The Independence Day fireworks over the National Mall are impressive to behold. Yet, watching from a hillside between Arlington National Cemetery and the Iwo Jima Marine War Memorial—both of which speak eloquently to the past sacrifices made for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—I could not shake my friend Os Guinness’s observations about “sunset societies.” By this the erudite Irishman and social critic describes cultures that— like the fiery oranges and reds that can erupt at twilight— are still capable of “brilliant pyrotechnics” even as they are about to fade into a long darkness.
The United States remains the nation from which the next medical marvel, mega-blockbuster film, or latest iWhatever techno-distraction is most likely to come. But, as Dr. Guinness argues in A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, without a virtuous people, American freedom is apt to morph into licentiousness, and that is no foundation on which to build a lasting republic. Guinness knows his warning is not new, echoing as it does many of the country’s founders and other alert foreign observers like Alexis de Tocqueville. He argues that “freedom requires virtue, which requires faith.” Similarly, true faith cannot be dictated by a state church or its rough equivalent as “faith requires freedom.” This connected “golden triangle of freedom” is as important to our functioning republic as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, for documents are only as sound as the societies and living leaders putting them into practice.
That truth was recently reinforced as the end of June brought cultural cannon shots to rival those that would be fired in the 1812 Overture just over a week later. The actions of a bipartisan Congress and President Clinton in the not too distant past of 1996 were deemed unconstitutional, having been, in the eyes of the slim majority, “motivated by an improper animus or purpose.” Rainbow-colored celebrations rang out across the land as the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, fell—with a “Praise the Lord!” offered at D.C.’s Foundry United Methodist Church where the Clintons have often worshiped.
Leftist think tanks also celebrated. It was standing room only July 2 at the Center for American Progress (CAP) when a panel of liberal legal luminaries discussed the just-completed Supreme Court term. First and foremost was basking in the glow of the gay rights cases.
Interestingly enough, the prophetic powers of Justice Antonin Scalia were noted. As one panelist acknowledged, Scalia had been roundly ridiculed for suggesting, in his dissent to the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas case that struck down state sodomy laws, that traditional marriage was now on the hit list. Then, few liberals would dare dream that the court might move so quickly to take up same-sex nuptials. This group of lefty lawyers, though, was now in agreement with Scalia’s most recent crystal ball reading. In his DOMA dissent, Scalia bemoaned that, with the current court’s composition, it was only a matter of time before the next shoe dropped and a constitutional right to same-sex marriage was declared. Such, the CAPers noted, would eventually be necessary to bring along the likes of Alabama—the preferred state punching bag representing backwardness on this day. Despite CAP’s usual fondness for democracy-talk, no discussion was given to Scalia’s basic argument that the democratic process should have been left alone to work its will on this issue.
Instead, the discussion shifted to the historical importance of blocking the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Robert Bork, who just died in December of last year. After the emminently qualified and philosophically consistent jurist had his name turned into a verb that redefined a politically motivated blockade (i.e., to Bork), the much more shadowy Anthony Kennedy eventually filled the seat in 1988. Justice Kennedy—with a jurisprudential philosophy as unpredictable as a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico—now sits as the key swing vote on controversial cases that otherwise tend to split the court into blocks of four linked to the political party of the various appointing presidents.
In his 1996 cultural lament Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Judge Bork aptly noted the “full faith and credit” concerns that would eventually lead to DOMA’s passage in the wake of a Hawaii Supreme Court ruling announcing a legal presumption that any statute restricting marriage to opposite sexes was contrary to the state’s constitution. He suggested that such a legal seawall like DOMA “might” hold but warned that the court had recently handed down, in Romer v. Evans (a Kennedy opinion), a logically suspect “victory for homosexual activists, with whom the court evidently sympathizes.” Sadly, Bork saw things rather clearly, both in this particular and generally.
Bork feared the combination of an unhinged individualism, no longer bound by religion and morality, and an egalitarianism that sought to level even the most basic and biological of differences. Same sex marriage fits these fears well. The broad goal is not access to the protective limits of marriage—and, unfortunately, heterosexuals long ago ensured that the ball has grown rather light and the chain is easily severed—but the true prize is an affirmation of personal autonomy: I want to do what I want to do, and I want society to proclaim it equal to all historic norms.
A Free People’s Suicide strikes many of the same chords as Slouching Towards Gomorrah. You Americans, Guinness concludes, are “turning yourselves into caricatures of your original freedom.” Despite their gloomy titles, these works refuse to declare that the night has won, yet the hour does grow late, and many risk being distracted by the appearance of pretty fireworks.
John Murdock works as an attorney in Washington, D.C. and assisted with the briefing of multiple Supreme Court cases this term. He worships at The Falls Church (Anglican) in northern Virginia.