A New Birth of Freedom

“I haven’t seen him. But I suppose he will be a pain. A birth-pain, perhaps, but a pain.”
“Birth-pain? You really believe we’re going to have a new Renaissance, as some say?”
“Hmmm-hnnn.”

– Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz

INTRODUCTION

Tomorrow marks the 238th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence; today is the 151st anniversary of the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg. I have always been a Civil War buff – you may recall my meditation upon the Burnside Bridge at Antietam – so I like to filter American history through that conflict.

So much has happened this past week that I am only now able to process it. Part of this is due to some personal things (which remain nobody’s business but ours, though I will say that I think we’re on the far side of it now), and part of it is because it, on the surface, seems so antithetical to everything I hold dear. We’ve seen the Supreme Court of the United States decide that corporations are not only people, they have more rights than actual people. This same SCOTUS has created the possibility that any non-tax law can be ignored or broken if the person – well, in actuality, the corporation – has “sincerely-held” beliefs on a topic. As if to rub it in, the same decision attempted to vacate that possibility by claiming only one belief was subject to this ruling.

Essentially, the majority of Justices have proclaimed that religious freedom only truly applies to one issue, and even then only if you take the most conservative stance on that issue. At the same time, they have left the door open to allow corporations the right to (a) refuse fair compensation if the corporation feels the money is supporting a cause in which the corporation does not believe, and (b) ignore or disobey laws that do not take the most conservative viewpoint on a religious issue. This is not “freedom of religion.” This is a clear favoring – perhaps the term “establishment” might be more appropriate – of one particular religion over others. I am neither a lawyer nor a Constitutional scholar, but I tend to recall one of the early Amendments to the Constitution frowned on that sort of thing. And as we’ve seen, it’s already gone way past just Hobby Lobby.

Here’s the thing: this actually has nothing to do with religion, much as everyone – including the victors – is trying to make it about religion. It’s about the expansion of corporate power and money at the expense of regular citizens. It started with Citizens United…no, it started with Buckley v. Valeo…no, it started with the Santa Clara cases and the misbegotten and ill-applied doctrine of corporate personhood. Others have written more informatively about the effects of corporate personhood, both intentional and otherwise, and I will defer to their words. Rather, I choose to focus on what can and should be done.

WE CANNOT HALLOW THIS GROUND

The line of American history can be read as one of expansion. We can easily visualize this in terms of territory, as we’ve all seen the sixth-grade maps showing how first we were just at the crest of the Appalachians, then to the Mississippi, then the Pacific, then our noncontiguous lands. We called this Manifest Destiny, and to be sure, it didn’t end well for a lot of people who deserved way better. The expansion of which I speak, however, is an expansion of the rights contained in the Constitution to all of us. This expansion began almost immediately, and continues to this day. Sometimes, it’s a fairly smooth process. Other times, blood is spilled – as mentioned above, this is the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

There are always those who fight the expansion. I am reminded of Sen. Richard Russell (D-Georgia), who, when told he was fighting nothing more than a delaying action against civil rights, replied “I know, but I am trying to delay it – ten years if I’m not lucky, two hundred years if I am.” We have seen this fight before – in the marches of Susan B. Anthony and over the Equal Rights Amendment (a still-incomplete battle). We saw it in the factories of Pullman and Detroit, in the front of the bus in Montgomery, in the farms of the Central Valley of California, in the streets of Greenwich Village, and anywhere one person has stood up to say, “I count.” Now we have seen the beginning of a new fight. The pushback against the expansion is coming from a different sector this time – corporate personhood. In an attempt to limit the rights of actual human beings, those who have always opposed the expansion have found a new path. They can claim the mantle of expansion for themselves (for are they not giving rights to a new class of “people?”), and wrap themselves in the Bill of Rights and in the flag, while in truth they are doing their level best – as they always have – to limit the rights of the rest of us. In this cause, they have been ably assisted by a network of organizations devoted single-mindedly to the limitation of our rights as citizens in the name of acquiring ever more of our shared inheritance. And, like Sen. Russell, they know that delay can turn into denial; we, however, know that delay can turn into victory, when the outcry is strong enough. My job – our job – is to raise that battle cry: “I count.”

I honor the memory of those who gave blood, toil, tears, and sweat to rally around that battle cry. Our words alone can never do proper justice to their memory. Our actions will show how we honor them, by taking up their fights as our own. And even though we may not win every battle – this week was proof of that – I maintain faith that Dr. King’s arc still bends toward justice. So we must keep fighting, even though the odds are overwhelming, even though we are tired, and saddened, and angry, and hurt.

OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE

I fight because the story does not end. Each generation remakes the United States according to its interpretation of the ephemeral idea of “America.” The Founders were brilliant men, though it should be stated for the record that their idea of the “common man” was a white male landowner. In this, as noble as their intentions and as good as their plans were, they fell short. The rest of the story is how succeeding generations took the promise of the Constitution – government of, by, and for the people, forming a more perfect union – and expanded that to include more and more of their fellow-citizens. “We cannot escape history,” said Lincoln, and that is as true today as it ever was. Through war and reconstruction, the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement, and now the fight for full equality, the story goes on. I know not when it will end, but I hope – even in the darkest moments – that infinite chapters, developing all that is best in our collective plot, will continue to pour from the pens and keyboards of We, The People. For after all, we are the true authors of our liberty and of our history. We should never want to escape history; it is our story, and we owe it to ourselves and our posterity to write the best possible story we can.

WF

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