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The Eclipse of Religious Liberty

A week ago today, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed a minor-league religious liberty law, one very close to the federal RFRA model, offering what, should it ever be appealed to in gay rights cases, would offer a small modicum of protection (the right to a hearing) to religious conservatives.  And then the world came crashing down, with much of the American Establishment — business, entertainment, news media, Democratic politicians — coming down hysterically hard on the state. Then it happened in Arkansas, whose governor quickly backed away from a bill he had previously supported after Wal-mart cleared its corporate throat and gave him the stink-eye. And here we are.

It seems to me that the real and lasting meaning of what has happened here is how, in the court of public opinion (at least the public opinion that matters as to how the country is run), we now see that religious liberty, a First Amendment freedom, is something contemptible when it clashes with gay rights. Not only something unimportant, but something despicable.

This is no small thing. It is a big thing. It is something so enormous that I think it’s going to take us a while to absorb what has happened, and what it means for the future.

The Catholic writer and veteran religion journalist Peter Steinfels is a religious liberal who is shocked by this development. From his Commonweal column asking what happened to liberals who believe in religious liberty [1]:

The whole point of freedom of religion is that it protects an extraordinary gamut of differing, frequently conflicting cosmologies, spiritual disciplines, and moral codes.  They may include refusing to fight in defense of the nation, rejecting certain foodstuffs or medical treatments, discouraging young people from secondary or higher education, honoring celibacy or condemning a variety of sexual practices, sacrificing animals, drinking alcohol, or ingesting hallucinogens for ritual purposes, prescribing certain head coverings or hairstyles despite school or occupational rules, insisting on distinct roles for men and women, withdrawing from friends and family for lives of silence and seclusion, marching in prayer through neighborhoods on holy days, preaching on street corners or otherwise trying to convert others to these persuasions.

A great many of these beliefs and practices I disagree with.  Some I deplore. Religious freedom means I live with the fundamentalists who describe the pope as anti-Christ and my kind as hell-bound—and with the black nationalist sects who consider me a white devil.  Religious freedom means that I don’t have to send my children to the state schools if I choose not to nor does my Darwin-phobic neighbor.  It also means state schools or state events or state laws should not force people to participate in religious rituals or practices contrary to their consciences.

Religious freedom means that I may very well want to question, critique, refute, moderate or otherwise alter religious beliefs and practices that I find irrational or unhealthy or dehumanizing or, yes, bigoted; but knowing how deeply rooted and sincerely held these convictions are, and how much about the universe remains in fact mysterious, and how much about my own perceptions of reality could in fact be mistaken, and how much religions do in fact evolve over time, I accommodate myself in the meantime to peaceful coexistence and thoughtful engagement.  In particular I refuse to coerce religiously sincere people into personal actions that violate their conscience.  And I refuse to dismiss their resistance to such coercion as nothing but bigotry.

Steinfels concludes:


All my life liberals took the lead in defending and enlarging freedom of religion.  Now they seem to have shrunk into silence, indifference, or, worse, disparagement.  Contrary examples anyone?

Read the whole thing.  [1] He is especially hard on The New York Times, for whom he used to write, for its hysterically biased coverage of the issue.

This is a moment of clarification for American culture. The only meaningful thing about the Christian religion to very many people on the left is what it says about homosexuality. Never mind the soup kitchens, never mind the inner-city ministries, never mind Catholic schools educating children of the inner-city poor who are not even Catholic, never mind Evangelical efforts in the developing world to alleviate sickness and poverty (e.g., some of the US doctors who caught Ebola were Evangelical missionaries who had dedicated their lives to helping poor Africans fight disease). None of it matters. All that matters is what they think about homosexuality.

They would even through Dante under the bus. Dante’s theology required him to put unrepentant homosexuals in the Inferno (a space they share with some popes, as you know). But as any reader of the Commedia knows, the way the poet Dante treats his character’s interactions with Brunetto Latini, his old teacher, damned for sodomy, is one of the most touching and complex — emotionally and theologically — moments in the entire poem. In fact, Dante doesn’t even dwell on the erotic part of Brunetto’s sin. As I write in my upcoming book about Dante:

Brunetto is in hell for sodomy, but Dante indicates here that his sexual sin symbolizes a deeper malady of the spirit, one that rendered Brunetto’s writing sterile. Brunetto is a vain man, a writer and public intellectual who thought the way to pursue immortality was to serve his own cause in his work—and a spiritually blind teacher who, one suspects, sees Dante’s progress as an artist chiefly as a means to hitch himself to a rising star. For the damned, it is always about themselves.

