A Good Day To Be From Massachusetts

May 17, 2009

I got email today for the 5th Anniversary of Marriage Equality in Massachusetts, and it reminded me of an email I wrote five and a half years ago to a mailing list I participate in. I went back and read it, and reflecting on our national foolishness and ignorance, the paths down which the fear-mongers and bullies have lead us, and on the recent spread of marriage equality to the other New England states, Iowa, and all too briefly California, it seemed that it might be of value to reprint it here.

Update: Life has been a little hectic lately and this has sat nearly complete for a couple of weeks. Sorry about that. By any road, what follows has had a couple of typos fixed but is otherwise a transcription of my mail message of 5 years past.


From: Jim Burrows
Subject: A good day to be from Massachusetts.
Date: November 19, 2003 2:09:11 AM EST
To: Discussions

In the last year or two I haven't been too proud of my country. That's not a popular thing to say in this day of patriotic zeal, but it's true. I think we've been short sighted, arrogant, vengeful, petty, and allowed fear mongers and bullies to lead, badger and trick us into divisive and unwise acts of violence that took too little account of history and the impacts on the innocent.

This doesn't mean I've been ashamed of my country. I think that while we've made mistakes we have made most of them with good intentions. By and large I think most Americans think that the things that we've done abroad and the liberties that we have sacrificed at home were warranted in the name of freedom and justice. I would be ashamed if I thought we were acting cruelly from villainous motives, and I don't, just foolishly and ignorantly. This a great country, founded on the highest principles any country ever has been. But our actions have not made me proud.

I must say, though, that this month I have been proud that I was raised in the Episcopal Church, proud because of the solemn, faithful, loving and prayerful way that the Church as a whole has wrestled with the questions of Bishop Robinson's election and confirmation and the question of blessing same sex unions and whether such blessings should be regarded as marriage and how scripture and charity and Jesus's example interplay.

And today I am proud of the judicial traditions of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and how our court has dealt in a thoughtful and balanced way in considering the issue of the constitutionality of the restricting the benefits and obligations of marriage to all citizens of the Commonwealth.

The US and Massachusetts have based our constitutions, our states and our legal systems on principles -- plain simple principles grounded in philosophy and "natural religion" -- and then slowly over years, decades and centuries, worked out the implications of those principles, and changed ourselves as societies, states and people to conform with the inevitable conclusions that reason and those principles lead us to.

We take these truths to be self-evident, that all men were created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. When Massachusetts was founded, the men who had full legal rights were "freemen", adult male land owners who were members in good standing of some parish church. Slowly we expanded which denominations' parishes qualified, and then removed the religious requirement, and the land owning requirement, and outlawed slavery and removed the racial and gender requirements.

We made each of these changes because the practices were in conflict with the principles. All men/humans are created equal; human rights are unalienable; the state exists to secure our rights. Simple rules. Profound implications. Rules based on both natural philosophy and what was taken as the common "natural religion", not any specific revealed revelation, nor any particular dogma or interpretation.

Some of the founding fathers were Deists -- think of them as very scholarly Unitarians in modern terms. Some were Quakers, others Catholics, Puritans, Anglicans, Methodists, and so forth. Their principles had to allow for them to each deal with their relationship to God in their own way, even when they disagreed heartily. They had to recognize each other as people of good faith and good will despite their differences, and thus they spoke of the distinction between natural and revealed religion and based their laws on those principles that are self evident and derivable philosophically.

It was a profound change in the history of mankind to form 13 nations based not on tribe, or shared religion, or fealty to a single king or fear of a specific armed force, and then to unite those nations in a super nation, recognizing the rights of individuals and groups of individuals to be free and to follow their own differing consciences.

We made Freedom, Principle, Fairness and "natural religion" King. And then we started to work out the implications. Painful implications. And slowly with many missteps and too much shed blood, but with the inevitability of conscience and reason we have changed ourselves, our laws, our nation and our society.

I am profoundly moved by the justice, the thought, and the conscience of the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts today. It is absolutely right that they said that the state has no business denying the rights, privileges and obligations of something as profoundly human and important as civil marriage to their citizens. This is a courageous and extraordinarily honest thing for them to have done.

I think it is the virtually self-evident conclusion of the founding principles of the Commonwealth. That doesn't mean that it is easy to change society in keeping with that conclusion, any more than it was easy to ban slavery or to give women the vote or any of the many other things that were obviously right once you faced them in the light of cold reason.

One could be equally proud to have been raised a Quaker or a Philadelphian or any number of other things, but today I am so proud to be from Massachusetts and to have been raised and taught by Episcopalians that it is hard to see through welling tears. My multi-great grandfather may have come here in chains for the crime of being Scottish and objecting to foreign rule. Another may have come here to found a place where his denomination could dictate the rules according to a strict and pure interpretation of revealed religion, but somehow they crafted a true Commonwealth and Federal Republic based on principles and faith. And sometimes we get it right.