Tag Archives: anti-gay laws

Gays Get Unalienable Rights Too

re-criminalize-sodomy

Anti-gay Christian protestors outside the Supreme Court

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

In the next day or two, Kim Davis, the Recalcitrant County Clerk of Rowan County will go back to work after Federal Appelate Court Judge Jim Bunning released her from jail after holding her in contempt of court. He released her because other clerks were issuing the marriage licences that she had refused to Gay couples. If she does not interfere with clerks who have pledged to continuing to issue the licences this will probably blow over, but if she interferes with or punishes her employees the stage is set for her quick return to jail, something that her biggest supporters including Mike Huckabee seem to want to happen. 

But lost in all of the ranting of Conservative Christians regarding their right to discriminate in the name of Jesus amen against the legal rights of Gays, Lesbians and others of the LGBTQ community is what is happening to the gays.

From the supporters of Mrs. Davis you almost always hear the claim that Gays are trying to get special rights and persecute Christians. If that claim were true, which it is not it would be troubling. Likewise the claim that Christians and others who oppose Marriage Equality are now the victims of systematic government persecution and oppression is equally fraudulent. 

Their claims to being persecuted are an affront to all Christians who have really suffered and died for their faith in Christ. Likewise the claims of Mrs. Davis’s lawyers and the politicians, pundits, and preachers who support her, that she is “like a Jew in Nazi Germany” utterly demeans the lives of the Jews persecuted by the Nazis in the 1930s and the six-million Jews slaughtered by them during the 1940s. 

The claims of these so-called Christians are repugnant and embarrassing. Any Christian with a modicum of honesty, integrity, and ethics should publically repudiate then. Sadly, most, caught up in the emotions generated by the rabid anti-gay politicians, pundits and preachers, don’t know enough history, fact, or Christian theology to do anything else but to follow these charlatans as they lead the church to the abyss, just as the leaders of German churches did during the Nazi era. 

The fact is, that for the first time in our history Gays and others of the LGBTQ community have almost equal rights to all other Americans citizens, the rights so eloquently written in the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men….”

upstairs lounge massacre

Burned bodies of gay men after the Up Stairs Lounge in New Orleans was attacked in 1973, 32 men died. The suspect, a gay man who had been thrown out escaped police custody. Witness testimony was dismissed by investigators. Media buried the story while talk radio hosts mocked the victims. No one cared, even most churches which refused funerals for victims because they were gay

And which were finally enshrined in the Constitution by the 14th Amendment, an amendment which from the time it was ratified has been hated by the opponents of liberty for people that they despise, be it based on race, color, religion, nationality, gender or sexual preference. That amendment is precious and there are some co-called conservatives who actually want to get rid of it. I think that it should be memorized by everyone who believes in freedom:

“All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the state wherein they reside. No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

So, Gays are getting rights that they never had before and their critics whine about being oppressed and persecuted for trying to use their religion to deny those legal rights. But how is the right to deny legal rights to others a sign of oppression? I guess it is if you believe that your religious rights trump all other rights because God trump’s all, except maybe Trump.

Mini-StonewallGay Rights protest in 1965

But really, I want you to try to imagine what real oppression is like, that is the official, government sanctioned oppression that Gays went through, until very recent times. I guess if you never served alongside honorable people who put their lives on the line for their country, but who could be tried as criminals simple because someone outed them as being Gay it wouldn’t occur to you why this is so important. But government sanctioned oppression and even violence was a fact of life for gays until very recent times, and this is the kind of country that Kim Davis and the preachers, politicians and pundits who support her would like to return.

Imagine if your activities were monitored, catalogued and reported by local, state and Federal police agencies.

Imagine that police detectives and informants were allowed to spy on your activities.

Imagine that police, acting in the “name of the law” under the merest pretense or spurious accusation could invade your home, business or institution and use physical violence to subdue you, even if you had done nothing wrong.

Imagine if a business rival or a spurned lover desired to ruin you, your business, or your career and professional reputation with only an accusation.

Imagine if the price of your freedom was to name names and condemn others.