Brunetto’s sodomy symbolizes a misuse of his God-given generative powers— that is, Brunetto’s misuse of his creative abilities as a writer and artist. To create only for the sake of magnifying your own fame and success in the world is, spiritually speaking, a sterile act. As far as we know, the poet Dante never faced the temptation to have sex with men, but as we see here, his beloved mentor Brunetto attempts to seduce Dante into a kind of artistic and intellectual sodomy.

You can certainly believe that Dante was wrong about all of this, but what you cannot do is accuse him of being a medieval Catholic forerunner of the God Hates Fags lunatics.

The Commedia is an artistic pinnacle of Christian civilization, yet it is easy to imagine the anti-intellectual, inhuman cultural revolutionaries among us today, filled with puritan zeal and crusading righteousness, casting Dante and his great poem aside as nothing more than an aesthetically accomplished apologia for homophobia.

Because this is how they are treating orthodox Christian believers, in all their — our — complexity. Too many of them hate us so much that not even something as fundamental to American civilization as religious liberty seems to matter anymore.

Yes, this is a moment. One hopes that we will step back from the brink. One doubts that we will. A professor at a university sends this to me this morning, saying that he finds events this week — Holy Week for Western Christians — to be particularly meaningful:

On the week that religious liberty was betrayed, all the Democrats and rights groups who had once voted for and supported strong religious liberty protections came and kissed religious liberty.  They said, “While we once exalted you as the ‘First Freedom’ in the Bill of Rights and supported robust legal protections for you, we now no longer wish to defend you and we despise both the states and the constituency that seek strong protections for you.”

They then took religious liberty before the academic, business, and media elites for a public relations trial.  The elites accused religious liberty of inciting neighbors to hate each other and discriminate against each other and refuse service to oppressed minorities.  However, religious liberty replied, “I am only a principle to which religious minorities appeal.  Just as the right to free speech protects all kinds of speech, so will all kinds of people whose religious beliefs people find offensive come to me for protection.”  Indeed, the elites accused religious liberty of associating and being appealed to by people they find disgusting. Religious liberty replied, “I am here for all religious minorities burdened by their conscience and government laws.”  At this comment, the elites gnashed their teeth and tore their clothes.  They then set about ridiculing and persecuting any who came to the defense of religious liberty.

Since the elites could not undertake the crucifixion of religious liberty, they then took religious liberty to a political leader.  The political leader asked religious liberty, “What is true religion?”  But religious liberty declared, “I do not declare a true religion, I protect all religions.”  The political leader said, “I find no evidence of prima facie discrimination with religious liberty or strong religious liberty protections.”

The political leader then took religious liberty out to the crowd that had gathered.  The crowd started chanting, “Crucify it! Crucify it!”  The political leader said, “You realize that religious liberty and the prominent legal test supporting it does not automatically protect discrimination.”  The crowd only yelled further, “Crucify it, crucify it.”  The political leader again said, “You realize that the major legal test supporting religious liberty has actually not protected religiously-based racial discrimination.”  The crowd only yelled louder, “Crucify it! Crucify it!”  The political leader said, “You realize that strong  religious liberty protections has safeguarded the freedom of all religious minorities such as Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.”  The crowd only yelled even louder, “Crucify it!  Crucify it!”

So the politicians gave religious liberty over to the crowd to be stripped and beaten.  After being stripped and beaten, the elites, lawyers, and judges began the long, painful process of crucifying strong religious liberty protections in civil society, religious schools, religious organizations, and places of worship.  They also sought out defenders of strong protections for religious liberty in every state and began persecuting them.  As a result, other former supporters of religious liberty denied they ever knew of or defended strong protections for religious liberty.  Others, fearing for the survival of their institutions, groups, or livelihood renounced any religious beliefs the elites found offensive, hid underground or were scattered.

