April 15, 2016

On Wednesday LGBT activists shouted down Governor Charlie Baker as he addressed the 10th Annual Boston Spirit LGBT Executive Networking Night. The protesters were highly disappointed that the governor would not commit to signing a bill, which is now working its way through the legislature, to protect transgender individuals in their use of public spaces, The protests were sincere, but also both “impolitic and unjust.”

This is a political lesson offered by the Abraham Lincoln in his Temperance Address to the Washingtonian Society in 1842. His message (which was not welcomed) was that temperance advocates had offended the very people they intended to save by appeals that were “impolitic and unjust.”

Lincoln urged the Washingtonians, “It is an old and a true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’ So with men. If you would win a man to your cause, first convince him that you are his sincere friend.” This lesson was well exploited by LGBT activists at the time Governor Mitt Romney was seeking a constitutional amendment to roll back the equal right to marry. In my research on the role of the Massachusetts Catholic Church in that contest, I found quite a great deal of anxiety and doubt among legislators. One of the many factors that turned them around was visits from their LGBT constituents and neighbors, who would be affected by the proposed amendment.

After an initial round of boos when Governor Baker stated that he would consider the measure and consult with stakeholders when it reached his desk, the governor offered an important political lesson that was not well-received. (There is a video of the relevant portion of the speech, posted on YouTube by Nancy Nangeroni and widely disseminated by Laura Dezenski of Politico, thanks to them both). Governor Baker begins to explain that he did not run for office to deal with the opioid crisis but that policy learning – what he learned from many residents throughout the state about opioid abuse – had a huge impact on his taking a leadership role on the issue. This is not at all unusual when a political leader is facing an issue that seems novel to him or her. Policy learning is a good thing. Unfortunately at that point more jeering erupted and the governor departed.

Now to Lincoln’s second critique, that of injustice. About a month ago I appeared on a panel with two opinion leaders, one Muslim American and the other Latina. This was at the time when Donald Trump cancelled his Chicago rally due to protests, and after a rash of violent incidents at Trump rallies. We were all asked if Trump’s rallies should be shut down by protesters. The others answered yes, I answered no. I have no patience for Trump but as awful as he is we have to allow him to speak. We live in polarized times. We are all the more certain of our own rectitude because so many of us only hear from our own side. Recent political science research finds that polarization is growing and intensifying not because we have come to love our own side more but because our hate for the other side has grown. The answer to this from liberals and conservatives should not be more intolerance.

As Governor Baker was hooted off the stage, one voice called out “Close the doors to Mass Family. Close the doors to Mass Family.” This is a group I remember well from my research on the constitutional amendment. It is religiously oriented and anti-LGBT. To me and many others, it is bigoted. But it has the exact same free speech rights that I have and that everyone else in the commonwealth and nation has. So far as I am aware, Baker has no part in it and no governor can close its doors.

Near the end of A Letter Concerning Toleration, John Locke writes “It is not the diversity of opinions (which cannot be avoided), but the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions (which might have been granted), that has produced all the bustles and wars that have been in the Christian world upon account of religion.”

The lessons of Lincoln and Locke still apply today.

Charlie Baker, Boston Spirit

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