When I read about Mike Huckabee’s speech to the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference yesterday, his big talking point sounded very familiar to me. It was the big talking point of a speech I gave in an oratory contest in the 8th grade. By the 9th grade I was embarrassed by it as a product of juvenile ignorance.
Mike Huckabee rallied a crowd of Hispanic evangelicals on Wednesday night, pushing back in the debate over religious freedom just one day after the Supreme Court heard oral arguments to determine whether states have the right to ban same-sex marriage.
“I respect the courts, but the Supreme Court is only that — the supreme of the courts. It is not the supreme being. It cannot overrule God,” he said. “When it comes to prayer, when it comes to life, and when it comes to the sanctity of marriage, the court cannot change what God has created.”
No, I wasn’t talking about marriage back then, but school prayer. But it doesn’t really matter, though, the principle Huck is defending is that of a “higher law” that is binding on those who recognize it. As a matter of individual conscience, that is indeed defensible, but as a principle of civil society, it is more or less self-refuting.
When Martin Luther King appealed to a “higher law” in defying Jim Crow, he wasn’t asserting some universal right to pick and choose the laws one would obey; he was, for one thing, drawing attention to a constitutional anomaly; for another, he hoped (successfully, as it turned out) to awaken a similar recognition in the hearts and minds of a majority of the American people; and above all, he was willing to pay the price for civil disobedience. And then there is the little matter that the laws he was protesting had a huge, dramatic, impossible-to-ignore personal impact on him and his family and most of his friends, beyond the offense to the “higher law.”
In claiming to emulate King’s prophetic stance, people like Huck and the other signatories of yesterday’s Pledge of Solidarity to Defend Marriage are engaging in a huge act of bad faith. They are not pointing to a constitutional anomaly, but are instead arguing for a radical reinterpretation of the Constitution that sneaks in conceptions of divine and natural law that happen to justify their particular policies. They are not appealing to the consciences of the majority, but claiming those are irrelevant. And most of all, it’s insanely laughable that they imagine themselves as self-sacrificing heroes like those of the civil rights movement; they struggle constantly to come up with a single way in which same-sex marriage actually affects them.
Beyond the phony civil rights parallels, what’s most annoying about the new “religious liberty” line is that it purports to represent a defense of freedom of conscience when it is actually an assertion that the “higher law” should trump the civil law for all of us. The Pledge of Solidary in Defense of Marriage is very clear about that:
We affirm that marriage and family have been inscribed by the Divine Architect into the order of Creation. Marriage is ontologically between one man and one woman, ordered toward the union of the spouses, open to children and formative of family. Family is the first vital cell of society, the first government, and the first mediating institution of our social order. The future of a free and healthy society passes through marriage and the family.
Marriage as existing solely between one man and one woman precedes civil government…..
Marriage is the preeminent and the most fundamental of all human social institutions. Civil institutions do not create marriage nor can they manufacture a right to marry for those who are incapable of marriage. Society begins with marriage and the family.
So no, these people are not asking to be left alone with their beliefs, and their demands go far beyond the tender consciences of Bakers and Florists of Conscience who cannot tolerate the idea of two people they regard as rebels against God pledging love to each other. They are basically saying they have no obligation to obey any of the laws promulgated by a society (or what Richard John Neuhaus’ in his famous essay justifying revolution on exactly these same grounds called a “regime”) that has forfeited its legitimacy.
“Higher law” appeals are perverse coming from someone running for President of the United States. If Huck wants to stand in the courthouse door and defy a Supreme Court decision declaring marriage equality a constitutional right, he should let his freak flag fly and suffer the legal consequences of following his conscience. Using such arguments to troll for the votes of people upset by social change isn’t in the spirit of Martin Luther King, but is entirely consistent with the thinking and behavior of the scofflaws on the other side of the firehoses at Selma claiming a God-given inalienable right to discriminate.