Race, Gay Rights, & The Power Of Enforced Forgetting
We’ve had a friend from DC staying with us the past two days, on his way out West on a roadtrip. He and I had some great conversations. We were talking this morning about same-sex marriage and religious liberty, because I stayed up till 6 a.m. revising my magazine piece on it, and it was on my mind (note to young people: do not pull all-nighters in middle age). He’s for SSM, but also has serious concerns about the future of religious liberty, and says he hates the way so many liberals don’t argue for their position as much as register moral indignance at the idea that any disagrees with them and expects to be regarded as a decent person with a point of view that deserves respect.
In our conversation, I told him that it’s starting to dawn on me that it will be a lot easier to roll over religious opposition to same-sex marriage than many of us religious people (he is not religious) think. Why do I say that, given that so many Americans — almost half — oppose SSM? It comes from thinking about how racism was dealt with in the South after the Civil Rights Act.
In reading Liebling’s The Earl Of Louisiana, I was genuinely shocked to learn the cruel and hateful lengths Louisiana politicians went in the late 1950s and early 1960s to resist integration. It’s not that I was shocked to learn that they had been segregationists. It’s that reading the details of what they did to make a last stand for the old order was revolting to the conscience. And Louisiana was not as bad on this front as other Southern states! Now, I was born in 1967, and when I tell you I grew up in a culture where all this went down the memory hole, you have to believe me. Almost nobody talked about this stuff. I was telling my DC friend that I’m still discovering horrifying things that happened right here in my own town around the time of my birth — things that I never knew because they were never spoken of, not by whites among themselves, or by blacks to whites. I would bet you my next paycheck that very few whites in my parish under the age of 50 have any idea what went on here during the civil rights era, and not because we didn’t want to know. It’s because everyone was silent.
Why the silence? I don’t know, and here’s the thing: I don’t want to ask anybody. I mean, I would love to know, but the fact that nobody talked about it is a pretty good indication that they wanted to forget. A white friend here was involved a few years ago with a project to document the experiences of local black residents during the civil rights years, while they were still alive to talk about it, and said it was surprisingly hard to get them to participate. My friend is around my age, and we puzzled over the collective silence on both sides about those years. There was so much violence, verbal and physical, and so many atrocities, and so much struggle, and … it was over. The segregationists were so thoroughly defeated that they never really talked about it again. My friend and I speculated that one reason nobody talked about it might be prudence — that is, that both whites and blacks figured that the new order was here, and that we had all better get on with the task of living with it, and maybe the best way to make that work is not to talk about the recent past. Or maybe there was something else. We don’t know.
What does this have to do with same-sex marriage? The power the federal government and the broader culture brought to bear against the South to crush segregation and its remnants was overwhelming and impossible to resist. Looking back, I can see that such power was necessary, given the way segregationists resisted. But then, I am seeing it through the eyes of a white man formed in a post-segregation culture in which segregation was so thoroughly defeated by federal power that few if any former segregationists talked why segregation was morally right. If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing: many Southern whites were so dedicated to segregation that they were willing to carry out routine acts of terroristic violence against blacks to preserve the old order. And within less than a decade, they and their passive supporters weren’t even willing to instruct their children in the moral imperative of white supremacy.
Not only that, but the mass media culture in which their post-segregation children were raised relentlessly propagandized against racism. And I’m glad of it — but again, my mind was formed by that propaganda. Don’t get me wrong, I believe that propaganda was morally correct, but I simply want to make the point that the viewpoint of the white supremacist side was never heard from, except to be explicitly condemned and anathematized.
I don’t want to claim that no white person of my parents’ generation ever taught their children white supremacy. I’m sure it happened, and I’m sure it happens today. But it was in my generation, and in subsequent generations, pretty much a taboo. I’m not an ignorant, uneducated person, yet I marvel at how little I know about the morally dramatic events that happened right here, involving people I know or have known. That’s how thorough the defeat of white supremacy, its laws, and its institutions was. It is unthinkable that we would ever go back to that, and it was unthinkable as far back as 1970, only six years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
When people analogize homosexuality to race, and say that opposition to same-sex marriage is on the same moral level as white supremacy, I say they are making a conceptual error. As Maggie Gallagher once put it, a morality does not arise out of skin color, but it does arise out of sexual behavior, because it is behavior, and therefore unavoidably requires moral reflection, and acquires moral status. It has been my experience that few people who make the race argument engage in actual reasoned discussion about it, but instead assert the equivalence emotively, and assume that it is obvious to all reasonable people.
If this view prevails in both law and culture, as I think it will (Justice Kennedy, writing for the court majority, has argued at least twice that irrational animus is the only reason to stigmatize homosexuality in law), then the experience of what happened to white supremacists, their institutions, and their ideology may offer a preview of what’s in store for religious conservatives.
Religious conservatives have not shown remotely the will to resist that segregationists did. And I am very glad indeed that no religious conservatives have undertaken a campaign of terrorism and intimidation against gays and their supporters! Such a thing would be deeply un-Christian. Still, there has been very little awareness among religious conservatives and their leaders about how serious a threat to religious liberty same-sex marriage poses. Because of this, there has been little opposition organized along religious liberty lines. When and if same-sex marriage is constitutionalized, it is hard to see what form any resistance to it will take among the traditionalists, and where they would muster the will to carry it out effectively. Plus, their children have already been propagandized for 20 years in the mass media about gay rights, and the idea that there is any such thing as a reasonable viewpoint on the other side is never acknowledged. This media and culture pressure to conform is only going to become more irresistible.
The historical fate of Southern white supremacists shows that when the government and the media decide that your beliefs are evil and must be suppressed, there is no resisting those twin Leviathans.
If the homosexuality = race analogy becomes generally accepted, I predict that the many in the generation born around 2018 will grow up more or less as I did: wondering how anybody they knew ever believed those things about gay rights and gay marriage, and vaguely aware that some Christians did sometime in the misty past, but that was a long time ago, and anybody who still does hold those repugnant and archaic beliefs has the good sense to keep it to themselves.
I could be wrong. I hope I’m wrong. If I’m wrong, tell me how I’m wrong. I’d like to know.