Back to the Future

Posted May 13, 2009, at 6:37 p.m.

A time machine would be a tremendously valuable device at this historic moment. As Mainers cheer, mourn or simply scratch their heads over the law that allows same-sex marriage, it would be intriguing to transport someone into the future (we nominate a journalist.) That person could visit Maine in, say 2029, and then could return to tell us all how the move has played out.

Race policy is an obvious parallel with gay marriage. Prominent elected officials, some of whom were still in positions of leadership in Washington just a few years ago, opposed ending segregation as recently as the 1960s. Clearly, history shows, they were on the wrong side of that issue. Prohibitions on interracial marriage and other such laws surely seem foolish now, not to mention cruel.

Integration opponents such as Alabama Gov. George Wallace and Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus could have used a time machine. Mr. Wallace eventually repudiated his segregationist views. As a masterful politician, he might have done so sooner had he been able to see the future.

The “looking forward, looking back” exercise can be applied to other issues. President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to round up 120,000 Japanese Americans and corral them into internment camps for the duration of World War II may have seemed prudent at the time, but if FDR could have seen how history would judge him on this issue, he would have acted differently.

The hard part, of course, is seeing the crisis of the moment through the eyes of history.

Amazingly, women were not given the right to vote in the United States until 1920, more than 130 years after the nation was founded, and decades after former male slaves were given the right. Those who opposed the move surely would be ashamed, had they visited the future.

The list goes on. Certain kinds of mental illnesses were treated with lobotomies in the 1950s; now they are treated with drugs. Children with certain disabilities were warehoused in special schools in the 1950s; now they are integrated into regular schools. In the 1950s, doctors actually appeared in advertisements endorsing certain brands of cigarettes. If those doctors are still alive, they must regret those decisions.

Even without a time machine, it seems likely that in 10, 20 or 50 years, Maine’s same-sex marriage law will be judged as the beginning of the end of the dark ages for gays and lesbians. And as American society continues to become more pluralistic in ethnicity and religion, it also is likely that the thin ties between government and faith finally will tear. When they do, both faith communities and government, like competing plants in the same garden bed that are separated, will flourish apart.

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