In the shadow of the Fourth of July and the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the winds of freedom are blowing in my head.
Not to spoil the joy of fireworks and hot dogs, but my thoughts today are about the nature of freedom, that most stirring of ideas — but perhaps the most abused.
Celebrated presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin got me thinking. She was the main speaker at a National Park Service ceremony in Gettysburg Sunday celebrating the great anniversary of the battle.
As reported by my colleague Ann Rodgers, who is usually our religion writer and thus the perfect person to praise the Lord and report on passing the ammunition, Goodwin linked the outcome of the battle to the civil rights movement a century later, to the women’s rights movement and to the recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.
At first blush, it seems quite a leap from one to the other to the other. It is not as if the federal troops who won the battle may have been thinking about much beyond preserving the union. No record exists of one of their officers leaping onto a parapet, waving his sword and shouting: “One more volley, boys, for Adam and Steve.”
But Goodwin has put her finger on a profound point: Each generation has to fight for its own new birth of freedom, and that can have unexpected outcomes.
It does seem to me that all the shots fired at Gettysburg, whether they landed in fields or flesh, also fell into the pools of history, sending ripples out ahead, just as the shots fired at Lexington and Concord and in the later battles of the American Revolution made ripples that converged to wash up in 1863 at that little market town in Pennsylvania.
The Southerners who fought bravely at Gettysburg were also intoxicated by the heady promise of freedom — in their case, the idea that their states should be free of the federal government, the better to keep enslaving part of their populations on the basis of skin pigmentation. But that idea was always destined to be a loser, even if Maj. Gen. George Pickett and his men had never made their doomed charge.
The truth about freedom is that you can’t be its champion and yet successfully try to limit it. Once freedom is flying in the air like a Minie ball, it will cause collateral damage to conservative notions of what it means.
So, despite all the reactionary attempts to stop them, black citizens have their human rights, women vote and become leaders, gays will marry whomever they want to marry and there’s nothing anybody can do about it in the long run. Freedom will have its way.
The short run is another matter, a way marked by cul-de-sacs of folly. Here in Western Pennsylvania, we have a state legislator named Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican from an electorate to the north of Pittsburgh that evidently likes a good laugh. It keeps re-electing someone whose clownish behavior has become legendary.
More than anyone else, conservatives are forever invoking freedom and then denouncing people who have a different notion of it. Enter Rep. Metcalfe, who denied a gay legislator an opportunity to speak in the House under unanimous consent rules about the Supreme Court’s gay marriage decision. He told a Philadelphia radio station that he did it because the gay lawmaker’s comments would have been an “open rebellion against God’s law.”
I don’t know about you, but I like my local politicians to be the final arbiters of what the Almighty believes. It saves me the trouble of going to live in Iran.
What makes me nervous, however, is that the Bible can be read in a fundamentalist way as condoning slavery — and it was so read by slavery’s defenders in the 19th century, some of whom were no doubt on the Gettysburg battlefield.
Actually, it’s not clear what god Metcalfe believes in. My guess is Thor, as his constant thundering against vulnerable people seems not very Gospel-like.
All I know is that Metcalfe, and his many clones, are doomed by their stunted outlook. They say they love freedom, but freedom, once invoked, blows its own divine and inscrutable way.
Happy glorious Fourth of July. Perhaps if I stick hot dogs in my ears, the whistling will stop. But, of course, that wind never stops.
Contact columnist Reg Henry at email@example.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com.