All too often, we have been hypocrites about this, preaching rights and progress to popular movements and allowing them to be beaten down, but now and then, we make history out of our fiction.
First published in November 2019.
The United States joined China, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and other nations — our fellow members of the Human Rights Council — in voting against a resolution that condemns the death penalty as a punishment for religious offenses such as blasphemy or apostasy, adultery, and sexual activity with someone of the same sex. According to Heather Nauert of the U.S. State Department, “the United States voted against this resolution because of broader concerns with the resolution’s approach in condemning the death penalty in all circumstances and calling for its abolition.”
In other words, because we insist on the institutional authority to kill murderers in cold blood — people who committed a heinous act, but who are not an immediate threat to others at present — we find ourselves unable to oppose the killing of people whose beliefs do not conform to the majority’s or whose consensual relationships are such as are found icky by the prudes who are in power. I suspect that in addition to the stated reason, we also voted against the resolution because we do not like the idea of international standards being applied domestically. The good news is that twenty-seven of the forty-seven member council voted in favor of the resolution, though how much this will achieve when the United States and China oppose it is anyone’s guess.
This would be just another example of Trump’s hatred of international order if it were not for the direction of things at home. The Obergefell ruling in 2015 that established a legal right for same-sex couples to marry was a result of a Supreme Court that has been ideologically balanced about the center of the political spectrum for a long time. But nominations in the twenty-first century have been pushing the federal judiciary to the right, thanks to two Republican presidents and to obstruction against Obama’s nominees. During his three years in office, Trump has placed about a quarter of the judges on the appeals courts and two Supreme Court justices, posing a grave threat to the constitutional rights of GSRM (gender, sexual, and romantic minority) Americans.
This is only one type of attack that the Trump administration has committed on people who do not conform to the majority’s preferences in sexual behavior. And it is in keeping with Trump’s pandering to evangelical voters. Though his entire life has been a rejection of any form of Christianity, religious extremists who oppose any wall that separates church and state see him as a tool that they can use to get their ideology written into U.S. law. This is especially the case when William Barr, the attorney general, points to “modern secularists” as a threat to American values and when Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, says that our foreign policy — of which the U.N. vote is an illustration, presumably — is guided by his religion.
What the thirty percent of Americans who are not Christians and what the many Christians who support the First Amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses would have to say here apparently does not concern two of the top officers in the executive branch of our federal government. But then, the Trump administration has shown disdain for freedom of the press, Trump having declared many times that reporters who challenge him are the enemies of the people, so it comes as no surprise that his cabinet would attack other parts of the bedrock protections of basic rights.
There was a time when American presidents tried to maintain the myth of America’s moral leadership in the world. I say myth not to disparage the concept. Good stories inspire us. They shape our understanding of who we are and drive us to live up to their lessons. They may even make us more empathetic. All too often, we have been hypocrites about this, preaching rights and progress to popular movements and allowing them to be beaten down, but now and then, we make history out of our fiction.
Today, no matter how much we want to imagine ourselves to be the Shire or Minas Tirith, we have turned into Mordor. Perhaps twelve hundred pages — or ten hours — is too much for the MAGA crowd to get through, but the ending for Sauron and the orcs is not a good one. We have been the beneficiary of the mythology of the shining city on the hill, drawing people to us who came here for the chance to achieve. We owe the world in return. As authoritarianism sweeps the planet, America has an obligation to stand for human rights, especially for people who are most at risk.🔷
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