John Locke, whose views helped to shape the values of the early American nation, equality is not just necessary in the establishment of government but is also a requisite in maintaining a safe and stable nation,” (Broers, 2009). Locke based his ideas on two general observations: one is that nature exhibits ideal equality of opportunity even when there are differences between species or between individuals in each species. Equality does not mean sameness; it simply means the absence of “subordination or subjection,” according to Locke (cited by Broers, 2009). The other observation Locke makes about equality being a state of natural law is the fact that membership in a democratic society is considered voluntary. Contrary to totalitarian regimes like that in North Korea, democracies are based on the rights of individuals to participate freely in the political process and make decisions based on shared values. Therefore, equality becomes the most fundamental principle in a democracy. Any time equality is threatened, such as by discrimination, the fabric of a democratic society begins to unravel.
Inequality has been manifest in the United States primarily with regards to classifications based on race and gender. Slavery and Jim Crow are examples of inequality based on race. Gender inequality is evident extensively, from the fact that women were not allowed to vote until relatively recently and also in the fact that all social, economic, and political institutions are dominated by male decision-makers. It can be even argued that socio-economic class status is not a cause of inequality but the manifestation of equality. However, socio-economic class does have some relation to race and gender in areas such as healthcare and education. Not all Americans have equal access to the same caliber of healthcare or education, which shows that there are still areas of blatant injustice and inequality.
Many Americans have come to prefer the value of “freedom” over the value of “equality,” basing political, social, and economic policy more on the freedom to have power over and subordinate others, versus the freedom for all citizens to exercise their rights. The result is a society with powerful and frustrating dichotomies that cannot be resolved through rational debate. Societies that value freedom over equality cease to be democracies, because in a democracy all citizens by definition are empowered to participate fully in all aspects of social life. Choosing not to participate is a right of citizens too, but no citizen should be barred from access to any right from voting or achieving upward social mobility. Being barred from access to rights is sometimes institutionalized or legalized, such as the ban on women from voting that lasted until the 19th Amendment or the ban on same-sex marriage that exists in most states. However, being barred from access to rights is sometimes more subtle in nature such as the ways poor communities do not provide their young people with the same opportunities afforded to wealthier communities in terms of policing, schools, and healthcare services. When a small group of people can establish norms and institutionalize values such as heteronormativity, the result is an unjust and inegalitarian society.
As Marano (2014) points out, “power is not limited to leaders or organizations; it doesn’t require outright acts of domination. It’s a basic force in every social interaction. Power defines the way we relate to each other.” To create more equality in the society, it is important to look first at the simpler building blocks of human relationships. Inequality exists at the level of law and institution because it first exists at the level of basic interpersonal interactions in families and friendships. Whenever marriages are structured so that one person has access to more power and privileges than the other, that relationship epitomizes inequality. A heterosexual marriage is not necessarily an unequal one, but often it is, in the way that many conservatives idealize the institution. A traditional heterosexual marriage is one in which the man is the designated “breadwinner,” while the woman remains at home as a sort of domestic servant who can maintain the cleanliness of the household and raise the children. This model of marriage has persisted throughout time in so many different cultures, it has come to be taken for granted as an ideal or even a “natural” order of things. When religious conservatives rally against gay marriage, they are also rallying against gender-neutral marriages. A gender-neutral marriage threatens the conservative social order in which certain members of the society (namely men) are endowed with more rights and freedoms than others (such as women). Within the conservative worldview, women cannot choose whether or not to have children, because their rights have been constrained by the patriarchal society. This is why conservatives also rally against abortion: which is essentially the right to not have a child.