Imagine if even suspicion of your activities was considered as grounds for termination of your employment, or prevent you from receiving a promotion.

Imagine if those same suspicions could brand you as a felon with the results of being forbidden to vote, the loss of property and employment rights. 

Imagine that if you went to a bar that if you looked in any direction but straight ahead that you could be charged with accosting others.

Imagine that anyone, anywhere who had knowledge of your behaviors could use that knowledge to have you kicked out of the military, law enforcement or government employment, usually with a felony conviction. 

Imagine that your behavior, even discrete behavior in your own residence could get you locked in a psychiatric hospital and quite possibly the use of drugs and surgery to to include, lobotomy, castration or chemical sterilization “correct your illness” without your consent. 

Imagine if you were a faithful member of your church, were conservative in your theology and politics and supported all the causes of that body, but one aspect of your behavior could lead to your excommunication and banishment from that community. 

stonewall-riots

Police attack Gays in San Francisco during the White Night riot on May 21st 1979. 

I guess if it was your behavior or your beliefs that led to such treatment you would cry foul, you would protest, that you would claim that you were the victim of discrimination; and my friend I say that you would be correct. That would be persecution. Sadly the Kim Davis and those claiming to be victims of “massive anti-Christian” persecution are only being prohibited from crushing the freedom and liberty of people who they consider sinners, not from practicing their faith in any way.

That my friends was the America and Great Britain that Gays lived in the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s, portions of which remained enshrined in law until very recently and which a number of high powered and influential politicians, pundits and preachers of the Christian Right would like to go again.

Sadly there are young Gays and Lesbians who take the rights that those who went before them for granted. Thankfully, they have grown up in a more tolerant society, but few know what happened to people just like them in the not too distant past. It should not be forgotten. 

So, when you think about those special “legal rights” being given to a “vocal minority who want to destroy America” ask which America? The one where we all enjoy the right to Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness or the one that denies those rights to certain types of people who have done nothing wrong other than being who they are. Of course those who seek to abridge these basic human rights and freedoms, almost all do so in the name of their God and religion which they use to buttress and validate their prejudice and hatred.

Think about it.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, History, laws and legislation, LGBT issues, News and current events, Political Commentary

Why I Fight for Gay Rights

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Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I think that the question “why?” is important, and it is important for my readers to know just why I would be spending so much time to defending the rights of Gays and the LGBTQ community. Those who have been reading for this site the past few days know that I have been very passionately speaking out on the behalf of Gays and Lesbians.

“Why?” is an important question my friends, one that far too many people fail to ask of those who set or influence policy. I would love to see the media ask any supposedly Conservative politician “why” they are against gay rights. I mean seriously ask why, and then ask hard follow-up questions.

I am sure that there are some Christians that marvel that another Christian, and a Navy Chaplain with a strong conservative pedigree to boot would defend the rights of Gays, Lesbians and others that they disapprove. However, at this point in my life I can do no other.

I am a historian who also happens to be a priest and senior Navy Chaplain. I know too much, and if I do not speak up I would be culpable of the same crimes that German Christians, clergy and military officers did when they said nothing when the Jews, Gays and others were persecuted, imprisoned and murdered by the Nazi regime.

In the early 1900s the Jews of Germany were making progress, gaining entrance into government, the military and the political process. Germany in those days was a haven for Jews, especially Eastern European Jews who had to live with open persecution and pogroms sanctioned by Czarist Russia and other eastern European states. German Jews in that era were preeminent scientists, physicians and had entered the government and military. The Germany Armaments Minister Walther Rathenau who helped keep the German military in the war through his immense talents was Jewish, as was the commanding officer who recommended the young Corporal Adolf Hitler for the award of the Iron Cross First Class in 1918. However, when Germany was defeated in the First World War, Jews took much of the blame, and conservative German Christians were at the forefront well before anyone knew the name of Adolf Hitler.

Of course, they were a minority, and many were Socialists and in the search for villains after the defeat and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Jews were high on the hit list, especially for conservative Christians of both the Protestant and Catholic faiths who saw their dreams die at the end of the war.