Through religious liberty’s long-suffering crucifixion, a young child named James Madison, heard religious liberty whisper, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

By the way, here’s the cover of the new issue of Time:

time-cover-final3 [2]

118 Comments (Open | Close)

118 Comments To "The Eclipse of Religious Liberty"

#1 Comment By Michael Guarino On April 3, 2015 @ 2:32 am

Was this the result of secularism? Hardly. It resulted from the emergence of a world where professionals no longer make their living from serving local residents; rather, they make their living by closing deals with folks halfway around the world whom they’ve never met in person. Corporatism has become what mainline Protestantism once was.

This seems quite right, but I think it is fair to consider corporatism to be a subspecies of secularism. The distinction is at least not terribly strong.

#2 Comment By marysue On April 3, 2015 @ 7:08 am

The Divine Comedy does try to justify homophobia. The fact that you find its justification convincing doesn’t make it less homophobic. It is odd that you think the complexity of your belief systems means it can’t be bigoted or archaic-that is exactly what it is imho. We are better off with it driven to the margins of public life.

#3 Comment By Rob G On April 3, 2015 @ 8:36 am

“How much profit was made from my lack of self-discipline? Is it not then in the interest of the corporate class to demean sexual discipline, no matter the sorrow and loneliness its absence wreaks?”

Correct. The libertine left (the sexual revolutionists) and the avaricious right (the corporations and their shils) serve one another’s interests; both benefit from the general withering of the idea of self-discipline in society.

“No they are not remotely compatible. However, psychological and cognitive science research into the cognition of right wing authoritarians indicates that they make a large number of cognitive errors and utilize faulty reasoning.”

Au contraire, they are only incompatible if one accepts certain liberal presuppositions.
The rest of the quote is equally inane. First, it errs in equating “right wing” and “authoritarian.” Secondly, it ascribes qualities to Rod by stating assertions, not facts. Please describe in what way Rod is “right wing” and “authoritarian.”

Finally, the stuff about cognitive errors and faulty reasoning: specific examples please. Two or three would be sufficient.

#4 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 3, 2015 @ 10:21 am

It is astonishing, just how much damage so few have done to understanding the purpose of the law. The reason such discrimination exists rests on very simple premise.

Same sex relations do not provide the same benefits as heterosexual dyanics and therefore, just don’t qualify. Promoting heterosexual unions, relations and the consequences thereof is in the communities best interests.

Homosexual relations do not – period. Homsexuals are certainly entitled to have their ceremonial marriages – so what. But as to the community, they are two single people. Their contribution to said community as a married couple is always going totae a back seat to heterosexal relations, in the same way that single people in many ways take a back seat to the same.

From a religious point of view, no one should be forced to serve those whose behavior they find objectionable. It is that simle as well. And as for discrimination — it is, but so what? Right of association basically grants that people will form clubs, organizations, and other states exclusively for thatbgrou of people.

Attempting to the socio-emotional or socio-political grounds of interpersonal discrimination to the law so as to appease one emotions is model that will inevitably make identity and association meaningless. When I was told today that such distinctions were discrimination, i could only answer — it is. The abused argument on pucblic accommodation has been streched to inoperability. No business, caters to every public whim or desire. They discrimnate by dress, by age, sex, All of the Bill of Rights are designed to protect and highlight identity, private thought, conscience, not dilute it.

The private life is not anything, if not discriminating. The unique guide is in my view, those being served similarly situated — THere is no crime in creating a target market. I would add to that — the availability of the service elsewhere, some other baker.

If it as the homosexual, liberals and media claim, it’s just a cake, why force this baker when some other would gladly take the job.

If anyone is lying about motive it is not the christian business operator.

#5 Comment By Kevin Smith On April 3, 2015 @ 12:24 pm

First they came for the anti-semites. But I was not an anti-semite, so I said nothing.

Next they came for the racists. But I was not a racist, so I said nothing.

Then they came for the misogynists. But I was not very sympathetic to them, so I said nothing.

By the time they came for the homophobes, there was no one left to say anything.

