Instead of guaranteeing all its citizens the right to happiness, as stated in Article 1 of the State Constitution (”All persons…have certain natural and unalienable rights, among which [is] … obtaining … happiness”), a majority of senators gave in to the powerful impulse of fear of the unknown, fear of retribution at the polls by constituents, and acceptance of religious dogma to defeat the same-sex marriage bill.
For reasons beyond my understanding, 20 senators voted against the bill based on the general argument that “gay marriage would weaken the social fabric.” Only 14 voted for the bill, following Senate President Richard Codey’s prophetic words: “One day people will look back and say, ‘What were they thinking?’ and ‘What were they so afraid of?’ “
The day before the vote occurred-and with the rights and lives of so many New Jersey citizens hanging in the balance—I thought of the Democrat from Bergen County Senator Loretta Weinberg’s words: “[Senators] can’t be hesitant anymore … they have to come to the realization that we were elected to take sometimes difficult stands, but we were not elected to only worry about the next election.”
Weinberg’s words immediately reminded me of John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, which I hadn’t reread in years. I picked up a copy and leafed through it.
Kennedy presents his theme in the first chapter’s opening sentence: “This is a book about that most admirable of human virtues-courage.” Our late president is not speaking of physical courage. Rather, he speaks of “acts by men of integrity, who find it necessary, from time to time, to act contrary to public opinion” and “on national issues, on matters of conscience defying the angry power of the very constituents that control [their] future.” Kennedy applies this test to eight U.S. senators from different periods of American history and concludes that each passed it.
This book is not a polemic; it is nuanced, thoughtful, and balanced. Kennedy understands the tug of war that most politicians engage in to balance the views of opposing constituents. He mentions the specific pressures that most politicians face: the desire to be liked, the desire to be re-elected, the conflicting demands of constituents, the requirements of party obligations, and the inherent tensions between serving both state and national interests.
Kennedy writes eloquently about the need for politicians to compromise on issues, but not on principles, and to put national interests ahead of state ones at critical moments. He admits that beyond those he writes about “only the very courageous will be able to take the hard and unpopular decisions necessary for survival in the struggle.” He suggests that politicians are reluctant to show political courage, because they have too little faith in the people and need to have greater faith in them-because trust in their power is the essence of democracy.
Kennedy knew that political courage comes with a price. Most of the eight courageous U.S. senators he profiled endured “risks to their careers, the unpopularity of their courses, the defamation of their characters, and sometimes, but sadly only sometimes, the vindication of their reputations and their principles.”
Certainly the political courage it takes to vote in favor of same-sex marriage never entered Kennedy’s mind as he wrote his classic work. Yet I believe that had he been alive today, Kennedy would have sent this message to the state senators as they prepared to vote: “The nation is watching what you do. Act in behalf of its highest ideals and values and not necessarily in behalf of the citizens in your own legislative district, or even the entire state of New Jersey.”
He might also have used these words from the Declaration of Independence to reinforce his point: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
When talking to senators about why they planned to support or opposes same-sex marriage, I heard only the most parochial and personal reasons. I never heard any reference to the Constitution of New Jersey or the Declaration of Independence. No one mentioned “the right to happiness” of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation.
Happiness for many gay and lesbian couples means the ability to marry. If most citizens believe in the concept of marital happiness, then how can those who can marry deprive others of the same right to seek happiness through this institution?
I wish more of our senators had reread (or at least skimmed) Profiles in Courage before they voted last Thursday. Perhaps it would have helped them understand the meaning of political courage in our society and how their vote affected not only people in their own district, but in the nation and even across the world. Perhaps it would have inspired them to seek a larger vision for our society-one based on the right of all people to find happiness.
If they had had the time to reread Profiles in Courage, perhaps last Thursday’s outcome might have been different.
In the final passages of the book, Kennedy includes a message that applies not only to politicians, but to all of us:
“To be courageous … requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formula, no special combination of time, place, and circumstances. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all.”