Much is the same for the LGBT community in the United States. Conservative Christians blame Gays for all the social ills and maladies that German Christians did the Jews, Socialists and yes, German homosexuals did in the 1920s. If you actually bother to read the writing of the German right wing and conservatives of that era you will find language that is startlingly similar to the language used by conservative American Christians use today against Gays, liberal Jews, progressives and yes Moslems as well. It is an amazing study if you have the integrity and interest to bother to read it instead of listening to the pundits, politicians and especially the political preachers of the American right. However, if you don’t it matters not, because after all “God hates the gays” so why shouldn’t you?

But then wasn’t that what the German Christians who allied themselves to Hitler did concerning the Jews? After all the Jews were “Christ killers.” Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and all the leading Nazis said so. But today if there is a natural disaster in the United States who is to blame? The Gays of course, and almost every conservative political preacher in America agrees. Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, James Robison, John Hagee and even soon to be repeat presidential candidate Mike Huckabee all agree that it is all the Gays fault. Just like Hitler, Goering, Goebbels and others said of the Jews in Germany. Get rid of the Gays and voila, problem solved.

Since most of these preachers, pundits and politicians believe that Gays are destined for Hell and are the enemies of God, it is only a matter of time before they not only endorse legal restrictions and persecution, but endorse genocide. If fact some have, Scott Lively and others have actually went to Africa and campaigned for “Kill the Gays” bills in Uganda. They actually promote legislation in other countries that would make it legal not just to ensure that Gays have second or third rate citizenship, but to imprison and execute them. Given the chance they would do so here.

You see, every mass movement of religious and nationalist hate needs a scapegoat. For the German right it was the Jews, for the modern American right it is the Gays. As Eric Hoffer wrote: “Hatred is the most accessible and comprehensive of all the unifying agents. Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.” To the German Right in the 1920s and 1930s the Jews were the Devil, to many conservative American Christians the Gays are the Devil.

You see it is just a short jump from thoughts, to words to actions. Those who embrace the hatred of Gays, just as those who embraced the hatred of the Jews are just a little ways from thoughts, to words to actions. Believe me, with a Congress that now has a sizable number of people who honestly believe that the Gays are the enemy, not just of them but of God that actions may well follow. One only has to look at the anti-gay measures in Russia, some parts of Eastern Europe, the Middle East and in particular Africa, where aided by anti-Gay American Christians nations like Uganda are criminalizing homosexuality and even speaking up for gays as a heterosexual.

That being said I think that the tide of history is going the other direction, but that does not mean that such people are not dangerous should they ever be in a place to enforce their religious and ideological beliefs on others.

Mahatma Gandhi wrote:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”

That is why as a white, male, Christian, Navy Chaplain and priest I must speak out against such hatred and support the rights of the LGBT community. I have to speak out, as do other Christians. As Martin Niemoller, a naval hero of the First World War and conservative German pastor who initially supported Hitler noted:

In Germany they first came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me – and by that time no one was left to speak up.

Sadly, today, most conservative American Christians don’t understand this profound political philosophy. Likewise, they, like Martin Niemoller and others throughout history, will find that some of the people that they support will turn on them once they no longer need their votes or political support.

That my friends is a fact and why anyone should beware of any religious leader or politician who turns any minority group into a Devil should be feared, because they do mean business, and their ruthlessness is only concealed by the veneer of religion and law.

That my friends is why I write, why I speak, and why I fight.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil rights, ethics, faith, History, laws and legislation, LGBT issues

My Journey to Support Gay Rights

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

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In light of what I have been writing about the Obergfell v. Hodges and comparing that case to the historic examples of the 1856 Dred Scott decision and the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling I think it is important for my readers to know I got to the place where I have become an advocate for the rights of my friends in the LGBTQ community.

Frankly my journey has been a long strange trip. Most of my life I would have considered myself a conservative Christian and a career military officer, most of that as Pa chaplain. Generally people with similar backgrounds to me do not end up as advocates for Gays and Lesbians. But throughout my life and career I have had problems with the way other Christians and fellow military members treated Gays and Lesbians. Even in the days that I considered homosexual behavior to be sinful, I had a hard time condemning, ridiculing or supporting those who sought to harm homosexuals in any way, including fellow clergy, members of my former church or fellow officers or chaplains.

