*The Tide of History Flows Liberally

Received from James A. Haught, editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.


Freedom of religion – the right to believe or disbelieve supernatural claims as one wishes, without coercion or fear of punishment – is essential to democratic liberty.  It’s locked into the First Amendment in America’s Bill of Rights.  It’s part of the progressive political agenda that has made western civilization humane and tolerant.

The Military Religious Freedom Foundation serves this crucial principle by protecting U.S. service members from unwarranted pressure to conform, or to believe as superiors command.  MRFF has a noble mission.

Various other personal liberties and social guarantees also comprise what generally is known as liberalism, an ideology that improves human rights and living conditions for everyone.  It’s a political force that relentlessly keeps gaining ground in the West.  Please consider my treatise below outlining this historic movement.

By James A. Haught

In the chaotic 2016 presidential campaign, the remarkable popularity of Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders spotlighted a large, not-always-recognized vein of liberal political sympathy in America.

Suddenly, the L-word is popular again — not an embarrassment to be avoided.  That’s great, I think, because progressives have been the driving force behind most social improvements in western civilization.

Look at the historical record:  In the three centuries since The Enlightenment, democracy, human rights, personal liberties and family wellbeing have blossomed.  Life gradually became more decent and humane.  Virtually all the advances were won by reform-minded liberals who defeated conservatives defending former hierarchies, privileges and inequalities. 

Conservatives tried to retain slavery, but they lost.

They tried to block voting by women, but lost.

They tried to prevent couples from using birth control, but lost.

They tried to obstruct Social Security pensions for oldsters and the disabled, but lost.

They tried to outlaw labor unions, but lost.

They tried to prevent unemployment compensation for the jobless, but lost.

They tried to block workers compensation for on-the-job injuries, but lost.

They tried to keep stores closed on the Sabbath, but lost.

They tried to sustain Prohibition of alcohol, but lost.

They opposed policing of stock market abuses, but lost.

They opposed food stamps for the poor, but lost.

They defended racial segregation, but lost.

They supported government-led prayer in school, but lost.

They tried to continue throwing gays in prison, but lost.

They tried to defeat Medicare and Medicaid, but lost.

They tried to halt the sexual revolution, but lost.

They tried to banish evolution from public school biology classes and teach “creationism” instead, but lost.

They fought against racial equality and tried to outlaw interracial marriage, but lost.

They tried to censor sexy magazines, books and movies, but lost.

They sought to jail girls and doctors who end pregnancies, but lost.

They tried to block liquor clubs and lotteries, but lost.

They denouced sex education as a plot to draw the young into sin, but lost

They tried to prevent expansion of health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, but lost.

They tried to halt same-sex marriage, but lost.

One of my history-minded friends has a long-range political view summed up in three words: Liberals always win.  Battles may be ferocious and seem endless, he says, but they finally bring progressive victories.  Once a human-rights breakthrough is accomplished, it locks into the roster of democratic freedoms, almost never to be revoked.

The struggle to end slavery was an epic battle.  Generations of abolitionist clamor and the horrible Civil War were required, but they finally moved America to a higher level of decency.

Similarly, suffragettes strove almost a century before they enabled American women to vote.

And it took a half-century for American couples to win the right to practice birth control.  Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger was jailed eight times for the crime of mentioning sex — but she eventually transformed society.  A Supreme Court victory in 1965 struck down contraceptive bans for married couples, and a follow-up victory in 1972 erased them for unwed couples.  Liberals won, conservatives lost.

The nonviolent civil rights movement that wiped out Jim Crow segregation and made Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. an American icon was a classic liberal victory.

When I first became a news reporter in the 1950s, conservative Bible Belt morality was enforced by laws. It was a crime for stores to open on the Sabbath. It was a crime to look at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine, or to read a sexy book. (Our mayor once sent police to raid bookstores selling Peyton Place.)

Back then, it was a felony to be gay, and those who were caught were sent to prison under old sodomy laws. Back then, it was a felony for a desperate girl to end a pregnancy. It was illegal for an unmarried couple to share a bedroom. Divorce or unwed pregnancy was unmentionable. Jews weren’t allowed into Christian-only country clubs. Public schools had mandatory teacher-led prayer. It was a crime to buy a cocktail or a lottery ticket.

