In August 1790, Warden Moses Seixas of the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, wrote an address to the recently elected President George Washington. Jewish congregations were still an unusual phenomenon in America at the time, and Newport’s was the new nation’s largest. Seixas’ letter expressed his congregation’s gratitude to President Washington, and to America in general, for their willingness to uphold the separation of church and state and offer shelter and toleration to a minority that had historically been the victim of savage persecution.
Washington’s reply contains a passage that would become famous in the annals of American secularism:
The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
Throughout America’s history, whenever we have erred or lost our way, we have always had examples like this to guide us back to the better path. Last week’s elections were one such moment, a point when America was put to the test and made the right choice. I remain optimistic that the victory of President-elect Barack Obama is a hopeful sign, a milestone on our nation’s continuing journey to a more enlightened and tolerant future. But there’s one piece of contrary evidence that can’t be ignored, one dissonant note in the symphony. That note is the success of anti-gay marriage referenda in Arizona, Florida, and shockingly, progressive, blue California. The passage of these initiatives raises to thirty the number of American states that now have this hateful bigotry written into their constitutions.
Before the election, if I had been able to choose any state to be the battleground for marriage equality, I would have chosen California. I’m amazed that the anti-equality Proposition 8 passed there, and I still don’t know how it happened. There are useful theories, but the full picture has yet to emerge. However, I suspect when the final explanation is written, a major factor will be progressive complacency. Frankly, I fell into that trap myself when I predicted that a tide of Democratic Obama voters would seal Prop 8’s defeat. That did not happen, and although many people worked hard and donated generously to the anti-8 campaign, as a whole we were outworked, outspent, and outlobbied. Special credit goes to the Mormon church, which poured enormous amounts of money and volunteer effort from out of state into the effort to enshrine discrimination in California’s constitution.
But though this is a major setback, the fight is far from over. If there’s any silver lining to this dark cloud, it may be that the passage of Prop 8 will serve as a catalyzing moment for the marriage-equality movement. There can no longer be any doubt about what is at stake: for gay people across California, as well as for those who love them, the consequences of homophobic bigotry have just been made painfully clear. The outrageous and deeply personal injustice visited upon gay couples has stirred great anger, the repercussions of which have just begun to be felt. The backlash is coming, and it may be far larger than advocates of Prop 8 were expecting.The days since the passage of Prop 8 have seen street protests erupt across the nation, including a protest of 3,000 in front of the Salt Lake City Temple itself, the heart of Mormonism. This is an excellent first step: it’s a bold show of strength on the enemy’s own ground, one that takes the fight to them and shows that advocates of equality are neither defeated nor cowed. This anger, this passion, is what we were missing before. For the marriage-equality movement, the next step is clear: we need to channel it into activism.
To win marriage equality, we have to spend our effort where it will be most effective. This may not make me popular, but I don’t think that picketing churches, or even boycotting Mormon-run businesses, is the answer. These proposals are born out of the drive for vengeance, the desire to hurt people who’ve hurt us. Since many gays and lesbians have been deeply and personally hurt by Prop 8, this is understandable. And I’m not saying we shouldn’t do those things – certainly, there’s a good argument to be made that Mormons and other religious groups will be less likely to throw their weight behind anti-gay bigotry in the future if they know they’ll pay a price for it. But if we make these things the whole of our effort – if we let ourselves be lulled into doing this and nothing more – then we will lose again. Punishing opponents of marriage equality is a psychologically satisfying pursuit, but it’s not how elections are won.
If we’re going to change public opinion and repeal Prop 8, that will only be achieved the same way all elections are won: through grassroots effort and campaigning. We need to blanket the airwaves and newspapers with ads making a strong case for equality. We need to make phone calls, to knock on doors, and to talk to people we know who live in affected neighborhoods. The closeness of the election is strong evidence that this fight is winnable – if we wage an effective ground-level campaign, backed by an ad campaign that crafts a compelling narrative arguing for equality, and most importantly, if we do not let ourselves be out-organized or outspent again. As all the demographic data indicates, young voters are far more sympathetic to the cause of equality, which means our eventual victory is practically inevitable. The only question is how soon it arrives, and if we – gays and straight allies, nonbelievers and progressive people of faith – are willing to work for it, it can come sooner rather than later. California will be the next battleground, but it will not be the last.
George Washington’s promise to give bigotry no sanction has always been more of an aspiration than a guarantee with the force of law. To our shame, America has backed bigotry against different groups of people through our history. But even the mere aspiration is valuable – it gives us an ideal to strive for. It shouldn’t be forgotten that every major civil-rights movement that has arisen in America has been victorious. Now the torch has been passed to our generation, and it’s up to us to claim new ground in the ongoing fight for equality. We have a long and proud legacy to uphold, one that dates back to our nation’s founding and our first president. The battle will be hard-fought, but the victory is worth the effort. What will you do to join in and answer the call?