Now I know that there will vehemently disagree on what I believe and stand for, believe me I have been called everything but a white man by some people, including some that I used to count as friends. Likewise I have been threatened by others. But as I see it I have to stand up for what I believe and defend those whose civil rights are constantly under attack by people who not only condemn them in this world, but to everlasting damnation as well.

But this my friends is my long strange trip. It is what I believe with all my heart, and why I pray that the Supreme Court will legalize Gay marriage throughout this land. though I am not Gay, this matters to me. I have too many Gay and Lesbian friends who have endured hellish persecution for people who call themselves Christians and claim to be defending Christian values when they forget that the most important part of the Christian life is to love, love even your enemies, both real and imagined. But I digress…here is my journey…

I have been in the military coming up on 34 years between the Army and the Navy. That is a long time. When I enlisted and through the first two thirds of my career I can safely say that I fell rather strongly on the conservative-Christian side of the social issues debates. Over the years, especially the last seven since I returned a changed many from my time in Iraq, I have evolved significantly on most of these issues where although I while consider myself to be rather moderate I now fall decidedly on the liberal side of most social issues.

A lot of this has to do with the attitudes that I saw in churches that I was associated. Many people in my former denominations endorsed policies of the Christian Dominionist or Reconstruction movements, that basically upended First and Fourteenth Amendment protections and if enacted would basically turn the country into a theocracy. I have written about those things time and time again so I won’t elaborate on them now.

It was not only the policies, it was the attitude towards the LGBT community that really bothered me. For some reason it seemed that to many of my friends and colleagues that homosexuality was the only unforgivable sin, and not only that that homosexuals were somehow less than human and not entitled to the same rights as any other American citizen. Not only that they were blamed for every economic, social, foreign policy or natural disaster. Hurricane, blame the gays. Stock market crash, blame the gays, the 9-11 attacks, God’s judgment on the United States because of the gays. You name it, blame the gays, and that my friends still happens every day.

But my journey to accepting and fighting for Gays and Lesbians began a lot earlier.

When I first enlisted in the Army in 1981 it was not uncommon for gay slurs to be hurled at soldiers as a matter of course, especially at young men who did not appear manly enough or women who wouldn’t put out sexually when it was demanded of the. They were queers, fags, dykes and worse. There is a scene in the movie Full Metal Jacket where R. Lee Ermey, a man who actually was a Marine Corps Drill Instructor berates one of his recruits:

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Where the hell are you from anyway, private?

Private Cowboy: Sir, Texas, sir.

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Holy dog shit! Texas? Only steers and queers come from Texas, Private Cowboy, and you don’t look much like a steer to me, so that kinda narrows it down. Do you suck dicks?

Private Cowboy: Sir, no, sir!

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: Are you a peter puffer?

Private Cowboy: Sir, no, sir!

Gunnery Sergeant Hartman: I bet you’re the kind of guy who would fuck a person in the ass and not even have the goddamn common courtesy to give him a reach-around. I’ll be watching you!

The sad thing is that such behavior was still common even in the 1990s and though not nearly so pervasive still happened on occasion in after the 9-11 attacks. But those taunts really bothered me and when I was commissioned as a Medical Service Corps Officer in 1983 I met gays in my officer training, they were closeted but they were targets. When I served as a company commander in 1985-1986 I had a number of gays and lesbians in my unit. As I mentioned before they were among my best and most trustworthy soldiers, always going the extra mile.

Meanwhile the unit had the highest drug positive rate in Europe when I took command and had so many real disciplinary and criminal cases on the docket I was told by the Group Commander to “clean that company up.” But when I got down to It I realized that I was so overwhelmed with the real criminals that I didn’t want to harass or prosecute my best soldiers, including those gays and lesbians. That was a watershed. While other commanders sought out gays in order to prosecute them and throw them out of the military I was protecting and promoting them, not because they were gay, but because they were excellent soldiers.

