Home/Rod Dreher/On Religious Liberty, America Is Becoming Illiberal

On Religious Liberty, America Is Becoming Illiberal

Everybody go read Ramesh Ponnuru’s analysis of what Arizona means for the future of religious liberty in America. People who tell you that religious people have nothing to lose from legalized same-sex marriage either don’t know what they’re talking about, or are trying to deceive. In that calm, clear, deliberate way of his, Ponnuru explains where we are now. For starters, he says, our activist news media cannot be trusted to report fairly and accurately on social issues. The Arizona bill vetoed by Gov. Brewer would not have given Christian bakers and photographers the right to refuse service to gays; by essentially writing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) of 1993 into state law, it would only have given them a defense in a court hearing over it — a hearing they might lose. Another lesson:

What has changed since 1993 is American liberalism’s view of religious freedom.The RFRA was not something liberals conceded to religious conservatives. It was something they affirmatively sought. Then-representative Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) was a sponsor, and Senator Ted Kennedy (D., Mass.) was a strong supporter.

Now liberals regard religious exemptions from laws as suspicious privileges for religious believers. Brian Beutler, writing in Salon about the Arizona bill, makes the point thus: “To support SB 1062 you must conceive of religious liberty as a social trump card. . . . This view writes democratic norms and competing liberties entirely out of the equation. . . . That view reflects an old, reactionary conception of liberty.”

Beutler’s account is an overstatement but not an invention. The old, reactionary conception of liberty championed by Ted Kennedy really did regard religious liberty as a trump, in many instances, over laws that were enacted democratically to advance other values. The same is of course true of any other liberty: If it does not sometimes act as a trump, it does not exist; and if it does not often act as a trump, it hardly exists.

Beutler suggests that churches that refuse to marry same-sex couples should lose their “privileged tax status.” I doubt many liberals are there yet. They will probably move first against groups such as the Knights of Columbus, demanding that their halls be made available to same-sex weddings. But give them time.

Ponnuru goes on to talk about how the advance of gay rights, and the belief that discrimination itself is a moral wrong that should not be tolerated, has changed the way all of us see religious liberty in America. Quoting a Thomas Powers essay, Ponnuru says:

He noted that tolerance, government neutrality, and depoliticization were once the guiding ideals of liberalism. The anti-discrimination regime, he argued, weakens these ideals or even replaces them with a moralized politics and politicized morality. It takes the reshaping of opinion, through the marginalization and stigmatization of views it considers bigoted, as one of its main goals. A same-sex couple with a psychology shaped by classical liberalism might have seen the baker who refused to make them a wedding cake as sadly misguided, or a jerk. The new regime encourages them to see him as a civil-rights violator.

This mindset, far from being confined to a left-wing fringe, is now the dominant one in America.

Read the whole excellent thing. He says Republican politicians may not want to have this fight, but unless a large number of their constituents are willing to accept the view that their religious beliefs make them the equivalent of Klansmen, those Republicans are going to have to fight.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

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