Poor Cal Thomas. In trying to argue a conservative Christianist case this week against the Iowa Supreme Court's wise decision on gay marriage, he wound up satirizing himself yet again.
When Meredith Willson wrote the wildly popular musical "The Music Man" half a century ago, Harold Hill proclaimed trouble had come to River City, Iowa in the form of a pool hall, which he claimed would corrupt young people unless the local citizens bought the musical instruments he was selling and got their kids into a marching band. He promised that playing music would keep kids from "fritterin' away their mealtime, suppertime, chore time, too" ...
Neither Willson, nor his mythical character Hill, could have foreseen what "trouble" the Iowa Supreme Court has brought on the state (and potentially the nation) when it unanimously ruled that denying same-sex couples the right to marry "does not substantially further any important government objective"...
The battle over same-sex marriage is on the way to being lost. For conservatives who still have faith in the political system to reverse the momentum, you are — to recall Harold Hill — "closing your eyes to a situation you do not wish to acknowledge."
Thomas' problem? If you'll recall your Broadway history, The Music Man is a story about a con man. That "trouble" they had right there in River City? There wasn't any. Just a con man trying to sell musical instruments by manipulating a bunch of rubes via drummed-up fears of a corrupting influence.
Sometimes I feel bad for cultural conservatives who reach for modern pop-cultural references and get them wrong. It's not generally their milieu. But The Music Man is considered a wholesome family classic. It opened on Broadway in 1957 and became a Hollywood hit in 1962. Hell, I've never even seen the flick and even I know the clip of Robert Preston as Hill singing "Ya Got Trouble."
I don't want to hammer Thomas too much for this -- it's just a goof by a writer reaching for a clever lead -- yet the irony remains profoundly valid. Thomas' deeper point is that allowing gay Americans the same rights as straight Americans means we're surrendering to chaos.
As Iowa and other courts continue to dismantle the foundations of our nation without the approval of its citizens (each time the public gets an opportunity to vote on marriage, it votes to uphold the male-female version), they have an obligation to say where they intend to take us. What is the new standard for human relationships? Or do we make this up as we go, bowing to whatever pressure group makes the most noise?
There's not a whole lot of difference between Thomas' argument and Hill's claim that a pool hall would set River City's children on the path to Hell.
We are wise to remember that Iowa's court didn't say there were no standards. It said the government didn't have any particular business getting involved in these contracts, and that a recently passed anti-gay-marriage law just didn't square with the state's constitution.
"We are firmly convinced the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective," the Supreme Court wrote.
Iowa lawmakers have "excluded a historically disfavored class of persons from a supremely important civil institution without a constitutionally sufficient justification."
To issue any other decision, the justices said, "would be an abdication of our constitutional duty."
That's a difficult target for conservatives, who generally prefer to argue in favor of states' rights (there is no federal issue in this case), strict constructionism (the issue here was a new law that attempted to prevent gay marriage, not a new legal argument to old legal principles), the rights of individuals to enter into contracts and government policies that keep the state out of people's business. And while Thomas joins the chorus of those who point out, correctly, that popular majorities in most states currently favor anti-gay-marriage laws, he forgets that we became a republic because our original conservatives feared mob rule and demanded that we give our courts this power as a check on the legislative branch.
Thomas isn't a horrible human being, but he believes in a flavor of Christianity that selectively cites Leviticus as proof that God hates homosexuality (if not shrimp), and for all his fervent patriotism he feels compelled to bow to God's law before his country''s. Well, that's OK as a personal choice (it's not the way Jesus answered the question, of course, but let's not quibble), and Cal's congregation won't be forced to marry any gay couples. But we have the laws that we do largely because attitudes like Thomas' make for such awful and illogical justice.
Gay people deserve the same civil rights as the rest of us. The fact that majorities of Americans haven't gotten over their learned prejudice against this simple principle just shows that people can still be wrong about things. Americans used to believe it was OK to own humans, that women and people without property shouldn't be allowed to vote, and that apartheid was God's plan for the races.
But we learned. The first step is usually the one past the fear-mongering con men trying to sell us something.