Shelter Island Editorial: American words


As we celebrate Independence Day this weekend, we should recall those words near the beginning of the Declaration of Independence that changed the world.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

America witnessed a living example of those words that every school child is taught, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 5 to 4 decision, that people of the same gender are free to marry one another in all 50 states.

The ruling moves the United States forward toward a more just society, which the brave men in Philadelphia in July of 1776 were willing to enact with the shadow of a British gallows hanging over them.

There was the usual bigoted blustering against the Supreme Court’s ruling by some politicians — including Republican candidates for president — with one educating us that God codified marriage, not human beings. We await further reports from him on his conversations with the Almighty.

Refuting the nonsense that the ruling goes against the “original intent” of the framers of the Constitution, Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion, counters that legalism with words that are truly American: “The nature of injustice is that we may not always see it in our own times. The generations that wrote and ratified the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment did not presume to know the extent of freedom in all its dimensions, and so they entrusted to future generations a charter protecting the right of all persons to enjoy liberty as we learn its meaning.”

To sanctify the men of ’76 is not only stupid, but also dangerous. Many of them held their fellow human beings in slavery, which is, as President Obama elegantly put it recently, “America’s original sin.” But their genius was, as Justice Kennedy said, to create a template to enshrine American rights in the future.

The president’s comment was made while eulogizing one of those murdered by a racist in a church in Charleston, an act that shows how the Revolutionary War and the Civil War achieved much, but not all.

The dignity of the families of those who were killed testifies to the fact that they live their faith, especially the principle of forgiveness, even when it is so cruelly tested. And it shows that they are also testifying to their faith in America, living through their actions the words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds …”

The five justices of the Supreme Court who voted for freedom, and the Charleston families, make this Independence Day one of hope, which has always been America’s most enduring virtue.