Abraham Lincoln, in a speech he delivered in Baltimore, Maryland in April 1864, said, "The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty...the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the product of his labor; while with others the same word may mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and the product of other men's labor. Here are two, not only different, but incompatible things, called by the same name - liberty.
The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep's throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty, especially as the sheep was a black one. Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word liberty; and precisely the same difference prevails today among us human creatures, even in the North, and all professing to love liberty. Hence we behold the processes by which thousands are daily passing from under the yoke of bondage, hailed by some as the advance of liberty, and bewailed by others as a destruction of all liberty."
I have been thinking about Lincoln's words over the past days as the Supreme Court made it's decision to guarantee equal civil and human rights to gay and lesbian people and as the South Carolina legislature agreed to write and pass a law to take down the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds in Columbia. Some people hail the Supreme Court's decision as an advance of liberty, while others bewail it as the destruction of all liberty. Some people hail the South Carolina legislature's decision as an advance of liberty, while others bewail it as a destruction of all liberty. Indeed, like the issue of slavery in Lincoln's day, the sides of the gay marriage issue and the sides of the Confederate flag issue are incompatible. One cannot be for equal protection of LGBTQ people under the law and against it. One cannot be for the removal of the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds and against it. When we talk about these issues - equal protection under the law, religious freedom, racism, heritage, liberty - we do not all mean the same thing.
Which leads me to clarify my own thinking and language regarding these issues.
I agree with the majority in the Supreme Court's decision in the Obergefell v. Hodges decision and am heartened by it. I agree with Justice Kennedy's words, "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right." In this issue, liberty to me means all people, all people, deserve equal protection under the 14 Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. I am thankful this liberty is extended to my LGBTQ friends and neighbors.
I also agree with the majority of lawmakers in the South Carolina legislature in the decision to remove the Confederate flag from the Statehouse grounds. I agree with Governor Haley's words, "It is a new day in South Carolina, a day we can all be proud of, a day that truly brings us all together as we continue to heal, as one people and one state." In this issue, liberty to me means confessing that the symbols of our Southern past represent white supremacy and oppression, it means removing these symbols from prominent places so they will no longer insult and injure the people they intended to oppress and harm. I am thankful this liberty is extended to my African American friends and neighbors.
I know there are many people on the other side of these incompatible issues from me. As I eagerly await Harper Lee's new novel, "Go Set A Watchman," I can only say what Atticus said in "To Kill A Mockingbird" - They're certainly entitled to think that...but before I can live with other folks I've got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.
My conscience leads me to think about and talk about liberty in these ways. This is the way I can live with myself and with my neighbors around me.