When I went to my next assignment as a personnel officer at the Academy of Health Sciences discharges of trainees for being gay was common. I know because I had to sign off on every discharge packet before it was sent for approval. Since we had five to seven thousand students at any time, both officers and enlisted I did not know the details of most of the stories nor meet the individuals concerned.

However, in 1987 I was given the responsibility of helping soldiers diagnosed as HIV positive with their career options. I also helped officers from the Army Medical Department draft the Army’s policies for those infected with the AIDS virus. At the time many of the Christians that I went to church with believed the myths and lies being promoted by leading Evangelicals about AIDS and displayed a tremendous amount of distain and even hatred towards gays and others infected or dying of that disease. I was dumbfounded that people who preached the love of God had neither compassion nor empathy for those suffering.

I left active duty to attend seminary at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. There I knew a few closeted homosexuals and lesbians who had deep faith in Jesus, were outstanding students and potentially outstanding pastors or chaplains but who had to remain closeted. After I graduated when I was going through my Clinical Pastoral Education Residency one of the men I graduate with did a one unit internship. During that time he made the agonizing decision to come out as Gay. For him there was much to lose, but his example was inspiring and I still stay in touch with him. I also met a chaplain from the Metropolitan Community Church who had been raised in a Black Pentecostal church. He was an amazing and compassionate minister.

In the hospital setting I worked with a lot of homosexuals, of which many were Christians who suffered in their churches as their pastors and friends railed against homosexuals. When I served as the installation chaplain of an Army base I hired an organist who was gay. He worked for the National Guard as a civilian and was a Log Cabin Republican. He grew up in a very conservative church and though he had deep faith was not welcome in most civilian churches. At the time I was a fairly new  in a very conservative denomination and my bishops held that giving communion to Gays was forbidden, in fact they called it a sin. However, when he presented himself for communion, knowing his faith I took the advice of a conservative Missouri Synod Lutheran chaplain, don’t ask, just trust the grace of God in the Sacrament. That became my model of ministry from then on. I never mentioned it to my bishop. Thankfully he never asked or I would have had to be honest. This encounter brought more homosexuals to the chapel, and the chapel community which was composed mainly of military retirees and National Guard personnel welcomed them.

In civilian churches of my old denominations I knew Gays and Lesbians who struggled and tried to do everything they could to change, but no-matter how hard they tried, how hard they prayed, how many times well meaning friends attempted to cast out their demons in rituals similar to exorcisms they struggled and suffered. Most eventually drifted away because they knew that they would not be accepted.  I have had friends in church whose children came out as gay or lesbian. Some loved and accepted them, others turned them away. Judy and I have always done what we can to support them as we would the children of any friend.

That understanding of God’s grace as well as what I believed were the fundamental Constitutional and human rights of Gays and Lesbians brought me to where I am today.

I know that a lot of conservative Christians have and will condemn me for these beliefs and actions, but for me honesty, integrity, empathy and love have to take precedence over hate, blame and prejudice, even when that prejudice is clothed in the words or faith and righteousness. I just figure that once we begin to use religion to condemn others and bolster our own political power that we are no better than people like Al Qaeda, ISIL or the Taliban. We are no better than the Inquisitors or others who destroyed cities and massacred people, even other Christians because they didn’t believe the right way.

I believe that it is just a small step from hateful thoughts and words to actions that end up in genocide. The “German Christians” of the Nazi era demonstrated that to a fine degree. The authors of the Bethel Confession, including Dietrich Bonhoeffer who protested the German Christian alliance with the Nazis noting:

“every attempt to establish a visible theocracy on earth by the church as a infraction in the order of secular authority. This makes the gospel into a law. The church cannot protect or sustain life on earth. This remains the office of secular authority.

That I believe with all my heart and that is why I will support and fight for the rights of the LGBT community in order to ensure that they have the same rights and privileges of any citizen. Otherwise what does the rule of law mean? What does the Constitution mean? What does that sentence in the Declaration of Independence that:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…” 

Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1854 concerning the rights of Blacks, something that is certainly applicable as well to homosexuals: “the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.” 

