Change We Can Believe In
Ensuring the Blessings of Liberty
This past week, in the span of 36 hours, we moved from the valley of despair, with North Carolina’s vote to ban same sex marriage, to the mountaintop of hope, with a sitting President affirming the civil rights of gay citizens. Yes, this was a notable first. It was a much-needed affirmation of basic rights and freedoms in the face of a majoritarian impulse to deny the rights of a minority. It was a reminder of the vital necessity of constitutional liberalism.
Democracy without liberty can lead to a tyranny of the majority. Especially when our notion of democracy is limited to the trappings of voting without constitutionally protected rights. Two examples from dramatically different contexts help illustrate this point: One comes from a minister in North Carolina, while the other is from and a journalist in Turkey.
First, the minister. At a clergy prayer service, the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber took on the media’s obsession with polling voters to find out how they feel about same sex marriage. As he puts it, that is not the question on the ballot. The questions that we need to ask are: Do you want to go against constitutional history? It is a history in which we expand rights. Do you believe that a majority by popular vote should get to decide the rights of a minority?
In a seemingly unrelated story, a journalist in Istanbul, Mustafa Akyol, addresses Western fears that Islam is not compatible with democracy. The problem is not Islam; it is the absence of constitutionally-protected rights. For democracy to flourish, voting is not enough. Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt have embraced elections. Until recently, Turkey has been ruled by secularists who also embraced elections, but were hostile toward Islamist parties (recently a moderate Islamist party was democratically elected). In all three countries, there is a legitimate concern about the power of the majority to trample the rights of minorities. To guard against this, to check the power of the majority, these nations need more than the ballot; they need constitutional liberalism, one that is in step with the traditions invoked by the Reverend in North Carolina. As Akyol puts it, in a society with a religious majority, the state must protect each person’s freedom to dissent. This includes the freedom to ‘sin.’ To choose, freely, whether to visit the bar or the mosque (or both or neither). The Islamist government has a chance to take action on putting together a constitution that protects minority rights, something the secularists had failed to do.
By allowing a majority of voters to decide upon the rights and freedoms of gay citizens (to say that basic civil rights are up for grabs), North Carolina has turned its back on it own, as well as the nation’s, enviable constitutional liberal traditions.