In the midst of the celebratory tweets and Facebook updates surrounding the Supreme Court’s affirmation of gay marriage, many of the left took a moment to deride Justice Clarence Thomas for his comments on dignity.
His dissent responded to the weight placed on the idea of dignity in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s decision. In penning the 5-4 majority decision, Kennedy referenced “dignity” no less than nine times.
Thomas took exception to Kennedy’s rationale and attacked his understanding of dignity.
Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away.
People were outraged that Thomas, the court’s only African-American, would assert slavery did not take away the dignity of those enslaved. He was lampooned by comedians and lambasted by writers. The only problem? He’s right.
To understand his attitude toward slavery, you have to read the earlier quote about where Thomas sees dignity originating.
The flaw in that reasoning, of course, is that the Constitution contains no “dignity” Clause, and even if it did, the government would be incapable of bestowing dignity.
Human dignity has long been understood in this country to be innate. When the Framers proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” they referred to a vision of mankind in which all humans are created in the image of God and therefore of inherent worth. That vision is the foundation upon which this Nation was built.
He, along with our nation’s founders, regard dignity as innate—something that you have just because you are human, apart from the government. Humanity and dignity is something the state cannot grant or take away, it can only acknowledge or ignore.
You can disagree with Thomas’ legal reasoning as far as how this applies to gay marriage, but it is dangerous ground to disregard his point about the origin of our dignity.
Take his most extreme example: slavery. If you argue the enslavement and mistreat of black individuals did strip them of their humanity, then, in some ways, you have found yourself agreeing with the slave owner.
The slave owner says those men and women were not fully human because of their race. Those who disagree with Thomas agree somewhat, except they would say slaves were not fully human because of how they were treated. That gives much more power to the slave owner that he deserves.
The slave owner remained wrong because he refused to recognize the inherent human dignity in those he claimed a right to own. He could force them to work. He could beat them. But nothing he did could ever remove their humanity or their dignity.
Scars and sweat can mar the body and seek to hide what is underneath, but it cannot eliminate what is rightly there and placed by a Power much stronger than any plantation owner or president.
But the rebuttal to Thomas’ arguments seeks to undermine this truth. Saying someone only has dignity and humanity when the government agrees places us in a very precarious situation.
What if the government decides, for who knows what reason, that you should no longer be considered a person worthy of protection? Would you not want someone to challenge that assertion, to contend that your dignity is not up for debate?
More than likely, you consider that a far fetched possibility and I would agree. But it’s probably not as far fetched as you think.
Go back through our shared human history and you find instance after instance of government after government refusing to acknowledge the humanity and dignity of those under its governance.
That was then, this is now. It wouldn’t happen today, you may say. Yet, according to the response to Thomas’ ruling, the U.S. government refused to recognize the humanity of gay couples up until last Friday. Now, I disagree with that, but it should illustrate the point.
To further the point, as a pro-life individual, I would say legalized abortion is an act of a government refusing to recognize the humanity and dignity of someone. It is not that those unborn children do not possess those things inherent to their being human. It is that the government will not acknowledge that fact.
That is a significant difference for any person who has been legally mistreated by our country. Legality does not equal morality.
It may have been legal to own slaves in the United States in the 1800s, but it was not moral. It may be legal to abort unborn children in the United States right now, but it is not moral.
When the Supreme Court ruled that gay couples have a right to marry, it did not grant them a right to dignity or humanity. It does not have that authority or power because gay individuals (and every human) already possess those traits.
As Thomas rightly said, “… human dignity cannot be taken away by the government.” This must be the case or we have given the government a power much broader than acknowledging same-sex marriages. We will have unintentionally affirmed they have the power to deny something inherent to humans—our dignity.