#6 Comment By Franklin Evans On April 3, 2015 @ 1:27 pm

Christopher, thank you for the thoughtful response. May I point out the irony of our exchange? Our civil debate is rather contradictory to the topic of it, don’t you think?

I’d add a smiley, but you and I in our cynicism do have a clear perception of the facts, and I can’t bring myself to find much humor in them.

To be explicit: I believe that a secular morality was founded right along with our nation and its government. It is stated in the preamble to the Constitution, and further clarified in the Bill of Rights and a few subsequent statutes along the way. Right now, right here, we are debating and witnessing a stake through the heart of that secular morality, aided and abetted by an eviscerated electorate who either don’t know they are puppets or gleefully attach the strings themselves.

The emperor is the only one fully clothed, and his naked subjects are ridiculing him for holding up a mirror to them.

A blessed Good Friday to all my Christian friends, and chag sameach to all. This Pagan is overjoyed to celebrate his Jewish heritage starting this day at sundown.

#7 Comment By John On April 3, 2015 @ 2:11 pm


Thank you for your comment. We live in a free society and we do so together. No one should be driven to the margins. All opinions should be expressed and allowed in the free market of ideas in the public square, including yours and including mine. The use of the term homophobia was a term leveraged by image consultants and is way overused. There is real homophobia out there – people who want to harm homosexuals in some way or use slurs against them. Such has never crossed the minds of the vast majority of religious persons. Most of them would be glad to be friends with gay persons or employ them. Gays deserve dignity like every other human being. Christians are no better but flawed human beings just like everyone else. But when you vilify and legally force these same people to violate their conscience by participating in a ceremony that goes against their beliefs, you have crossed the line.

Your bullying tactics to force everyone to assimilate and adopt your view like the Borg is what should be called into quesstion in a free society.

#8 Comment By Thursday On April 3, 2015 @ 2:13 pm

This seems quite right, but I think it is fair to consider corporatism to be a subspecies of secularism. The distinction is at least not terribly strong.

Right. They both tend towards a utilitarian based morality.

#9 Comment By Thursday On April 3, 2015 @ 2:25 pm

You do recognize this is a stereotype?

Of course, [3]

#10 Comment By xnlover On April 3, 2015 @ 10:51 pm

Perhaps the outrage on the part of the LGBTQ community can be better understood against the background of the many members of that community who lost their lives to homophobic bigotry: Matthew Shepard (killed 1998), Islan Nettles (k. 2013), Gwen Amber Rose Araujo (k. 2002), Tiffany Berry (k. 2006), Paul Broussard (k. 1991), Gregory Beauchamp (k. 2002), Bill Clayton (k. 1995), Amancio “Dalia” Corrales (k. 2005), Kenneth Cummings, Jr. (k. 2007), Roberto “Pancho” Duncanson (k. 2007), Bella Evangelista (k. 2003), Daniel “Dano” Fetty (k. 2004), Billy Jack Gaither (k. 1999), Edgar “Eddie” Garzón (k. 2001), Michael Scott Goucher (k. 2009), and Sakia LaTona Gunn (k. 2003) being just a few of those who were killed for not being straight, while the straight conservative Christian community continued to defame gays as being worthy of hell, so some people took that as a justification to send them to hell more quickly than they otherwise might have gone on their own. If Christians were to begin being killed in the United States just for being Christians to the same degree as LGBTQ persons are even now being killed for not being straight – and God forbid such a thing should happen – perhaps then conservative Christians would understand what is so wrong about legislation that seems to say to some people – extremists though they may be – that not only discrimination against gays but even violence against them, if done in the name of their religion or their “conscience,” is just fine with us. When “love your neighbor as yourself” finally begins to become the watchword of everyone, perhaps then we’ll see less anti-Christian sentiment in this country.

#11 Comment By Mehmet On April 4, 2015 @ 2:46 am

Law or no law, as a Muslim, I cannot accept any claim that homosexual relations are equal to heterosexual ones. Any action that goes against the will of the Creator is unjust, by definition and tradition. Gay rights is a fiction.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 4, 2015 @ 4:09 am

“Perhaps the outrage on the part of the LGBTQ community can be better understood against the background of the many members of that community who lost their lives to homophobic bigotry: Matthew Shepard (killed 1998), Islan Nettles (k. 2013), Gwen Amber Rose Araujo (k. 2002), Tiffany Berry (k. 2006) . . .”

