August 22, 2003

This Summer In America, Love Divided, War United

By Richard Rodriguez

“Love” springs easily to American lips. In American English, love can connote an abiding emotion, an appetite, or a sentimental flash-in-the-pan. The word does not distinguish between a sacrament and an eating disorder.

We say we love our dogs; we love our cars; we love our country; we love mom. And we love chocolate.

Bumper stickers proclaim “Virginia is for Lovers,” T-shirts spell love as “LUV” or as a cartoon heart.

Robert Indiana’s playfully architectonic image — “L” and a recumbent “O” atop “V” and “E,” whatever the impulse of its conception, itself became a commodity — a postage stamp.

But if love means never having to say you’re sorry, if love is degraded and vulgarized in our public speech, it is also the word that can frighten Puritan divines, and horses, and historians, and priests, and politicians.

Two events this summer — one a Supreme Court decision to overturn a Texas anti-sodomy law, the other a family reunion at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello — serve to remind us how fiercely Americans have governed that word, love, and with what parsimony we have dispensed it.

Our official history books — the textbooks we give our children — describe history as conflict, division, hatred. We do not teach children about love as an active agent within history.

Rather, we expect children to memorize the names of generals, the dates of conflicts, to remember that the bloodiest war in our history was Civil.

This summer of 2003 will similarly be remembered in our history books through images and accounts of war — the war against terrorism, the war against Saddam Hussein.

There! There is a photo for future histories — the president of the United States dressed as a warrior.

Meanwhile, in the summer of 2003, at Monticello, the descendants of Thomas Jefferson’s slave, Sally Hemings — men and women, children of many hues — gathered for a family reunion.

In the book of Genesis in the Bible, the Jewish people are summoned into being by the names of ancestors begetting ancestors. Early Protestant pilgrims described America as a “New Eden,” but in our national history, there is little mention of begetting — especially among the races.

For generations, the keepers of white Jefferson memory have wanted nothing to do with the descendants of the Hemings family — an illicit line, at best. They acknowledged no erotic possibility in the Jefferson plot. But there is now DNA evidence that at least one of Sally Hemings’ sons was related to the Jefferson line.

A few weeks after the Monticello reunion, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the state of Texas had no business governing the private erotic behavior of consenting homosexuals. The Supreme Court’s decision concerned the physics of love-making, rather than the emotion.

Immediately after the Supreme Court decision, defenders of gay rights, as well as those who defame homosexuality as a sin or a perversion or, at best, a lifestyle, recognized that what comes next will be legal debates over gay union.

Thus did the Vatican announce a crusade against gay marriage. Rome’s strategy is to join the worldwide secular lobby against a legal redefinition of marriage, and that way to preclude any notion of sacrament attaching to homosexual unions. Thou shalt not love. On July 30, the president of the United States indicated that, in his opinion, a marriage is “between a man and a woman.”

Meanwhile, the election of a gay Episcopal bishop in New Hampshire threatened to split the worldwide Anglican communion.

And through it all, this summer, there were war correspondents and retired generals, and the bodies of Saddam’s sons to remind us of the progress of the war in Iraq.

If it was love that divided us, it was war that united us.

Richard Rodriguez (richrod@ is author of “Brown: The Last Discovery of America” (Viking Press, 2002).

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