Majority shouldn’t always rule

We are gathered here today to look a gift horse in the mouth.

It seems a majority of the American people now favor allowing gay men and lesbians to wed. That majority, according to a Washington Post/ABC News survey released last week, is slender, just 51 percent. But even at that, it represents a significant increase from just five years ago, when only 36 percent of Americans approved.

Other polling organizations have reported similar trends, and for those who believe gay men and lesbians ought to be free to solemnize and formalize their relationships, that is very good news. It means they are — WE are — winning the argument. That is cause for celebration.

But lurking at the edge of celebration there is, for me, at least, a nagging, impatient vexation. That vexation is based in what is arguably an esoteric question: In extolling the fact that the majority now approves same-sex marriage, do we not also tacitly accept the notion that the majority has the right to judge?

Try to imagine for a moment the consternation upon some woman’s face if a story in the paper announced that “X” percentage of Americans now favors allowing women to work outside the home. Try to picture the brisk dialogue that would ensue if you informed some Jewish man that you now supported his right to practice his religion.

If you can appreciate why the woman or the Jew might feel insulted by this putative magnanimity, maybe you can understand the impulse to look this gift horse in the mouth. The news seems to mandate a two-tier response. On the one hand, you are grateful to see the majority’s attitudes moderating and hopeful that this will lead to the repeal of laws restricting marriage equality. On the other hand, there is that shadow of annoyance at the notion that human rights are something to be granted at the sufferance of the majority.

We have heard much in these last days of tea and outrage about “the will of the American people.” It is a term often pronounced with such holy reverence that you half expect it to come with its own soundtrack: a woman’s voice soaring in Latin against a wash of atmospheric music that swells behind her.

Yes, the will of the people matters a great deal. Indeed, in a democracy, few things are more deserving of deference. But still, one draws up short at the idea that human rights are subject to a popularity contest. One shudders to think what sort of nation this would be if Lyndon Johnson, before signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965, had first taken a poll of the American people.

We tend to regard America, proudly, as a nation where human rights are given. But that stance is actually at odds with the formulation famously propounded by one of the first Americans. Thomas Jefferson, after all, wrote that human rights are “unalienable” and that we are endowed with them from birth.

If you believe that, then you cannot buy into this notion of a nation where rights are magnanimously doled out to the minority on a timetable of the majority’s choosing. You and I cannot “give” rights. We can only acknowledge, respect and defend the rights human beings are born with.

That’s the pebble in the shoe, the popcorn hull between the teeth, that nags at the conscience when one reads polls tracking how many of us approve of other people’s lives and decisions. It’s all well and good that 51 percent of us support the right of gay men and lesbians to tell it to the judge, but really, what hubris makes us think we have a right to say yea or nay in the first place?

One hopes that, as they grapple with the issue of gay marriage, our leaders will also grapple with that question. And find in it the courage to understand what Lyndon Johnson did: You don’t do the right thing because it’s popular.

You do it because it’s right.

— Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. He chats with readers from noon to 1 p.m. CDT each Wednesday on