June 7, 2014

STEPHEN L. CARTER: Smeared By Gay Rights Activists.

In the early 1950s, my great-uncle, Alphaeus Hunton, went to prison. It was the height of the McCarthy era, and he was serving as trustee of a bail fund established by the Civil Rights Congress, declared by the Subversive Activities Control Board to be a Communist-front organization. The fund posted bail for a group of men convicted of advocating the overthrow of the U.S. government. Several fled, and my great-uncle — along with his fellow trustee, the eminent writer Dashiell Hammett — refused to answer questions before a federal judge about the source of the bail money.

They were held in criminal contempt and put behind bars. The federal courts refused to hear their appeal, and the Supreme Court denied a stay. Hunton was subsequently listed as a subversive by the U.S. attorney general. He held a master’s degree from Harvard, but in the fraught atmosphere of the McCarthy era was unable to find suitable employment. He ultimately left the country, and died abroad.

My late father told this story often, and its echoes have resonated throughout my life. I have spent my career fighting for genuine dialogue across our disagreements rather than the sloganeering, cant and demonization that have come to characterize our politics. My own choice of the academic life was spurred in no small part by my search for an arena in which what matters is not which side you are on but the quality of your ideas.

So you will perhaps excuse me if I have no sympathy for the efforts of gay-rights activists to smear and intimidate Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia, perhaps our most prominent scholar of law and religion, for the sin of speaking his mind.

They’re not really trying to intimidate him. They’re really trying to intimidate anyone else who might want to pursue similar scholarly lines of inquiry.

Plus: “Laycock’s wrong is to have taken the position that there may be cases in which individual religious freedom should trump compliance with law — a view that, during Bill Clinton’s administration, was considered the liberal position in our politics.” It’s not enough to hold the right views. It’s essential to hold them at the right time.