramental about a civil marriage; all that matters is that it be legally valid.

    In most countries around the world, civil marriage is the only one that counts in the eyes of the law. After a couple has entered into a civil marriage before a government official (such as a town clerk or justice of the peace), a couple who wishes to do so can then go on to have a religious marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi or imam. However, the religious ceremony carries no legal force and can only be performed after the couple has already been legally married in a civil ceremony.

    I believe the time has come to separate the two here in the US as well. There’s no compelling reason why the state should delegate its authority to perform marriages under the law to members of the clergy (or to “ministers ordained for the occasion”).

    Religious denominations are free to impose their own norms on their own members. As such, they’re free to impose preconditions for performing a religious marriage (for example: many denominations discourage or bar intermarriage; Roman Catholics don’t recognize divorce; some denominations will not perform religious marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples, others have no problem doing so). these religious considerations are relevant to their own followers, but they have nothing to do with the state and its laws.

    Civil marriage is a legal matter, and should not be governed by religious rules. Equal access to and equal protection of the law means that civil marriage, which confers a change in civil status, should be accessible to all consenting adult couples who qualify under state law, without regard to the couple’s religious denomination, gender or race.

  9. p.p.s. And from another of the”Founding Generations of Americans”, John Quincy Adams, on Islam:
    “Adopting from the sublime conception of the Mosaic law, the doctrine of one omnipotent God; he (Mahomet) connected indissolubly with it, the audacious falsehood, that he was himself his prophet and apostle. Adopting from the new Revelation of Jesus, the faith and hope of immortal life, and of future retribution, he humbled it to the dust by adapting all the rewards and sanctions of his religion to the gratification of the sexual passion. He poisoned the sources of human felicity at the fountain, by degrading the condition of the female sex, and the allowance of polygamy; and he declared undistinguishing and exterminating war, as a part of his religion, against all the rest of mankind. THE ESSENCE OF HIS DOCTRINE WAS VIOLENCE AND LUST; TO EXALT THE BRUTAL OVER THE SPIRITUAL PART OF HUMAN NATURE (Capitals in original)…Between these two religions, thus contrasted in their characters, a war of twelve hundred years has already raged. The war is yet flagrant…While the merciless and dissolute dogmas of the false prophet shall furnish motives to human action, there can never be peace upon earth, and good will towards men.”

    He continues:
    The precept of the koran is, perpetual war against all who deny, that Mahomet is the prophet of God. The vanquished may purchase their lives, by the payment of tribute; the victorious may be appeased by a false and delusive promise of peace; and the faithful follower of the prophet, may submit to the imperious necessities of defeat: but the command to propagate the Moslem creed by the sword is always obligatory, when it can be made effective. The commands of the prophet may be performed alike, by fraud, or by force.

    And Adams concluded:
    “As the essential principle of his [Muhammad’s] faith is the subjugation of others by the sword; it is only by force, that his false doctrines can be dispelled, and his power annihilated.”
    References: Blunt, Joseph (1830), The American Annual Register for the Years 1827-8-9 (New York: E. & G.W. Blunt), 29:267-402, [On-line], URL: link to archive.org

  10. COLE: “The right wing argues that Muslims and gays should give up their rights in deference to the moral sensibilities and emotional sensitivities of the majority. ”

    Admittedly, republicans are worse on this issue than the majority of democrats. But it’s far from the clean divide you imply in your post (through the omission of mentioning democratic support for bigoted policies). Many democrats, including President Obama, continues to oppose same-sex marriage on moral grounds (although they will support civil unions, i.e. “separate but equal”). And where is the “promised” end to DADT that Obama could have done by executive order on his first day in office?

    Also, it’s worth noting that Judge Walker happens to be a republican who was appointed by Reagan.

  11. A justice of the peace married my mother and father during WWII. Nothing in their marriage certificate mentions anything about religion. When I got married (again) in 1999, my aged mother went with us (as our witness) to the local county courthouse where she walked with us into a roomful of clerks at their desks and announced to all present: “They just need someone to say the words.” A young lady clerk looked up at us and said: “I can do that. You can be my first!” So we went outside and repeated some words, paid our fee, got some signed documents, and have remained happily married for the last eleven years. Nothing about religion had or has anything to do with the propriety or legality of our marriage.

    Religous maniacs really need to keep their delusional bigotry to themselves and stop trying to tell the rest of us free people how to live our lives. Like Jefferson, I don’t find the “twenty god” pagans or the “no god” free thinkers at all objectionable compared to the lethally obnoxious “one-and-only-one-GAWD” Jews, Christians, and Muslims. As Benjamin Franklin said of and to them: “Either one of you is right or all of you are wrong.” I think it goes without saying that the latter of these logical possibilities carries with it the truth of things.

    Religion means “animism,” or a belief in the existence of “powerful” but unseen spooks who ostensibly require human charlatans (rabbis, priests, ministers, and Imams) to speak for them — a magic charade otherwise known as “ventriloquism.” It leads nowhere but back to the cave, where a great majority of humankind apparently still wish to live. I say let them — but don’t let them bring their cave’s darkness outside with them so as to blot out the sunshine for the rest of us.

  12. it’s amazing that the Christian right wants to force their “religious beliefs” into and down the throats of non Christians. they have been doing this for so long they no longer see they are forcing their values down other peoples’ lives.

    the problem here is simply one of others forcing the minority to “do as i do.”
    they have the emotional ties to the idea of marriage belonging only to Christians. what if you’re not a Christian? how come marriage is only for straight Christians? that is tyranny, plain and simple.

    i just wish the Christians would stop forcing their beliefs on society as a whole. seems the “good Christian” morals would stand of their own worth. Obviously, not here though, the fear of the “other” and wanting to keep control, to keep those “others” out of “their way.”

    it’s just not reasonable to accept such heinous bigotry of thought as rational or reasonable.
    people are people, but these people are definitely not “Christian” as far as Jesus is concerned. their hatred is counter to Jesus’ teaching.

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