‘Political Unionism and the Catholic Church on wrong side of history’ – By Brian Spencer

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Lyndon B Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law

Thomas Paine wrote that a long habit of not thinking something wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right. Change stirs a formidable outcry in defence of custom, finally the controversial becomes conventional, the once bizarre is rendered banal.

Time converts more people than reason.

The problem is we never learn about this futility of this pattern and the futility of the people who follow it – of people who put up steely religious opposition, who then to relinquish and who forever drop the argument. History teaches we learn nothing from history.

Religion and sincerely held religious beliefs have been deployed at almost every high profile public polemic and controversy.

This reality goes back centuries; to before Catholic Emancipation, to before the Spanish Inquisition. One group claims privilege over another group and cites divine warrant for their discrimination and oppression. That biblically licensed injustice is then quashed; ardent adversaries then assent to the new dispensation.

The most salient example in recent history is the Civil Rights movement of Northern Ireland and the United States, the former inspired by the latter.

It may be true that the law cannot make a Protestant man love a Catholic man, but it can keep him from refusing employment on the arbitrary grounds of religion.

How easily we forget that religion inspired discrimination against Catholics, and vice-versa. How easily we forget that religion inspired the outrageous slogan, “Save Ulster From Sodomy” and mobilised a political movement.

These were once points of fierce division, now they are placed beyond the realm of debate.

The same process will happen with the gay marriage and gay cake debate. We just have to remember that and remind our opponents of that inconvenient fact.

How easily America and the world forgets that religion was cited as justification for apartheid America. We have forgotten that white people spoke with apoplectic and apocalyptic intensity against the enfranchisement of black people. What a shame against the name of white America. Even more shameful is the fact that the same religion arguments are deployed to bolster the same unfounded fears and social wrongs.

It’s instructional to look a little closer at Civil Rights era America. Erica Grieder said:

“Just fifty years ago, there were plenty of people in this country [United States] who would have flatly disputed the suggestion that segregation is unconstitutional, and many of them were mainstream political and civic leaders.”

White people thought that extending rights to other people meant they were losing something. But they were gaining something, they gained black people as full citizens of America.

Today conservatives in Northern Ireland think that by granting civil (not religious) marriage to gay people they are losing something. But they would gain, socially, economically and reputationally.

Insightful to this confrontation are the words of Lyndon B. Johnson as he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964:

“The purpose of this law is simple. It does not restrict the freedom of any American, so long as he respects the rights of others. It does not give special treatment to any citizen. It does say the only limit to a man’s hope for happiness, and for the future of his children, shall be his own ability. It does say that those who are equal before God shall now also be equal in the polling booths, in the classrooms, in the factories, and in hotels and restaurants and movie theaters and other places that provide service to the public.”

It is quite amazing how the once-radical becomes the norm.

When the divorce referendum happened in Ireland the NO lobby declaimed that the family was under attack. Nobody would make this argument now about divorce. The same unfounded argument is now made in Ireland against equal marriage.

The argument just has to be made, history puts political unionism, Ashers and the Catholic Church on the wrong side of history.


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About Author

Brian is a writer, artist and law graduate.

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