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The moral arc and the marriage amendment

REUTERS/Pilar Olivares
Full civil rights for our homosexual brothers, sisters, friends and colleagues is a matter that clearly “bends towards justice.”

NORTHFIELD, Minn. — The proposed marriage amendment has me, oddly, thinking of a moment from my years as an unremarkable undergraduate, when our history class viewed a documentary about the civil-rights movement. I specifically recall our gasps and groans as we watched peaceful people, many our age, being beaten with billy clubs and attacked by police dogs. Our professor didn’t need to tell us that what we were seeing was wrong.

Tom Swift
Tom Swift

History’s lens tends to clarify things. How, we now ask, could our European ancestors have raped and ravaged millions of indigenous peoples? How, for hundred of years, did they treat Africans and other black-skinned people as farm equipment? These days, Americans may agree about little, but few of us disagree that those were immense moral failings.

Fact is, though, we must admit that had we been alive and members of the ruling classes, races, and genders during such times, at least some of us would have wielded those billy clubs, deployed those weapons of mass destruction, and locked those shackles. For as neuroscientists accumulate information about our brains, they commonly conclude that we’re not the authentic authors of our lives we think we are. That is, our views on everything from the Vikings’ chances this season to the issue of marriage equality arise from all previous conscious and unconscious thoughts, intertwined with our genetics and environments.

In other words, our votes on this issue will express beliefs that sit atop so many factors — everything from the sermons we hear (or don’t) to the books we read (or don’t) to the foods we eat (or don’t) — it would take a week to identify a fraction of them.

The winds are blowing

If you’re planning to support the amendment, I’d like to change your mind. And, while I could rattle off rational and ethical reasons as to why your vote is misguided, given the mountain of influence I’m up against, few of them are likely to persuade you. Yet, rest assured, friend, your view will change. Maybe months from now, certainly years from now, you, like the rest of us, will feel differently about this issue. Perhaps you’ll be even more resolute, but the collective winds to which you are subjected — and, like it or not, affected — are blowing in the other direction.

Consider how much greater is homosexual acceptance since Ellen DeGeneres made the world laugh the moment she came “out.” Consider how favorably public opinion on the issue of gay marriage has changed even in the last five years. Many of us “no��� voters think progress has been too slow, that this ballot question is a discouraging sign. But, really, when we compare demographics — when we consider the predominantly gay-rights-supporting younger generations, the unwitting beneficiaries of countless courageous efforts who are already creating the new normal — the amendment seems like merely a last-ditch effort by people exposed only to anachronistic ideas.

In fact, when we step back and look at what a great civil-rights leader I learned about in that documentary called “the arc of the moral universe,” we see that full civil rights for our homosexual brothers, sisters, friends and colleagues is a matter that clearly “bends towards justice.”

Prejudices will eventually be calmed

So, dear “yes” voter, if it’s a given your beliefs will be revised and very likely that they will be revised toward justice for all, why not take another view of your vote? Because, make no mistake, this ballot will one day hang on history’s hook. And just as if we lived in the past we almost certainly would have acted in ways our present selves would abhor, your current prejudices against marriage equality (the Vikings will no doubt amend your views of them soon enough) will similarly be calmed by the collective view.

In other words, if the amendment passes, someday students in classrooms will learn that in 2012 we wrote discrimination into our Constitution. And their professors won’t need to tell them we were wrong.

Tom Swift is an award-winning author and writer who lives in Northfield.


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Comments (12)

  1. Submitted by LynnMarie Lindl on 10/23/2012 - 08:16 am.


    Is this the same Tom (Thomas) Swift from so many other articles that talk about this same subject? Only the Thomas Swift who comments on those portrays himself as a “YES” voter?

    I must admit I’m confused……

    • Submitted by Steve Titterud on 10/23/2012 - 10:21 am.

      Me, too…

      ,,,as it seems this is either a different Tom Swift or perhaps represents a conversion ??

      Here’s a quote from MinnPost as recently as 10/1 from “Thomas Swift”:

      “Many, if not most people that will pass this amendment, myself included, really don’t care how people choose to live their lives. We intend to protect the definition of marriage for the same reason government imbued it with special rights and responsibilities in the first place…for the children.”

      Strictly speaking, the quote above does not literally state that the author will vote for the amendment, but the phrase “myself included” presents an ambiguity at first glance. Does “myself included” refer to the “Many…” or to the “…if not most people that will pass this amendment” ?

      Perhaps the author can say here if he and the persistent commenter “Thomas Swift” are one and the same, and wrote not only this column, but other seemingly opposed entries like the above ?

  2. Submitted by Tim Walker on 10/23/2012 - 09:07 am.


  3. Submitted by Susan Rego on 10/23/2012 - 10:00 am.

    Alas, there is a Tom Swift of Northfield and a Thomas Swift of St. Paul, and ne’er the twain shall meet.

  4. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 10/23/2012 - 11:01 am.

    I admit

    I breathed a sigh of relief upon reading the first few sentences of the second section of this article. And the picture didn’t seem to look like the other Thomas Swift, whom this guy clearly is not.

    You make a very good point, new Tom. Whatever the outcome of this, it will be preserved in history for the future. The reason that this amendment was introduced was to get social conservatives to the polls in an attempt at a Hail Mary before things lead naturally to the ultimate conclusion–that this amendment, and legislation like it, is wrong. It is meant to do 2 things: get Republicans elected by simply luring people to the polls; and to cripple our ability to change things in the future. That guarantees that passing it will be an embarrassment to our children and our children’s children.

  5. Submitted by jody rooney on 10/23/2012 - 11:35 am.

    Well written article

    The author is of course correct. Not to many years from now this proposed amendment will be an embarrassment. It is a pity that this is the way the Catholic Church has chose to reclaim the spot light in light of all their abuse scandals.

    Just a question for other more knowledgeable readers. I was reminded at my grand children’s baptism on Sunday that the Lutheran church only considers baptism and communion sacraments. That rationale I understand because that is about your relationship with Christ. When or why did marriage become a sacrament? It is a relationship between two people. One could say blessed by God but one might like to think all good works are blessed by God. Does any one know where I can find the history of it’s designation.

    • Submitted by LynnMarie Lindl on 10/23/2012 - 12:29 pm.

      Although I don’t always trust Wikipedia, there is a good explaination there. Look up Catholic Marriage. Interesting and disturbing reading…

  6. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 10/23/2012 - 12:48 pm.

    BTW, yes

    I did get Joel’s little joke

  7. Submitted by Joe Musich on 10/23/2012 - 07:49 pm.

    historian steps up

    Yea ! Now we have someone living up to the name. His book is terrific study in a lot of things. I am fortunate enough to have a signed copy. I recommend readers buy it and pick it up if your tempted to get sucked into the St Paul provocateur.

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