By James A. Haught
Every social improvement in Western civilization has faced entrenched opposition from fundamentalist zealots.
Let’s look at the historical record: In the three centuries since the Enlightenment, democracy, human rights, personal liberties and family wellbeing have blossomed. Life gradually became more decent and humane. Yet virtually all of these advances were won by reform-minded leaders who had to defeat religious conservatives who defended former hierarchies, privileges and inequalities.
Consider the following: Religious fundamentalists tried to prevent couples from using birth control but lost. They tried to keep stores closed on Sunday but lost. They tried to sustain prohibition of alcohol but lost. They tried to force government-led prayer and creationism in public schools but lost. They tried to continue throwing gays in prison but lost. They tried to halt the sexual revolution but lost. They tried to stop women from entering the workforce but lost. They tried to censor erotic magazines, books and movies but lost. They tried to jail women and doctors who end pregnancies but lost. They tried to halt same-sex marriage but lost.
Over the long haul, our nation moved forward, not backward. Once a human-rights breakthrough is accomplished, it locks into the roster of democratic freedoms, almost never to be revoked.
The struggle to end slavery was an epic battle. Generations of abolitionist clamor and a horrible civil war were required, but after the trauma America was moved to a higher level of decency. Similarly, suffragettes strove for almost a century before they enabled American women to vote.
It took a half-century for American couples to win the right to use- birth control. Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was jailed eight times for the crime of talking about sex – but she eventually transformed society. A Supreme Court ruling in 1965 struck down contraceptive bans for married couples, and a follow-up case in 1972 erased them for unwed couples. The Religious Right lost again.
It was once a felony to be gay, and those who were caught were sent to prison under old anti-sodomy laws. Back then, it was a felony for a desperate girl to end a pregnancy. It was illegal for an unmarried couple to share a bedroom. Divorce or unwed pregnancy was unmentionable. Jews weren’t allowed into Christian-only country clubs. Many public schools had mandatory, teacher-led prayer – Christian, of course, and readings from the King James Version of the Bible.
That world disappeared, decade after decade. The culture slowly evolved. Sunday “blue laws” faded away. Teacher-led prayers and scripture readings were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Same-sex relations became legal. States legalized abortion, and the Supreme Court extended that nationwide in 1973. People refused to tolerate religiously based censorship. Other conservative taboos and barriers gradually disappeared.
Within my lifetime, morality and customs flip-flopped. Conservative thou-shalt-nots lost their grip on society. Forward-looking forces won –yet it happened so gradually that few noticed.
Many people these days are “spiritual but not religious.” People who say their faith is “none” already comprise one-fourth of the adult population. The social tide may finally be flowing away from conservative fundamentalism and its Puritanical agenda toward open-minded tolerance.
Of course not all of the news is good: Religious Right groups remain a fixture of American politics, and some people, especially younger ones, take our rights for granted. They forget how hard we had to fight to get them.
But I remain hopeful for the future.
Nobel Peace Prize-winner Martin Luther King Jr., paraphrasing the 19th century Unitarian minister Theodore Parker, once observed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
The transformation that began with the Enlightenment is a fact. Amid all the chaos and confusion of daily life, through a thousand contradictory barrages, the struggle for a safer, fairer, more secure, more humane world never ceases – and the gradual tide of success seems unstoppable.
James A. Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. His most recent book is Hurrah for Liberals: How Progressives Defeated Conservatives to Create Democracy, Human Rights and Safe Modern Life.