African Americans were confined to poor ghettos, forbidden to enter white schools, white restaurants, white hotels, white theaters, white swimming pools, white neighborhoods — or white employment.  Society had a cruel apartheid system.

That world disappeared, decade after decade. The culture slowly evolved. Sunday “blue laws” were undone. Teacher-led prayers were banned. Gay sex became legal. Liquor clubs were approved. Abortion became legal. State governments became lottery operators. Censorship ended.  The historic civil rights movement wiped out segregation. Other conservative taboos and barriers gradually disappeared.

Within my lifetime, morality and customs flip-flopped. Conservative thou-shalt-nots lost their grip on society. Liberals won — yet it happened so gradually that few noticed.

A strong indicator of politics is church membership. White evangelicals overwhelmingly vote Republican — even though the GOP tries to undercut the humane public safety net that mirrors help-the-poor values of Jesus.  However, churchgoing has faded greatly, while the young generation ignores religion. Sociologists think the secular trend is unstoppable. People who say their faith is “none” already comprise one-fourth of the adult population — 56 million Americans — and they seem destined someday to be the largest segment. They’re the largest group in the Democratic Party base.  The social tide is flowing away from conservative fundamentalism and its Puritanical agenda, toward liberal tolerance.

All these factors support the liberals-always-win maxim. The progressive worldview is called humanism — trying to make life better for all people — and it’s a powerful current. In 1960, John F. Kennedy said in a famed speech:

“If by a ‘liberal’ they mean someone who looks ahead and not behind, someone who welcomes new ideas without rigid reaction, someone who cares about the welfare of the people — their health, their housing, their schools, their jobs, their civil rights and their civil liberties …then I’m proud to say that I’m a liberal.”

Now that progressives have won the battle for same-sex marriage and locked the Affordable Care Act into law, the never-ending struggle undoubtedly will shift to new fronts.  Maybe legalization of marijuana or registration of pistols or free college will be the next big showdown. Whatever comes, I’m ready to predict the eventual winner.

Nobel Peace Prize-winner Martin Luther King Jr. said: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

             The transformation that began with The Enlightenment is a fact. Amid all the chaos and confusion of daily life, through a thousand contradictory barrages, the struggle for a safer, fairer, more secure, more humane world never ceases — and the gradual tide of success seems unstoppable.

            (Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail.  This essay is drawn from his latest book, Hurrah for Liberals.  He may be reached by phone at 304-348-5199 or e-mail at [email protected].)

*The opinions expressed in this treatise are those of the distinguished editor emeritus of The Charleston Gazette-Mail, James A. Haught.

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  1. G

    So far the conservatives have been winning for the last 46 years.when it comes to the preventing the following items: free/affordable education, free/affordable medical, dental, and mental health care, clean drinking water, excellent public transportation, strong labor laws, strong unions, good paying wages, strong trafiff laws, non-corrupt, clean, efficient government, strong government regulations, excellent public schools, excellent unemployment benefits with no deadlines attached to them, strong re-training program for the workers no matter what how old they are, generous retirement pensions

  2. Hypatia

    .Editor emeritus Haught has done us all a great service by compiling the above litany of liberal success in defeating reactionary * laws mandating discrimination — on various pretexts — against members of what was supposed to be our free and equal democracy.

    Now our job is to remain ever vigilant against those reactionary* forces that seek to turn back these achievements by spending huge amounts of money. As anyone who follows the (politicized) Supreme Court knows, the Citizens United decision unleashed a torrent of special interest money aimed laser-liike at reserving real power to the 1%.

    No, I am not wandering off-track.

    If we want to preserve the progress Mr.Haught lists above, so painfully won over the brief history of our country, we need to elect representatives who honor their sworn oath to uphold the Constitutionally mandated freedom from religious coercion.

    Congress, State legislatures, Governors and local entities have sold out, to a horrifying extent, to the power of Big Money. Big Money craftily manipulates certain ignorant, biased religious believers who think they have the right to impose their beliefs on others.

    It takes personal involvement, via MRFF, ACLU, Americans United, and other civil liberties groups (plus support money! to fend off religious coercion. So step up to the plate. Do your job at every level from village council to the White House. For your children.

    * Our opponents are NOT “conservatives”, which used to be an honorable term. They are “reactionaries” who want to turn back the clock to the Dark Ages when there was no law outside the Church.


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