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Religious Freedom & A Cheney Family Thanksgiving

Sorry I’ve been away this morning. Internet service at the Mothership was down. It’s now back up, just in time for me to link to Jim Antle’s piece about what the tense Thanksgiving chez Cheney tells us about how fast the gay marriage debate has shifted. Excerpt:

A viewpoint that was once acceptably held by the President of the United States—indeed, a viewpoint one had to hold to be elected president in the first place—is now considered rude to express in public. The Mary Cheneys who once allowed people to simultaneously support traditional marriage and avoid charges of bigotry against gays and lesbians have revoked that protection.

This will have costs, Antle says. Among them:

A second issue is that many of the biggest religious denominations in the country are for the foreseeable future committed to positions on marriage and sexuality that our society and law increasingly regard as morally equivalent to racism. Some state laws recognizing gay marriage also contain language protecting religious liberty—avoiding a freedom of conscience collision, while at the same time acknowledging the possibility of one.

To be clear: gay couples do not threaten anyone’s religious liberty or ability to form a family headed by a mom and a dad. But the view that traditional marriage—or the definition of marriage favored by the President of the United States until last year—was on the same moral plane as Jim Crow might.

Of course it will, and just like with same-sex marriage, what is hard to imagine today will be orthodoxy tomorrow.

The video above is from a recent event at the Newseum in Washington DC, in which scholars and others who study religious liberty discussed the present and future of same. For the first half hour, law professor Doug Laycock gives a long and detailed analysis, saying that deep divisions in American culture about sexuality are “poisoning” the debate about religious liberty. He criticizes both the cultural left and the cultural right for being maximalists bent on a total win.

Given the changes in American culture, this ends up hurting conservatives more than liberals. Conservative religious groups, he says, have typically failed to grasp how quickly and profoundly the ground is shifting beneath their feet that they miss the opportunity to negotiate for religious exemptions to gay rights legislation until it’s too late. That religious liberty is so tied up with questions of sexual freedom, he says, “is turning much of the country against religious liberty, or at least turning much of the country to the view that religious liberty should be interpreted very narrowly.”

“What one side views as a grave evil, the other side views as a fundamental human right. And for tens of millions of Americans, conservative churches have made themselves enemies of liberty,” Laycock says. Mind you, he’s simply describing the situation as it exists today, not endorsing it. I can’t fault his analysis. I don’t like to hear it, but I would rather live in the world as it is than the world as I wish it were.

Of course he faults the cultural left for not caring a fig about respecting the right of religious dissent, saying that “for supporters of sexual liberty, everything they want is a compelling interest.” The way things are going now, he warns, judges will be inclined to accept that view.

In the end, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act “is no match for a cultural change. If the people no longer believe in religious liberty, we’ll lose it, and that will be a real loss for America, no matter which side of the culture wars you find yourself on.”

At the 35 minute mark, Marc D. Stern, the general counsel of the American Jewish Congress and a longtime participant in religious liberty discussions, offers a highly pessimistic view of the future of religious liberty. Stern, incidentally, supports same-sex marriage rights, but he also supports strong and broad protections for religious dissenters. Today, of the possibility of compromise in this fight, Stern judges: “It’s gone.”

Stern said when he got started in this business, religious liberty used to be thought of along the lines of “I don’t agree with you, but I support your right to do the things you do.” That’s why he files briefs on behalf of pagan religions and others that he personally rejects. Today, he says, religious liberty is conceived in terms of whether or not the view you hold and express is a dangerous thing for society.

“For neither side should that be a winning proposition, but that is the way the battle is shaping up. … Religious liberty is now a battle about the correctness of particular religious views. It’s a slippery slope from which we will not recover if we go much further down it.”

Ten years ago, the Cheneys could have had a happy Thanksgiving. Today, not even Thanksgiving is a match for cultural change.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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