That my friends, especially my conservative Christian friends who do not understand why I would speak up for the LGBT community, is why I do it. So in the words of my favorite heretic Martin Luther I state today: “Here I stand, I can do no other. So help me God. Amen.”

Peace

Padre Steve+


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Filed under christian life, faith, History, LGBT issues, News and current events, Political Commentary

Dred Scott: A Warning for Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I am a historian, and as such I look to history to understand people and current events. As such I am looking at the upcoming Supreme Court hearing in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges and thinking about it in relation to the Dred Scott Ruling of 1856.

This case deals with Gay marriage and the attempts of mainly Christian Conservatives to roll back the rights of those in the LBGTQ community to marry. Not only does they seek to prevent Gay marriage where it is not permitted but they seek to roll back those rights in states where the majority of voters through their legislators have passed those laws, and negate the traditional understanding of reciprocity between states concerning recognition of marriages performed in other states. As such it is a major case with big ramifications. 

On one hand if the justices rule in favor of those challenging the laws which allow gays to marry it will strike at the very heart of the meaning of the Declaration of Independence’s  central message that “all men are created equal.” Likewise such a ruling will return LBGTQ citizens to a second class status in which though they pay taxes and serve their country in many ways, and contribute to the positive good of all Americans, they will not enjoy the liberties of other citizens and can be denied basic services, or even the right to be at the bedside of a dying spouse. 

Though Gay marriage harms no one its opponents have announced that it will have apocalyptic consequences and will result in a massive persecution of Christians who oppose it. The legal arguments espoused by the opponents of Gay marriage are similar to those who supported the both the protection and expansion of slavery in the 1850s, and those who after emancipation and the Thirteenth Amendment enacted “Black” or “Jim Crow” laws. Sadly, if Gay marriage is upheld by the Court, a number of States are pledging to enact similar laws regarding Gays, and some states are already doing so. 

From more recent Court rulings it appears that the Gay marriage will be upheld, but you never know with the Roberts Court. Several members, Justices Thomas, Alito and Scalia have long histories of opposing and ruling against the rights of gays.  

Today I am looking at the effects of the Dred Scott decision of the Supreme Court. The decision was one of the worst, if not the worst ever enacted by the Supreme Court. The consequences were chilling as it proclaimed that Blacks were a “subordinate and inferior class of beings” who had no rights. It also in combination with the Compromise of 1850 opened territories to slavery and put Blacks in Free States at jeopardy of being re-enslaved.

I ask my readers to imagine what it will be like for Gays if the Supreme Court rules against Gay marriage. I will probably post something tomorrow about the use of the “Black laws” and “Jim Crow” and relate that to the “Gay laws” that are being enacted in many states and locales, laws which serve no purpose than to deprive citizens of basic rights, services and freedoms enjoyed by other citizens. 

This article is an edited part of one of the chapters of my Gettysburg/ Civil War text. I have worked it so that here it is a stand alone article. So please read this and share, it is important and none of us can be complacent.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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As the 1850s wore on, the divisions over slavery became deeper and voices of moderation retreated. The trigger for the worsening of the division was the political battle regarding the expansion of slavery; even the status of free blacks in the north who were previously slaves, over whom their owners asserted their ownership. Southerners considered the network to help fugitive slaves escape to non-slave states, called the Underground Railroad “an affront to the slaveholders pride” and “anyone who helped a man or woman escape bondage was simply a thief” who had robbed them of their property and livelihood, as an “adult field hand could cost as much as $2000, the equivalent of a substantial house.” (1)

In 1856 the Supreme Court, dominated by southern Democrats ruled in favor of southern views in the Dred Scott decision, one pillar of which gave slavery the right to expand by denying to Congress the power to prohibit slavery in Federal territories. Taney’s ruling in the case insisted that “Neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution had been intended to apply to blacks he said. Blacks were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Taney did not stop with this but he declared the Missouri Compromise itself unconstitutional for “Congress had exceeded its authority when it forbade slavery in the territories by such legislation as the Missouri Compromise, for slaves were private property protected by the Constitution.” (2)

