Conservatives had something to celebrate this past week in the way of a couple notable victories in battles in our ongoing cultural war. Two high courts, one in New York and one in Georgia, ruled supporting an understanding of marriage in state law as that which takes place between a man and a woman.
But, although a couple important battles have been won, there should be no doubt that a long and protracted war will continue. And it's worth paying attention to the very special weapons of this war _ words, and how they are used.
Usually, we think of words as building blocks for sentences, which are then used to construct ideas with which to make arguments. In today's culture war, battles are not waged with ideas, but by attacking the building blocks themselves _ the words _ and changing their meaning. It's kind of a verbal terrorism.
In this sense, I've come across an observation by the ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius that really fits what's going on around us today: "When words lose their meaning, people will lose their liberty."
The reasoning of the deciding opinion in the New York case is so simple and clear you can't help but feel some sense of relief that the world indeed has not gone mad. The operative articles in the state's Domestic Relations Law, the opinion says, " ... nowhere say in so many words that only people of different sexes may marry each other, but that was the universal understanding ... in 1909" when the articles were adopted.
Furthermore, the opinion goes on to quote from the law: "The parties must solemnly declare ... that they take each other as husband and wife" and that clerks obtain relevant information from "the groom" and "the bride."
For the gay activist plaintiffs the offense here is that there is something _ in this case marriage _ that might actually have some real, irreducible meaning, not accessible to political activism. Sort of the opposite of Shakespeare's point that "...a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." That is, I commit a hate crime if I deny your claim that your dandelion is a rose.
The strategy in the assault on marriage is that if the institution is not providing what you want, change the meaning of the institution. Why it is the way it is, the fact that it has been this way from time immemorial and, indeed, the idea that there might be anything objectively true, becomes irrelevant.
The problem gets transformed from the preservation of the integrity of marriage, which was the original point of the law, to a claim that the law discriminates and "restricts an individual's right to marry the person of his or her choice."
Now the cheapening of language for political ends has great potential in the hands of a true artist and wordsmith like the Rev. Al Sharpton. Someone with Sharpton's skills rightly has ambition beyond simply changing the meaning of marriage. Sharpton takes on Christianity itself.
So, in recent days Sharpton has been critical of black pastors for "narrowly" focusing on such marginal issues as abortion and gay marriage and ignoring such pillars of the Christian faith as affirmative action (I've been searching for the chapter and verse on this in my Bible) and "ending" poverty (my scripture says that "destitute people will not cease to exist within the land" and explains that this is the very reason for the personal obligation to give charity).
"Right" Christians, according to Sharpton, would not seek to deny a woman's right to destroy the child within her (in this sense, black women, who account for 40 percent of the nation's abortions, must be a truly blessed community) or a "gay couple's right to marry."
Yes, if the black church had its act together, according to Sharpton, it wouldn't be so obsessed with the half million aborted black babies each year, the 70 percent of black babies born to unwed mothers, the 65 percent of black households headed by single parents and the rampant incidence of AIDS, and would instead focus more on the Voting Rights Act.
Can the Lord, as Christians understand Him, really be more concerned with majority minority voting districts than black children wandering the streets with no values, guidance or purpose in life?
I think Confucius had a point. If words have no meaning, if they can be manipulated and used as political tools, if indeed there is no sense of any truth rooted in tradition and experience, there will be no freedom.
Fortunately, a note of sanity was struck in New York and Georgia. But the war goes on.