By Lisa Regula Meyer
Apparently, there’s a man in Utah protesting the recent expansion of marriage equality in that state by starving himself. I’m all for his sentiment of preferring action over speeches, and standing up for your principles. At the same time, though, I have to wonder if his chosen action fits with the principles that he is defending very well. The man in question has previously run for Utah state senate office as a Constitution Party candidate, and feels that the nation is drifting quickly away from what our country’s founders would recognize as the United States.
Let’s unpack this concept a little. TM (I’m not using his name because 1)you can easily Google him, and 2) he doesn’t deserve to get personal attention for this; I want to stick to the issues as much as possible) follows the claim of the Mormon and other churches that marriage is between a man and a woman, and believes that marriage equality goes against the church. It’s not an uncommon idea, and one that is perfectly fine- until you decide to use your religion to influence other people. Remember, “freedom of religion” goes both ways, not just the way you want it to. Everyone of a different orientation than straight has the right to follow their own faith, which may or may not condemn inequality. At the same time, the Christian religion also speaks against killing, even one’s self, and self-inflicted death is a potential outcome of this and all hunger strikes. At best this is cherry-picking your theology, at worst it’s simply using religion to condone bigotry.
TM argues that action is preferable to words, and I would normally agree with that. I say “usually” because for the action to be effective, it should convey what the words would have conveyed, or at least be relevant. Maybe someone could explain it to me, but I don’t really see the connection between bigotry and starvation, so this makes it seem like his action is more of a publicity stunt than anything else. As a publicity stunt, TM seems to have been fairly successful, having attracted a conservative blogger and a person currently being monitored by Southern Poverty Law Center to call for a “state insurrection ‘in the name of the Constitution and the Prince of Peace,'” and for “[putting] the federal government on notice, in the holy cause of Liberty.” I’m familiar with churches and religious people calling attention to the cause of poverty with fasts, and the case of Guantanamo Bay prisoners using hunger strikes to call attention to their treatment, but this is the first I’ve heard of using hunger being used to further the cause of privilege and inequality (but I’d love to hear of any other examples someone might have). In any protest, relevancy is pretty important, and I don’t see the relevancy here.
TM claims that the legal theory of nullification would be a simple fix to this situation. Utah could nullify the court’s decision against the Utah marriage equality ban, and he would go back to life as normal. The only problem with this proposed solution is that nullification was dealt a pretty big blow by the Supreme Court in the 1958 Cooper v. Aaron decision. And there was that pesky Civil War that showed the devastating results of taking nullification to the extremes. Yes, states have rights that the federal level of government does not, and yes there is a constitutional division of power between the federal, state, and local governments. However, the issue of rights lies with the federal government, not the state or local governments, and marriage equality is most definitely an issue of rights, so nullification and states’ rights aren’t applicable here.
Finally, there’s the issue of what are we teaching with this effort? That hate and inequality are worthy of inflicting self-harm? Is this a cause that we want to normalize? Don’t we regularly fight to teach just the opposite, that people should love and respect themselves and their body, and thus take care of it? How would TM feel if in the future one of his children chose to act out against his/her father by refusing food; would he try to stop this, or accept it as a valid protest action when you disagree with someone? Oh, wait, many kids already do that. Which, at its heart, shows exactly what TM is doing- throwing a temper tantrum because of a decision by the court with which he disagrees.
Remember, folks, hate hurts you as much as it hurts the person you hate, sometimes even more so.