The decision was momentous, but the judicial fiat of Taney and his court majority was a disaster for the American people. It solved nothing and further divided the nation:

“In the South, for instance, it encouraged southern rights advocates to believe that their utmost demands were legitimatized by constitutional sanction and, therefore, to stiffen their insistence upon their “rights.” In the North, on the other hand, it strengthened a conviction that an aggressive slavocracy was conspiring to impose slavery upon the nation, and that any effort to reach an accommodation with such aggressors was futile. While strengthening the extremists, it cut the ground from under the moderates.” (3)

The decision in the case is frightening when one looks upon its tenor and implications. The majority opinion which was written by Chief Justice Roger Taney was chilling, not only in its views of race, but the fact that blacks were perpetually property without the rights of citizens. Taney wrote:

“Can a negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States, and as such become entitled to all the rights, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen?…It is absolutely certain that the African race were not included under the name of citizens of a state…and that they were not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the Constitution, and therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and, whether emancipated or not, yet remain subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but those who held the power and the Government might choose to grant them” (4)

The effect of the ruling on individuals and the states was far reaching. “No territorial government in any federally administered territory had the authority to alter the status of a white citizen’s property, much less to take that property out of a citizen’s hands, without due process of law or as punishment for some crime.” (5) Free slaves were no longer safe, even in Free States, from the possibility of being returned to slavery, because they were considered property. The tens of thousands of free blacks in the South were effectively stripped of citizenship, and became vulnerable to either expulsion or re-enslavement, something that the legislatures in Virginia, North Carolina and Missouri debated in 1858. Likewise the decision “cast doubt on the free status of every African American regardless of residence.” (6) 

But the decision had been influenced by President-Elect James Buchanan’s secret intervention in the Supreme Court deliberations two weeks before his inauguration. Buchanan hoped by working with the Justices that he would save the Union from breaking apart by appeasing slave owners and catering to their agenda. “The president-elect wanted to know not only when, but if the Court would save the new administration and the Union from the issue of slavery in the territories. Would the judges thankfully declare the explosive subject out of bounds, for everyone who exerted federal power? The shattering question need never bother President Buchanan.” (7) In his inaugural address he attempted to camouflage his intervention and “declared that the Court’s decision, whatever it turned out to be, would settle the slavery issue forever.” (8) 

But Buchanan was mistaken. The case made the situation even more volatile as it impaired “the power of Congress- a power which had remained intact to this time- to occupy the middle ground.” (9)  Taney’s decision held that Congress “never had the right to limit slavery’s expansion, and that the Missouri Compromise had been null and void on the day of its formulation.” (10)

The Court’s decision “that a free negro was not a citizen and the decision that Congress could not exclude slavery from the territories were intensely repugnant to many people in the free states” (11)  and it ignited a firestorm in the north where Republicans now led by Abraham Lincoln, decried the decision and southerners basked in their judicial victory. Southerners were exultant, the Richmond Enquirer wrote that the Court had destroyed “the foundation of the theory upon which their warfare has been waged against the institutions of the South.” (12) Northerners now quite rightly feared that an activist court would rule to deny their states the right to forbid slavery. As early as 1854 Lincoln posed the idea that the Declaration of Independence was “the standard maxim of free society …constantly spreading and deepening its influence,” ultimately applicable “to peoples of all colors everywhere.” (13) 

After the Dred Scott decision Lincoln warned that the Declaration was being cheapened and diluted, he remained insistent on this point, he noted:

“Our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all” Lincoln declared, “but now, to aid in making the bondage of the Negro universal and eternal, it is assaulted, and sneered at, and construed, and hawked at, and torn, till, its framers could ride from their graves, they could not recognize it at all.” (14)

