Ex-marine Roger Huffstetler discovered two friends were gay. One was a bunkmate from Afghanistan; the other a childhood friend. He started to wonder what kind of friend he was and went to them. Both assured him he had never said or done anything that was hurtful. Roger thought they missed what bothered him. He said he had also done nothing to indicate it was okay for them to be who they are. He had not spoken out for them, even if he didn't know they were gay. As Huffstetler said, "Silence can be a powerful consent." His silence sanctioned the status quo.
That reminded me of something Ayn Rand wrote in 1972. She wrote that if individuals want to see culture change, they should take the opportunity to speak out when it is offered. She called silence, in such cases, "your silent sanction." That is almost precisely what Huffstetler said about silence in the face of injustice.
Rand warned against speaking when your input is not wanted. She said one should not "make lengthy speeches, which are seldom appropriate, but merely to say: 'I don't agree.' (And be prepared to explain why, if the speaker wants to know.)"
Her main point was, "Do not keep silent (emphasis her own) when your own ideas and values are being attacked."
This is precisely how and why the issue of marriage equality went from having very low support to having strong, majority support. People simply spoke out and were able to explain why and how this was important. Marriage equality advocates, whether they knew it or not, followed Rand's advice:
"If you want to influence a country's intellectual trend, the first step is to bring order to your own ideas and integrate them into a consistent case, to the best of your knowledge and your ability. This does not mean memorizing and reciting slogans and principles, Objectivist or otherwise: knowledge necessarily includes the ability to apply abstract principles to concrete problems, to recognize the principles in specific issues, to demonstrate them, and to advocate a consistent course of action."
In this debate, advocates of marriage equality provided consistent arguments. Conservative opponents appealed to faith, not to reason; they offered theology, not justifications. The public judged the arguments and found the religious right wanting.
It helped that two and a half centuries ago our nation's founders created a government based on principles of individual rights and equality of those rights before the law. This is not to say they managed to live up to those principles, politically or personally. We know they failed miserably with issues such as slavery and rights for women.
They laid down those principles, however, as a moral compass to guide the nation. This is particularly important when it comes to areas where they, and we, have failed. Throughout the debate on slavery, equality of women, the civil rights movement, or gay liberation, appeals to those foundational principles helped change minds and change the nation. In truth, those founding moral principles are less important when the nation gets something right, but critically important when it comes to matters we get wrong.
In Newsweek, editor Jon Meacham argued "that liberty, not religion, is what holds us [Americans] together." He asked what is the main value that gives us a common culture:
Judging from the broad shape of American life in the first decade of the 21st century, we value individual freedom and free (or largely free) enterprise, and tend to lean toward libertarianism on issues of personal morality. The foundational documents are the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, not the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (though there are undeniable connections between them). This way of life is far different from what many overtly conservative Christians would like. But that is the power of the republican system engineered by James Madison at the end of the 18th century: that America would survive in direct relation to its ability to check extremism and preserve maximum personal liberty. Religious believers should welcome this; freedom for one sect means freedom for all sects.
This is why the religious right lost the battle on gay marriage. They erroneously believed that the common American value system was their religious beliefs. It wasn't. Our nation's value system is a belief -- often inconsistently held, but one held nonetheless -- that individual rights and individual liberty matter. It is synopsized in the common colloquialisms, "live and let live" or "it's a free country."
Though raised a Southern Baptist, Huffstetler found his inspiration in our foundational principles. "In this modern battle because we know that right now people are being denied certain rights because of who they are. And I just don't think that's fair. I don't think that's in keeping with the principles that the country was founded upon."
Laws against marriage equality are falling because they conflict with deeply held American values. It often takes Americans a long time -- sometimes too long -- to reach the point of being willing to apply those values to contentious issues. It is my belief, however, that our nation's sense of life remains committed to those values and eventually they will win. Meacham is right. The values that hold this nation together are libertarian, not religious. The right's "culture war" pitted religion against liberty and they are losing because of it.
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