Paradoxically, religious conservatives have recently come to hide behind the banner of “religious freedom” to practice discrimination. Just as Christianity was occasionally invoked to support the institution of slavery, the religion is now being invoked to support discrimination against gays. Christianity has long been used as an excuse to ban abortions and practice other types of discrimination. There is a big difference between religious freedom and the freedom to willfully and wantonly discriminate, though. Once again, Americans have opted to value “freedom” more highly than equality, leading to a scenario in which the stated values of the nation conflict with the social and political realities in the daily lives of citizens. There is no logical or legal reason why a person should be “free” to discriminate. Freedom to practice a religion does not mean freedom to hurt others, and hurting others is exactly what discrimination does. Religion is in many ways like sex: something that is personal and private and does not interfere with the rights of others. Conservatives interpret religion to mean social control. Just as rape is not a sexual act, but an act of power over another, the call to discriminate in the name of “religious freedom” is also an act of power over another. Religion has been used in the past to justify slavery, and now religion is being invoked to justify discrimination against gays and lesbians. Because religious organizations have considerable power and clout with lawmakers, it can be a struggle to show why discrimination in the name of religion goes against the tenets of the Constitution.
The power to define what “marriage” means is a power that should be shared by all citizens. Christians should not have more power than other members of society to make the decision of how to define marriage. The society is neither free nor equal when one group can define how to distribute power in this way. Marriage equality is an essential extension of general social justice. “The quality of every human political system depends on a relation between judgment and power,” (Dunn, 2012). Judgment comes from conscientious evaluation of the premises of all arguments made in the society. Democracies cannot work when one group has more power over another to make judgments. As McCabe (2015) points out, creating equality in the United States will entail “radical changes to the structure of society.” Fundamental values, assumptions, and norms need to be questioned. In the 1970s, the Equal Rights Amendment failed because Americans were not ready, willing, or able to accept women and men as being equal. Had Americans been able to accept people of all races and ethnicities as being equal, there would have been no need for the Civil War a century earlier. Clearly, Americans have difficulty truly envisioning a society in which “all men (and women) are created equal,” as it is stated in the Declaration of Independence.
If the most important documents of the American nation, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, affirm the moral imperative of equality, then American political, economic, and social institutions should reflect this core value. All persons should be guaranteed by law equal access to the same opportunities and services. Unfortunately, the United States remains stuck in the mire of patriarchal values. The term patriarchy refers to the rule of father figures, but implies unequal power structures related to race and class, as well as gender. For the most part, though, the United States is a more egalitarian society than many others. While the nation has a long way to go still before the values of equality can be expressed fully for all people, the United States has made gradual progress in areas related to equality of opportunity and status.
Although the voices of conservatives who champion patriarchy as a desirable and rightful social order can be loud and shrill voices, and are also voices backed by considerable economic, social, and political power, there are still a large number of alternative voices that promote equality and social justice. The goal is to work hard at achieving equality through the established pathways of law and order in the society, which is why marriage equality is currently being debated at the highest levels of government. Marriage equality symbolizes other types of equality in the nation. During the Civil Rights movement, it was no accident that black rights coincided with women’s rights, Chicano rights, gay rights, and rights for Native Americans. When one group of oppressed people stands up for their rights to be counted as equals, that movement can inspire others to do the same. As Dr. Martin Luther King himself put it, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” All types of inequality are unethical and are also contradictory to the tenets of a democratic society such as that of the United States. Gradually, Americans can chip away at the root causes of injustice and inequality in order to form a “more perfect union.”
Broers, A. (2009). John Locke on equality, toleration, and the atheist exception. Student Pulse. Retrieved online: http://www.studentpulse.com/articles/75/john-locke-on-equality-toleration-and-the-atheist-exception
Dunn, J. (2012). Political equality. Retrieved online: http://athensdialogues.chs.harvard.edu/cgi-bin/WebObjects/athensdialogues.woa/wa/dist?dis=34
Marano, H.E. (2014). Love and power. Psychology Today. Jan 1, 2014. Retrieved online: https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201312/love-and-powers
McCabe, H. (2015). Equality. Philosophy Now. Retrieved online: https://philosophynow.org/issues/94/Equality
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