On August 4, 2010, Vaughn R. Walker, Chief Judge of the US District Court for the Northern District of California, overturned a regressive article of legislation known as Proposition 8. In a landmark ruling he deemed it unconstitutional. Proposition 8 reinforced the definition of marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman as outlined in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act. It countered the legalisation of same-sex marriages in California in 2008. Why? Apparently marriage needed defending because, say, if same-sex couples were given equal rights under the law, what would stop dog lovers from marrying their dogs? This of course would lead to social anarchy and institutionalised perversion in much the same way that marijuana, as Richard Nixon liked to say, was a halfway house to something worse. As usual the Christian Right ignored the separation of Church and State, the bedrock of the US Constitution, and invoked the law of Leviticus, that Old Testament tract which states that a man who lies with a man should be stoned to death. With actual stones, that is, not marijuana. Now that Prop 8 is dead, what does this ruling mean to the United States and what, in turn, are its geopolitical ramifications?
What the ruling means to the US is that its law and its rhetoric are, in this instance, in accord. As the final ruling states, “Plaintiffs have demonstrated by overwhelming evidence that Proposition 8 violates their due process and equal protection rights and that they will continue to suffer these constitutional violations until state officials cease enforcement of Proposition 8.” The protection of minorities is enshrined in the principle of democracy but the fact that Proposition 8 went to the ballot box makes a sham of this. This is exactly why John Adams wrote that, to protect against such circumstances, America should be a nation of laws and not men. That said, the upshot is that the case for a federal law legalising same-sex marriage is now set to go to the Supreme Court. And this is where the rest of the world is concerned; or, at the very least, Western democracies.
As a result of how the wrangles between disparate social and political pressure groups played out over Proposition 8, the sense that there is a chasm between what the US body politic claims to believe, and what it does, widens. The inalienable rights that Jefferson trumpeted, the pursuit of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, have once again proved to be subject to strict qualification. This rift is what so frustrates observers of the US. This is significant in geopolitical terms because, as Mark Hertsgaard notes in his book, The Eagle’s Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World, “America receives a disproportionate amount of coverage from news media around the world, reinforcing foreigners’ sense of living always in the Eagle’s shadow.” This is why the debate over Proposition 8 matters, not just to California and the United States, but also on the global stage of human rights.
The greater question is simple: you either believe in equality or you don’t. You either believe in freedom or you don’t. The problem with such grand words is that they need to be defined before they can mean anything at all. Freedom from what, and to do what? Equality with what, and for whom? There has to be a baseline against which these words are measured before they can become workable ideas.
And this is where the Christian Right and the Mormons enter the field of engagement. They hark back not to the secular democracy enshrined in the US Constitution but to that notoriously contradictory of rulebooks, the Bible. This is the baseline they want to enforce. When the language of faith enters into political debate the protections guaranteed by secular law are undermined because fact is no longer the cornerstone. As Gore Vidal once observed, “to ignore the absence of evidence is the basis of true faith.” In the aftermath of the decision, the Christian Right is claiming that Walker should have recused himself from the case because of his sexuality. His sexuality is not on public record, no matter what the blowhards at the American Family Association claim, and at best, as Steven Petrow notes in the Advocate, is “an open secret”. That Walker’s decision follows the letter of the law, and that his sexuality is beside the point, is irrelevant to their quest to take away the rights of anyone who does not subscribe to their prescriptive beliefs.
And what exactly are those beliefs? Leviticus is a key text in the fight against ‘permissiveness’. It is perhaps the most ludicrous book of the Old Testament. It is essentially a rulebook over which both sides of the debate argue like schoolchildren. Of course it is fun to challenge those who quote Leviticus on homosexuality by reciting its prescriptions against, say, wearing mixed fibres, or the penalty of being stoned to death for those who criticise their parents. But in the end this is playground politics. Neither side understands the subject at hand. The Christian Right hurls quotes from the Old Testament at anything they don’t like but fail to understand that, as Karen Armstrong observes in her remarkable book The Bible: A Biography, that the law of Jesus reinterprets the Mosaic law that preceded it.
When Paul quotes biblical stories to instruct his converts, he interpreted them in a wholly novel way. Adam now prefigured Christ, but where Adam brought sin into the world, Jesus had put humanity into a correct relationship with God.
In other words, the law of the Old Testament, the Mosaic covenant, “was only a temporary, interim measure”. Leviticus is an historically specific document that was designed to make sure the Jews in Babylon did not turn away from their jealous patriarchal god toward the more fun-loving sexually liberated goddesses that were available. There are few texts without contexts but the Christian crusaders like to quote Leviticus when it suits and are not about to be interrupted by the obvious, much preferring the convenient.
The Christian Right does not even understand its own subject, and this is a fundamental failing. But then this vocal minority is not interested in ideas that fail to reinforce their prejudices. They are more like hacks than Christians. All that being said, Paul is positively unhinged on the question of sexuality. Why they don’t head to his outpourings on the subject is curious. Nevertheless, the very fact of the Constitution, and the separation of Church and State, should separate this noise from serious political debate. Yet it does not.
It was the Church of Latter Day Saints, the Mormons, who lead the fight to enshrine Proposition 8 into law. Mormons are Christians of sorts. Their central text, the Book of Mormon, was essentially written to Americanise the Christian message. It goes something like this: an angel called Moroni took a weekender to the New World and told a chap called Joseph Smith the location of a set of golden plates on which were recorded chats that the angel had with … no, wait for it … yes folks, Jesus, the saviour himself! And there was a nifty tinge of American exceptionalism to Moroni’s enterprise: in a new found and unique land, it was said, a chosen people would fulfill the mission of Christ – that old chestnut – as well as enjoy the delights of bigamy.
How this bizarre cult had a decisive effect on the secular law of one of the largest states in the US is scandalous. And this is what frustrates observers of the US political machine. It demonstrates a chasm between the rhetoric and the execution of that rhetoric. And how does the world see the US? This is what Mark Hertsgaard discovered when researching his book The Eagle’s Shadow: “It feels no obligation to obey international law, it often pushes other countries around, forcing on them policies and sometimes tyrannical leaders that serve only American interests, and then, if they resist too much, it may bomb obedience into them with cruise missiles.” And this, significantly, was before 9/11, and the bullish foreign policy of the Bush administration.
The United States is far too diverse a country to make generalisations. Nevertheless, generalisations are made, and this is because of the image of the US exported through its media and its foreign policy. Freedom does not mean the freedom to do as one pleases, or to say, “you’re wither with us or against it”, and for all debate to end there. This is posturing and not politics. But as anyone who has visited the US knows, the exported image and the reality of the country do not mesh.
So what now? The defeat of Prop 8 is a great step forward for gay rights as well as for human rights because it reinforces the understanding of equality before the law. This should be embraced and celebrated. At the same time it is important for Americans to understand why the rest of the world continues to be resentful toward it. The election of Obama, which was received with a sigh of relief by so many in Britain, cannot dispel this. The prevailing view is still that, as the Washington correspondent for the Independent once observed, “no-one wraps self interest in moral superiority quite like the Americans do”. With the Christian Right praying and Fox News braying there is much to be watchful against. Their hate is an engine that knows no rest.