For a year now, state Sen. Josh McKoon and other supporters of a so-called “religious liberty” bill in the Georgia Legislature have insisted that it had nothing whatsoever to do with gay rights or gay marriage. Nor was it intended in any way to provide legal protection for discrimination against gay people. As they framed it, the issues simply weren’t related.
Strategically speaking, that was the wise approach. Times have changed, even in Georgia, and legislation perceived as anti-gay would have a much harder time being enacted into law today than a decade ago. But to be fair, it was more than that. McKoon has always struck me as an honest person, so when he told me that in his mind at least the bill had nothing to do with gay rights, I believed that’s the way he saw it.
But in the course of a few minutes this morning, McKoon’s whole approach was rendered null and void. The battle lines were drawn on the bill, clearly and publicly, and I don’t think there’s any way now to redraw them.
The agent of that change was the Rev. Bryant Wright of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, who was asked to deliver the devotional message this morning as the state House opened its session. Most members of the clergy honor that duty as apolitical, nonpartisan and nondenominational, but Wright took another course. The former president of the Southern Baptist Convention raised the issue of gay marriage in his sermon, warning legislators that they were going to have to choose between religious liberty and what he called “erotic liberty” and urging them to take the side of religious liberty.
Let’s deal first with that term “erotic liberty,” because it’s a clever little phrase that’s intended to disguise what’s really at stake. It takes the lifelong emotional, romantic, legal, social, spiritual and yes erotic commitment of marriage to the person whom you love, and in the case of gay marriage it attempts to reduce it to the question of how you’re going to get your jollies, so to speak. In short, there’s a whole lot of bigotry smuggled into those two simple words.
The novel formulation of erotic liberty vs. religious liberty apparently comes from the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In an essay published last month on a seminary website, Mohler warned his readers of a rising conflict between liberties, a conflict that he said “will prioritize erotic liberty over religious liberty.”
“Over the course of the last several decades, we have seen this revolution coming,” Mohler writes. “Erotic liberty has been elevated as a right more fundamental than religious liberty. Erotic liberty, foreign to the founders of this nation, now marginalizes, subverts, and neutralizes religious liberty — a liberty highly prized by the builders of this nation and its constitutional order…. A liberty that did not even exist when the Constitution was written now supersedes protections that are explicit in the Constitution.”
I think Mohler’s wrong when he says that “erotic liberty,” as he calls it, did not exist when the Constitution was written. He’s wrong for reasons that he himself acknowledges in his essay. “We must remember,” he says, “that the framers of the Constitution did not believe they were creating rights within the Constitution, but rather acknowledging rights given to all humanity by ‘nature and nature’s God’.”
That’s right: The government does not create natural rights, nor does the Constitution. Natural rights existed prior to and independent of government. That’s why, in the Declaration of Independence, the founders wrote that “all men … are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It’s also why, in the Ninth Amendment, they made sure to point out that the listing of rights in the Bill of Rights did not in any way undermine the many other rights that human beings enjoy just by virtue of being human beings. Again, government does not create natural rights; it can only acknowledge and attempt to protect them.
So while the Bill of Rights did not say that we could marry whom we choose and love whom we choose, without discrimination, we have that right anyway. And as far back as 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court foreshadowed these arguments when it concluded that “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men. Marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.”
The case in question was Loving v. Virginia, in which the court threw out state laws that made it illegal for black people and white people to marry. And although it’s convenient for some to forget it nowadays, religion played a prominent role in justifying and perpetuating that hateful law, as well as the bigotry behind it.
As a man named Leon Bazile wrote back then:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And, but for the interference with his arrangement, there would be no cause for such marriage. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
And who was Leon Bazile? He was the Virginia judge who convicted Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter, sentencing them to a year in jail but suspending the sentence as long as they left the commonwealth of Virginia immediately. They would have to practice their “erotic liberty,” their defiance of the natural order as ordained by God, somewhere else.