Hate Crimes and the Balkanization of Civil Rights

John C. Rankin (September, 2005)

In view of the debates pushed by many interest groups, what we have it an increasing Balkanization of civil rights – where self-identified groups are pitted against other self-identified groups. It is a prescription for cultural war that will never end unless the “other side” is completely vanquished. Is that what we desire?

The genius of this nation is that it is rooted in the liberty which has attracted immigrants for several hundred years. Such liberty is rooted in the affirmation that God gives the unalienable rights of life, liberty, property, and hence the power to pursue happiness, to all people equally, uniting our nation, not by race or clan, but by a powerful idea. This idea celebrates the First Amendment liberties of dissent, namely, that all people can dissent from the opinions of others so long as it is done within the rule of law. All people can equally argue for changes in the law they wish to see. The rule of law means that the same rights of dissent belongs to everyone equally so long as they do not harm the unalienable rights of another person. But can this idea of unalienable rights survive the Balkanization of civil rights?

Are partisans on all sides confident enough to simply affirm unalienable rights for all people equally, and leave it there? Or do some partisans need to push the edge in the name of their group because they lack such confidence in the merit of their cause?

As President, Thomas Jefferson said that the law addresses actions and not opinions. Thus, the idea of defining a separate class of “hate crimes” would be foreign to him, for what crimes are rooted in love? And who can discern exactly the inner motivation of another person? Is it not actions that give such discernment? A tree is judged by its fruit. A crime is a crime, the innocent should be protected, and the guilty held accountable. All people should have equal protection under due process of law as individual persons, and not because they are members of one group or another. All persons are image-bearers of God, and the respect they deserve is rooted in that reality, or for the skeptic, at least in acknowledgement of a common humanity.

In a 1997 forum with Nadine Strossen, President of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), I proposed such simplicity, and Ms. Strossen said she would love to see if it could happen. But she was skeptical. Fair enough. But which way will this culture go – toward the complexities and musty odors of distrust, or the simplicities and fresh air of trust?

Why can we not simply affirm the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments which state that no person may be deprived of life, liberty or property apart from due process of law? And leave it there. And for those times when public monies are involved, we can add that people should be hired on the basis of their qualifications, period.

Thus, as a man who identifies himself as Christian, my unalienable rights are not based on that identity – but on the prior reality of my humanity. For persons who identify themselves as homosexual, their unalienable rights are not based on that identity – but on their prior reality of their humanity. The same is true for any other form of identity subsequent to our shared humanity.

Thus, the question for me is not what rights should I claim for myself against others, but rather, what rights do I first honor for others, rights that transcend human opinion?