Ominously clear

With friends like these, is the argument already over?

Issue: "Midwest's middle men," Oct. 21, 2000

American society took a quiet but profound left turn, I think, during the much heralded television debate between vice-presidential candidates Richard Cheney and Joseph Lieberman. It happened so silently that almost no one noticed. Everyone was overly absorbed in noting how elegant a debate it was, how much the participants respected each other, and how the two men in some ways outclassed their senior running mates. All that was largely true. But something slipped away during the Cheney-Lieberman debate, and its disappearance will come back in the future to haunt us as a turning point where a few key human freedoms went sadly undefended. The slippage took place during a discussion on homosexual rights-but the threatened freedoms don't have primarily to do with sexual prerogatives. The debate's moderator, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw, had asked both candidates in turn to respond to the issue of "sexual orientation." "Should a male who loves a male and a female who loves a female," asked Mr. Shaw, "have all-all-the constitutional rights enjoyed by every American citizen?" Neither respondent was glib. Neither glossed over the difficulty of the issue. Mr. Lieberman cast his answer in a lofty reference to the Declaration of Independence, "which says right there at the outset that all of us are created equal and that we're endowed, not by any bunch of politicians or philosophers, but by our Creator with those inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Mr. Lieberman noted that those rights, experienced early by only a limited number of citizens, have now been extended "to gay and lesbian Americans who are citizens of this country and children of the same awesome God, just as much as any of the rest of us are. That's why I have been an original co-sponsor of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act," to protect homosexuals in the workplace. Mr. Lieberman said first that he supports "the traditional notion of marriage as being limited to a heterosexual couple." But just as quickly, he undermined that commitment by adding that he has friends who are in gay and lesbian partnerships "who have said to me, 'Isn't it unfair that we don't have similar legal rights to inheritance, to visitation when one of the partners is ill, to health care benefits?' And that's why I'm thinking about it. And my mind is open to taking some action that will address those elements of unfairness while respecting the traditional religious and civil institution of marriage." But Mr. Cheney, the conservative Republican, was hardly more helpful. "The fact of the matter is," he said, "we live in a free society and freedom means freedom for everybody. We don't get to choose, and shouldn't be able to choose, and say, 'You get to live free, but you don't.' And I think that means that people should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into. It's really no one else's business in terms of trying to regulate or prohibit behavior in that regard." Then Mr. Cheney raised the issue of homosexual marriages: "That's a tougher problem. That's not a slam dunk. [The] matter is regulated by the states. I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions and that's appropriate. I don't think there should necessarily be a federal policy in this area. I try to be open-minded about it as much as I can and tolerant of those relationships. Like Joe, I also wrestle with the extent to which there ought to be legal sanction of those relationships. I think we ought to do everything we can to tolerate and accommodate whatever kind of relationships people want to enter into." (The full text of this important part of the Cheney-Lieberman debate is available on this week's WORLD website, www.worldmag.com.) But left disturbingly unnoted by both men are at least two profound effects of such thinking on a society at large: First, it's a short route from this style of reasoning about "freedom" to anarchy itself. For what have these men said about unfettered homosexual relationships that might not also be affirmed about bestiality or polygamy? In their zeal to make sure everyone gets to enjoy the "pursuit of happiness," these fellows have forgotten that burglars, rapists, and embezzlers might soon also ask to be included in that ever-widening circle Mr. Lieberman referred to. Does our society have any external moral standard-handed down, perhaps, by that "Creator" Mr. Lieberman referred to-for including or excluding people from that circle? Or is the "pursuit of happiness" now our only absolute? Which suggests the second big problem. The enlargement of virtually any freedom almost always means the simultaneous restriction of some other liberty. If WORLD, for example, is to be required sometime in the not-too-distant future to hire a writer who is a homosexual activist, simply because not to hire him is to restrict his pursuit of happiness, what about the religious freedom of the people publishing WORLD? One freedom or the other will have to yield. And given the performance of the fellow who's supposed to be the most conservative of all the major candidates, it's getting ominously clear which freedoms are likely to be sacrificed.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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