The Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. (Andrew Harrer/BLOOMBERG )
For those of us in the faith community, this past week has been a time of triumph and of tragedy. On Wednesday night June 26 hundreds of people gathered in the Washington National Cathedral’s nave to celebrate the two Supreme Court decisions overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and California’s Proposition 8, both victories for all of us who support marriage equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people as both a civil and religious right. It was a joyful night, full of laughter and tears as those who had suffered so much discrimination savored a cultural and legal turning point in our shared march toward justice.
But if Wednesday was a day of triumph Tuesday, the day before, was a day of tragedy. On Tuesday June 25 the same court that extended marriage equality effectively gutted the central provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act. On Tuesday I found myself as dejected as I would find myself elated on Wednesday. The Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, when I was in high school. I remember what that movement achieved and what that achievement cost. I remember its adversaries: Lester Maddox and George Wallace and Bull Connor. I remember its martyrs, too: Medgar Evers and Emmett Till and Johnathan Daniels. So even though I’m a white person, the Civil Rights movement is precious to me.
When the news of the decision came down on Tuesday I thought, “I can’t believe I live in a country that has turned back a signal victory of the Civil Rights movement.” And as I struggled to make sense of this news, I remembered a passage from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s journals I had read in graduate school when I was writing my dissertation on him. Emerson lived in Concord Massachusetts in the 19th century. In the years before the Civil War, the Congress passed what’s known as “the compromise of 1850″: in exchange for admitting California to the Union as a free state, Congress also enacted the Fugitive Slave Act, a law that made it a crime to give shelter to a runaway slave, even in the northern free states. As you can imagine, those opposed to slavery were outraged: average citizens had to decide whether they would uphold or break what they felt was an unjust law. Here is what Emerson had to say about it:
Along with Emerson, I have no choice but to call Tuesday’s decision rolling back the heart of the Voting Rights Act “a filthy enactment”. That it was made in the 21st century by people who could read and write and who know better makes it not only filthy but shameful. As Christians, we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. Christianity has never been only about our own personal, private piety. We go with Jesus to Jerusalem because we are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we are really following Jesus, we try to care as much about the sufferings of people we don’t know as we do about our own children and parents and spouses and friends. And the way you care for people you don’t know is by establishing justice.
If we are really following Jesus, we try to care as much about the sufferings of people we don’t know as we do about our own children and parents and spouses and friends. And the way you care for people you don’t know is by establishing justice. We must together call on Congress to restore what the Court has taken away. We must together defend and rebuild the Voting Rights Act.
Gary Hall is the dean of the National Cathedral.