A few weeks ago, I extended a grudging compliment to Cal Thomas, the conservative columnist, for his skeptical comments on the "Pulpit Freedom Sunday" movement. Thomas suggested that the right of pastors to make political speeches from their pulpits wasn't worth fighting for, since their job was to save souls, not influence elections. He's a disillusioned advocate of the Moral Majority, but since he hasn't given up his columnist job, he's free to opine on political and moral issues, and to confuse the two.
Thomas's latest column is a warning against Senator Obama's election, which he claims will result in the enactment of a gay-rights agenda. He was provoked by the Connecticut Supreme Court's recent ruling legalizing same-sex marriages in that state. As Thomas puts it, the ruling "deprived Connecticut citizens of the right to limit marriage and thus, societal approval, to the legal and covenantal relationship between a man and a woman."
"Covenantal" is a loaded term, implicitly insisting that marriage is fundamentally religious in nature, essentially a sacrament belonging to the sacred traditions. That obviously isn't the case in the United States, however, where marriages are matters of law, not ritual. It ought to be self-evident that no religious conception should influence the state's idea of what marriage is.
Thomas would have you believe that this isn't about religion, but the rights of conscience and the concept of majority rule. He quotes the executive director of the Family Institute of Connecticut, who says that the struggle over gay marriage is "about our right to govern ourselves."
"He is correct, of course," Thomas contends, "but such notions are beginning to fade as more of us either don't care, or are willing to trade a ruling class -- in this case the courts -- for individual freedom and the right to shape societal norms and mores from the bottom up, not the top down."
That's right: according to Cal Thomas, it's an exercise of individual freedom to subjugate and stigmatize a minority group in order to "shape societal norms," and for the majority to impose its will and its prejudices on the minority is freedom "from the bottom up, not the top down."
Thomas tries to be clever. In a bit of sophistry, he notes the gay-rights argument that laws against gay marriage are equivalent to laws against interracial marriage. He also notes the Connecticut court's majority opinion, which says, "Our understanding of marriage must yield to a more contemporary appreciation of the rights entitled to constitutional protection." If rights are subject to revision based on "a more contemporary appreciation" of things or a new "understanding," Thomas teases, should we consent to a reduction of black civil rights if the majority understanding "were to devolve to a pre-civil-rights-era acceptance of black inferiority"? If our notion of rights depends on circumstances or "understanding," he means, why can't rights by reduced as well as enhanced? He wants you to concede that minority rights should not be subject to "contemporary whim," but he takes that position because for him, both rights and "right" are eternal and unchanging. What was right 2,000 years ago will be right 2,000 years from now. But if he thinks gay marriage and interracial marriage are a bad analogy, he only makes things worse. He concedes that Americans previously limited blacks' civil rights based on their "acceptance of black inferiority." He presumably approves of the enhanced civil rights blacks enjoy today, but didn't these result from "a more contemporary appreciation" of black capabilities and the humanity they shared with whites? Yet wouldn't an old-school racist dispute that new appreciation and dismiss it as a "contemporary whim?" On this point Thomas would probably appeal to natural right and say that earlier Americans were wrong about blacks. The civil rights movement, in that case, was no "contemporary whim," but a discovery of fundamental moral truth. So why are gay rights different?
We know what Thomas thinks, since he writes it right here: "The aim of the gay rights lobby is to destroy all remnants of biblical values and societal norms." That's a broad claim. Not only do they want to marry one another, it seems, but they also want to reduce society to anarchy and restore the worship of Baal. It will be news to most if not all gay activists, I suspect, to learn that this is their agenda. But at least Thomas has put his cards on the table. Gay rights are different, and dangerous to Thomas, because they defy the will of God as he understands it. His piety has damned his own cause because he admits that his objection to gay rights is religious in nature. The government has no business enacting any religion's scruples into law, especially if they serve to infringe other people's self-evident rights in a supposedly civilized society. If Thomas and his ilk have no better argument against gay marriage than that it offends God, they may as well stand down.
As it happens, he has another argument, although it's probably not unrelated. Gay marriage, he insists, offends the majority of the American people. He urges people to vote against Obama because "this election is, among other things, about the future of the majority and whether we want this country to be shaped by the courts or by 'we the people.'" Somehow popular sovereignty is threatened if a majority of people cannot enact their bigotry into law. But again, Thomas implicitly condemned past enactments of bigotry into law when they limited the rights of blacks. Why was majority rule in favor of bigotry unacceptable then, but acceptable now? If the issue is "bigger than gay marriage" and is really "about our right to govern ourselves," Thomas has no way to answer this question except to retreat back to the shadow of religion. If we can sum up his argument, it appears that natural rights trump majority rule, except when religion trumps natural rights -- or else religion rather than reason determines what rights really are. Either way, in opposing gay marriage and other gay rights, however he may want to hide it, Cal Thomas is arguing in favor of theocracy, not democracy. Don't let him tell you otherwise.