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Jewish World Review
When prejudices become principles
By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Do we really want to live in the kind of lobotomized society where there is no greater sin than judgmentalism?
"We must be ever on our guard, lest we erect our prejudices into legal principles."
This concise jewel of wisdom, from former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, may eventually take its place as either the standard or the epitaph of Western Civilization. While the evolution of social sensitivity can claim an impressive record of civil rights legislation, we have now to question whether our collective obsession with personal privilege threatens the very foundations of the legal system that protects us.
For his inauguration this Tuesday, soon-to-be President Barak Obama has chosen evangelical pastor Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. Instantaneously, the politically correct Left launched its blitzkrieg, excoriating Reverend Warren for the unpardonable sin of supporting Proposition 8, California's recent gay-marriage ban. Because he used his First Amendment rights to speak his conscience, and because he recognizes his obligation as a representative of religious conviction to defend religious doctrine, Reverend Warren finds himself where almost all defenders of moral integrity now find themselves: under attack by the zealots of moral anarchy.
The offensive against Reverend Warren may not rank among the most disturbing examples in the aftermath of California's Proposition 8 referendum. In Riverside, California, 40 to 50 signs supporting Proposition 8 were found arranged in the form of a swastika on the front lawn of a Roman Catholic church. Mormon temples in Salt Lake City and Los Angeles, along with a Catholic Knights of Columbus printing press in Connecticut, received packages containing white powder presumably intended to imitate the 2001 anthrax scare. Reports from around the country include harassment, vandalism, and disruption of church services.
What would Justice Brandeis say?
He probably would not agree with Justice John Paul Stevens, who quoted him in his dissent against the June 28th, 2000, Supreme Court decision allowing the Boy Scouts of America to dismiss an open homosexual from his position as scoutmaster. Invoking Justice Brandeis as a beacon of light to dispel the darkness of prejudice, Justice Stevens (together with the three justices who voted with him) cast his dissenting vote in an effort to canonize his own prejudices within the body of constitutional law.
But if Justice Stevens argued with the reasoning of colleagues in the majority, presumably he accepted the authority of their decision. Not so the moral and legal vigilantes who have deputized themselves as protectors of the American People against both due process of law and the erroneous decisions of the United States Supreme Court.
Back then, government officials and corporate officers across the country began cutting off financial support to the Boy Scouts and restricting their access to public and private resources. Sounding the charge, predictably, was the New York Times, which asserted that "by allowing a group that bans gays to use public facilities and supporting it, they violate their anti-discrimination statutes." This, of course, was patently false for two reasons. First, BSA never issued any ban against gays, but only refused to allow leaders in its organization who openly advocated behaviors antithetical to BSA's core values. Second, and most important, is that BSA was not violating any anti-discrimination statues, since that was precisely the point on which the highest court in the land has just ruled.
"Lest we erect our prejudices into legal principles." Wasn't this kind of self-righteous legalistic coercion precisely what Justice Brandeis warned against? Nothing about the policies of the Boy Scouts, who then faced accusations of prejudice, could be reasonably considered prejudicial. Quite the contrary: through their choice of leaders they have always endeavored to inculcate traditional morals and values among a generation of young people bombarded by the relentless media messages of self-indulgence and self-absorption. That they were vilified for adhering to a moral code should have raised a cry of outrage from every parent, every teacher, every community leader, and every responsible citizen in the nation. But all we heard instead, from the highest elected offices on down, was mealy-mouthed equivocation about diversity and open-mindedness.
Sometimes, however, we can be so open minded that our brains fall out. Indeed, the larger issue now, as then, is whether our personal-rights mentality has given birth to an amoral culture that is systematically becoming mandated by law. Even now, those activists who have announced their intention to turn their backs on Reverend Warren when he delivers his invocation are within their rights to do so and should not be legislated against. But what they consistently fail to realize is that respect for differing opinions that are reached through reason and integrity is essential to the survival of a free and democratic society.
Do we really want to live in the kind of lobotomized society where there is no greater sin than judgmentalism? By definition, where there is no judgment there is no justice. By intuition, where there is no civil discourse there is no civilization. To bash each other over the head with legalistic bludgeons is to act like cavemen, and it leads down the road to social chaos far more directly than it does toward social utopia. It doesn't allow much room for personal freedom, either.
If there is any change that we should truly hope for, it is that this new administration will lead us into a new era in which we stop demanding that the law protects our every right and start acknowledging our responsibility to uphold the system that makes it possible for us to have any rights at all.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis, MO, where he also writes and lectures. Visit him at http://torahideals.wordpress.com .
© 2009, Rabbi Yonason Goldson