It has been fifty years since the Supreme Court struck down laws against miscegenation–interracial marriage–in the case of Loving v. Virginia. At the time the decision was handed down, sixteen states–all in the south–still had such laws on their books. The anniversary of the decision is being marked by various magazine articles, and a movie about the couple at the heart of the case (aptly named Loving) has just been released.
My students tend to think of laws forbidding interracial marriage as part of a bizarre and distant past. They have enough trouble understanding the hysteria that preceded and accompanied recognition of same-sex marriage, and to them 1967 seems as distant as 1867. Many of us in older generations, however, are painfully aware of the stubborn persistence of such laws well into our own adulthoods.
Loving is a great teaching tool, because it squarely addresses the central issue of public administration and political philosophy: what is the proper role of the state? What is government for? What sorts of decisions are appropriately made by legislatures acting on behalf of popular majorities, and what sorts of decisions represent an unwarranted intrusion into realms that should be left to individual citizens?
Despite the fact that our Constitution was based upon a belief in limited government, America’s history is replete with examples of the tensions between the respect for individual liberties that animates the Bill of Rights, and the desire of moralists to use government to control the behavior of their neighbors.
Back in 2007, I wrote a book called God and Country: America in Red and Blue, in which I examined the religious roots of public policy disputes; in it, I posited that a significant number of our most intractable debates can be explained by a conflict in worldviews originally rooted in religious ways of understanding reality. It is a battle between those I dubbed “modernists” and those I called “Puritans.”
These differences are far more profound than we usually recognize.
Our contemporary Puritans are philosophical heirs of the early American settlers who came to these shores for a version of liberty that most of us would not recognize. The folks who braved the trip across the Atlantic came for the religious “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The notion that each of us should have the right to believe as we wish–let alone live lives based upon those beliefs– was utterly foreign to them. It would be another 150 years until the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment changed our forebears understanding of liberty to the more libertarian construction incorporated in our founding documents.
That libertarian construction is based upon respect for individual autonomy–the belief that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit, until and unless they harm the person or property of another, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal right to others.
It can be very difficult to agree upon the sorts of harms that justify government intervention, and there are many good-will disagreements over the propriety of such things as seat-belt laws and smoking bans. But it really strains credulity to argue that your choice of a non-traditional spouse somehow harms me.
Loving reminds us of the importance of distinguishing between issues that government can properly decide, and areas where government doesn’t belong.
Tomorrow, at the polls, most of our contemporary Puritans will vote for authoritarianism and a government that does not respect America’s Constitutional limits. Let’s hope the Modernists outvote them.