Lincoln attacked the decision noting that Taney “insists at great length that negroes were no part of the people who made, or for whom made, the declaration of Independence or the Constitution.” But as Doris Kearns Goodwin notes “in at least five states, black voters action on the ratification of the Constitution and were among the “We the People” by whom the Constitution was ordained and established.” Lincoln acknowledged that the founders “did not declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say that all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity.” But they dis declare all men “equal in ‘certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’…They meant simply to declare the right, so the enforcement of it might follow as circumstances permit.” (15)

Not only that, Lincoln asked the logical question regarding Taney’s judicial activism. Lincoln and other Republican leaders “noted that all slavery needed was one more Dred Scott decision that a state could not bar slavery and the objective of Slave Power to nationalize slavery would be accomplished.” (16) How long would it be, asked Abraham Lincoln, before the Court took the next logical step and ruled explicitly that the:

“Constitution of the United States does not permit a state to exclude slavery from its limits?” How far off was the day when “we shall lie down pleasantly thinking that the people of Missouri are on the verge of making their State free; and shall awake to the reality, instead, that the Supreme Court has made Illinois a slave State?” (17)

Lincoln discussed the ramification of the ruling for blacks, both slave and free:

“to aid in making the bondage of the Negro universal and eternal….All the powers of the earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house;…One after another they have closed the heavy doors upon him…and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.” (18)

Frederick Douglass noted that “Judge Taney can do many things…but he cannot…change the essential nature of things – making evil good, and good, evil.” (19)

Lincoln was not wrong in his assessment of the potential effects of the Dred Scott decision on Free States. State courts in free-states made decisions on the basis of Dred Scott that bode ill for blacks and cheered slave owners. In newly admitted California the state supreme court ominously “upheld a slaveowner’s right to retain his property contrary to the state’s constitution.” (20)

A similar decision by a New York Court was being used by slave-states to bring that issue to the Taney Court following Dred Scott. “In 1852 a New York judge upheld the freedom of eight slaves who had left their Virginia owner while in New York City on their way to Texas.” (21) The Dred Scott decision brought that case, Lemon v. The People back to the fore and “Virginia decided to take the case to the highest New York court (which upheld the law in 1860) and would have undoubtedly appealed it to Taney’s Supreme Court had not secession intervened.” (22) Even non-Republican parties such as the Democrats could see the writing on the wall. The national publication of the Democratic Party, the Washington Union “announced that the clear implication of the Dred Scott decision was that all state laws prohibiting a citizen from another state, either permanently or temporarily, were unconstitutional.” (23)

Notes

1. Goodheart, Adam. Moses’ Last Exodus in The New York Times: Disunion, 106 Articles from the New York Times Opinionator: Modern Historians Revisit and Reconsider the Civil War from Lincoln’s Election to the Emancipation Proclamation Edited by Ted Widmer, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, New York 2013 p.15

2.  Goodwin, Doris Kearns Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Simon and Schuster, New York 2005 p. 189

3.  Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis: America before the Civil War 1848-1861 completed and edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher Harper Collins Publishers, New York 1976Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.291

4. Guelzo Allen C. Fateful Lightening: A New History of the Civil War Era and Reconstruction Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2012 p.91

5. Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening pp.91-92

6. Goldfield, David America Aflame: How the Civil War Created a Nation Bloomsbury Press, New York, London New Delhi and Sidney 2011p.142

7. Freehling, William. The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 2007 p.115

8. Ibid. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.109

9. Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.291

10. Levine, Bruce Half Slave and Half Free: The Roots of the Civil War Revised Edition, Hill and Wang, a division of Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, New York 1992 and 1995   p.210

11. Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.279

12. Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

13.  Catton, William and Bruce, Two Roads to Sumter: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis and the March to Civil War McGraw Hill Book Company New York 1963, Phoenix Press edition London p.139

14. Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.93

15. Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

16. Gienapp, William The Republican Party and Slave Power in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.81

17. Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.211

18. Ibid. Catton Two Roads to Sumter p.139

19. Ibid. Goodwin Team of Rivals p. 190

20. Ibid. Gienapp The Republican Party and Slave Power p.81

21. McPherson, James. The Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York 1988 p.181

22. Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.181

23. Ibid. Gienapp The Republican Party and Slave Power p.82

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