Recently, Linda Greenhouse wrote commentary about two pending Supreme Court cases: Sex After 50 in the Supreme Court, November 26, 2015. Along the way, she paid homage to Justice Stevens’ 1989 statement, “Our jurisprudence, however, has consistently required a secular basis for valid legislation.” Her conclusion:
Yes, there is a fight over birth control that has never really ended, and a battle over abortion that erupts anew in every election cycle. But what the Supreme Court may or may not grasp is that it has on its hands something deeper yet: a struggle over modernity, a battle for the secular state in which women can make their choices and design what Justice Ginsburg calls their life course, free of obstacles erected by those who would impose their religious views on others and who find in recent Supreme Court decisions encouragement that this time they might get their way.
It is indeed amazing that 50 years after Griswald vs. Connecticut established that American citizens may have access to birth control and forty-two years after Roe v. Wade, the State of Texas has forced its women back to self-induced abortions and secular employers are allowed to deny insurance coverage for birth control prescriptions. Both of these are “theologically based” and, thus wrongfully law.
This struggle for modernity is political, not simply legal. One of our major political parties has been captured by religious political extremists who are fighting to impose their will on their fellow citizens. A politician of that party saw this coming decades ago when he said in a speech on the U.S. Senate floor:
I’m frankly sick and tired of the political preachers across this country telling me as a citizen that if I want to be a moral person, I must believe in “A,” “B,” “C” and “D.” Just who do they think they are? And from where do they presume to claim the right to dictate their moral beliefs to me?
And I am even more angry as a legislator who must endure the threats of every religious group who thinks it has some God-granted right to control my vote on every roll call in the Senate. I am warning them today: I will fight them every step of the way if they try to dictate their moral convictions to all Americans in the name of “conservatism.”
— Barry Goldwater, September 16, 1981
But the Republican party gave in. Apparently in its greed to hold power, the Republican Party does allow the “preachers” to dictate its votes in Congress, in the State legislatures, and in the selection of judges. The power it has gained is inherently limited by the depth of the religious base. Unless extreme measures are taken, that religious base will wither with age and the repulsion of the majority. But extreme measures have been taken in the gerrymandering of our legislative and Congressional Districts. At least one of their leading candidates seems to advocate a police state with special IDs for suspects. It seems unlikely that the most extreme measures will come about, but in the early-1990s, who would have thought we would see states which are in control of these extremists closing abortion clinics and owners of secular enterprises allowed to impose their religious beliefs on their employees (Hobby Lobby). We must be active and not passive in the face of the “preachers” push.
I find it sadly ironic that a political party that was born of the progressive notion that the U.S. Constitution should not protect slavery has been captured by such oppressors. The emergence of the Republican Party elected Lincoln and led to the enactment of three major Amendments to the U.S. Constitution that have evolved to guarantee freedom and equality for many. Yet, somehow, one hundred years later, the party was captured by opponents of this arc of history.
Reagan did not overtly preach most of the time, but he caved to the preachers in all of his judicial appointments after Sandra Day O’Conner. We are just now beginning to see the restoration of a secular judiciary. Control of the judges at all levels of the federal system and control of state governments must be the battle cry of Democrats in the next election. It’s easy to win a Presidential race in the current climate; convincing voters to care about the down-ballot races is harder.
Political discussion these days often uses the words “progressive” vs. “conservative.” I think it more appropriate to call the sides “Modernists” vs. “Regressives.” The Modernists seek to preserve society’s progress and make further advances for the general welfare. The Regressives are simply twisted: They have a vision of an ideal past that never was and wish to return to it – an impossibility. A return to the past is a return to oppression not freedom.
I’m an optimist and believe that the struggle for modernity will ultimately prevail. But the road is tragically long with too many victims.