Open Forum: Possible explanation

Posted: April 10, 2013

In his well-reasoned, and reasonable, March 14 Open Forum, “Bullying Campaign,” Scott Hamel asks why, if the purpose of supporters of gay marriage is to secure equal legal benefits for gay couples (probably a constitutionally supportable request), such supporters are insisting on marriage equality. I write to shed some light on a possible answer.

Societies are based, among other things, on a broadly accepted set of moral principles — a fixed set of rules written by someone other than the members of the society. This someone usually goes by the name of God. The Declaration of Independence, our founding philosophical document, makes this clear when it says, “We (not I, or some of us) hold these truths to be self-evident . . .” (Jefferson’s original words were, “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable.”) While these self-evident truths don’t have the force of law, they are taken into consideration when a society’s laws are being written.

Given the theological bent of our nation’s early settlers, our set of rules was quite naturally based on Judeo/Christian moral principles. Yes, Jefferson spoke eloquently, and rightly, on the need to prevent religious institutions from dictating public policy. Yet as president he was often seen, Bible in hand, walking to Sunday religious services. It was a long walk from the White House; services were held in the rotunda of the Capitol.

Initially most members of a society understand, accept, and abide by the unwritten rules. Probably most who do not abide by the unwritten rules understand them and think they should abide by them.

After the Framers finished writing the document designed to protect the individual rights that flow from these self evident-truths, the Constitution, John Adams was asked what kind of government the people had been given. He replied they had been given a government sufficient to rule a religious people. By this he meant a government sufficient to rule people who abided by the unwritten rules and could, therefore, rule themselves. Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” paints a clear picture of how this adherence to a set of unwritten rules played itself out in our early years.

Over time, those who live outside the rules try to convince themselves that the rules don’t really matter. When this attempt at self-justification fails, they start to see themselves as put-upon, and eventually as being discriminated against. Some people living outside the rules go a step further and convince themselves that no such rules exist. A writer on an atheist website wrote that since God wasn’t wild about fornicating, but she was, she didn’t believe in God. No writer of rules, therefore no rules — and no problem.

As the movement to ignore, or eliminate, the unwritten rules attracts an ever larger number of adherents, and indifference to the rules grows among much of the rest of society, the former group sees itself as strong enough to attempt to eliminate the influence the unwritten rules have on the written law. We see this effect now in efforts to use government to compel religious organizations to violate tenets of their faiths and to codify the proposition that there is no difference between women marrying women and women marrying men.

I have painted with broad strokes. On both sides of these issues are thoughtful, sincere people. My concern is that many don’t see the forest for the trees. Below the surface of the debates we are having on issues such as abortion, government-mandated dispersal of contraception, and marriage equality lies the fundamental question of whether or not we are drifting away from our original guiding principles, and, if so, whether this a good or bad thing.

To borrow from many wiser than I, are we tending toward a dictatorship of relativism? Or toward a society in which all opinions are of equal value — except the opinion that they are not? And are we becoming a society in which all things are tolerated except the idea that some things should not be tolerated? Or a society in which what was once considered judgment is now considered prejudice? Are we eventually headed toward becoming a society that devolves into a tyranny without need of tyrants?

Adams concluded his comments on the Constitution by saying that the government it created was insufficient to rule those who could not rule themselves. This begs the question: Are we becoming such a people? If so, what kind of government might we expect to rise up to rule us?

Phil Gallery is a resident of Augusta, W.Va.