It’s nice to be back in (comparatively) liberal Indiana. Yes, you read that right. Let me explain. For the last seventeen years, my husband and I have vacationed each July on a beach in South Carolina. The part of the state we visit is filled with tourists from elsewhere, so we rarely get a true taste of…
It’s nice to be back in (comparatively) liberal Indiana.
Yes, you read that right. Let me explain. For the last seventeen years, my husband and I have vacationed each July on a beach in South Carolina. The part of the state we visit is filled with tourists from elsewhere, so we rarely get a true taste of South Carolinian political sentiment; the closest we get is the local papers, and those tend to be better than our local papers when it comes to civil liberties.
This time, my publisher had arranged for me to be a guest on a radio talk show in Charleston. So on a sunny Thursday morning, we drove to Charleston and I was greeted by a pleasant host with a resonant voice and a large listening audience. It became clear very quickly that it was the title of my book, "What’s a Nice Republican Girl Like Me Doing At the ACLU," that had piqued his interest, and that of his listeners: in South Carolina, "Civil Liberties" are apparently fighting words.
I had originally been scheduled for a half-hour; when I left after an hour and a half, the lines were still full of waiting callers. Most wanted to tell me about the myriad errors of my ways–God wants us to pray in the schools, God doesn’t want homosexuals to have civil rights, God wants abortion illegal and the death penalty enforced. God wants the ACLU crushed.
Particular ire was reserved for the issue of the Ten Commandments, which most callers felt should be posted not only in the Alabama courtroom where they have generated a national controversy, but in every public school classroom. (A member of the South Carolina state Board of Education recently opined that, if Hindu or Muslim students didn’t like this state endorsement of the Judeo-Christian tradition, "Screw them." An unChristian sentiment if I ever heard one, but one with which the majority of callers clearly agreed.)
In numerous guest appearances on Indiana call-in shows, I have never had so steady a stream of callers purporting to speak for God.
It is very difficult to have a rational conversation with people who are convinced that they know –clearly and unambiguously–what God wants. That is why issues of church and state seem so intractable, why some of the ugliest letters to the editor are filled with quotes from Scripture. I leave to the mental health professionals the analysis of these rigid and punative personalities– I have enough trouble dealing with the constitutional consequences of these attitudes.
In fact, two upcoming elements of the ICLU’s program year are devoted to a consideration of precisely this phenomenon. As I write this, our most recent issue of Common Ground is at the printer. Entitled Piety and Politics, it is an examination of the history and purpose of the doctrine of separation of church and state. And in October, a conference jointly sponsored by the Gay and Lesbian Rights Task Force and the Task Force on Religion and the Constitution will consider Church, State and Sexuality.
The issue is not one of belief. If, for example, your religion condemns homosexuality, you are entitled to agree, to preach that doctrine, to avoid people you believe to be gay. What you are not entitled to do, however, is legislate based upon that belief, and thereby disenfranchise people who do not share your theology. In a free country, in a system that separates church from state, the civil authority simply may not enact the religious dogma of some into laws that affect us all. The state may not disadvantage some people based upon the prejudices or beliefs of others, no matter how sincerely held those beliefs may be.
In Indiana, as inhospitable as public opinion can sometimes be on these issues, there is a pragmatic appreciation of that central libertarian philosophy–a willingness to live and let live. In other parts of the country, obviously, even that grudging acknowledgement of others’ humanity is a rarer commodity.