I would spend time challenging some of these as to cause, that really does not matter.

Because as with most crimes they were adjudicated. In otherwords, nothing in the law or the founding of law, the Constitition supported those deaths. So as with the assorted tragic deaths this year, last year, the year before that, there is nothing uniue about them that is addressed by subjecting the christian florist o baker to servicing their weddings.

And the last section of your comment is so incredibly dishonest, you should be embrassed by it. Linking those deaths to whether or not we should continue the historic practice of permitting people to practice their fait expression in the active or inactive choices.

This ia typical appeal to emotion and worse emoion that is irrelevant to the issue. The christian baker is not advocating the muder of those who homosexual behavior.

I could contrast your list to the number of seriel murders, who were homosexual and targeted homosexuals and heterosexuals and the case in Texas far exceeds those you have here. So aside from making nonsequitor advances on an issue so completely unrelated, link anything about one’s conscience in serving that which God forbids to the murder of a homosexual.
“being just a few of those who were killed for not being straight, while the straight conservative Christian community continued to defame gays as being worthy of hell, so some people took that as a justification to send them to hell more quickly than they otherwise might have gone on their own.”

So the poeple who you claim were murdered for their choice of expression were killed, in christian communities by christians, before entertaining the notion, I think I need support. Achristian, who believes that those who enbrace what condemns may believe that person is going to hell. That is a far sight from their supporting the process of sending them there. By the way, those murder is one the most common references from almost everyone being sent to hell. FZornication, adultry, stealing, lying, tec. ae all on the list. Your selective manipulative indictment is for effect, not substance.

The opening example is avery poor choice, Matthew Sheppherd was killed for the purpose of robbery. The homosexual panic was a lawyer’s ploy, not the case as related by those who killed him. As tragic as it was, his choice of expression was not the cause.

#13 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 4, 2015 @ 4:29 am

Nothing has been more pined and exaggerated than the historical injustice against homosexuals. The import that rests on some level of mass persecution is just tawdry.

And what is funny is how many literary and historical of note, some called giants, men and women have been known to engage in this choice. Good greif, not but two years ago I think there was a discussion of Pres. Peirce, known as a dandy along with others. With a strong suggestion that perhaps he and the group of men he dandied about with were more than dandy pals. I tend to doubt it, but the point is history is repleat of homosexual expressive individuals, who actually have been influential.

Society at large is understood to socially shun such behavior, but there are many if any caases of homosexuals being led to the gallows in droves, and even if that were the case —

it’s relationship to the baker’s and candle stick maker’s admission that God forbids them to support such behavior is not linked to the murder of anyone.

This is the we and blacks are together in this, disguised argument. A wolf in sheeps clothing to garner favor. This from the crowd of white women and homosexual practitioners who were have been all too happy to snatch up affirmative action posts in the ame of diversity all the while practicing discrimination against one of the promary targets of that redress.

And both do so without the least bt of shame aided and abetted by the white heterosexuals, who cornered the game to their advantage as they blamed blacks for the results.

Now most will buy your advances , snakes in easter egg arguments, but a few of us, can on occassin see snakes and wolves for what they are despite the garb they are arrayed in.

#14 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 4, 2015 @ 10:27 am

“I have been told that in many ways all my life. That because I’m celibate, I’m a repressed pedophile. That because I’m a private individual and spend a lot of time alone, that I have social problems and am a suspect murderer. That because I don’t agree on a host of political issues, that I’m a hateful bigot. That because of my taste in art, I’m stupid and ignorant.”

For obvious reasons, I found this hilarious.

But this list seems a might short to me: liar, dysfunnctional, in the closet, weird, disingenuous, . . . sick. stupid, insane . . . unhealthy . . .homophobe, in the closet . . .

And they will aid in conjuring up the data to prove it.

I did have a good laugh.

#15 Comment By Michael Powe On April 5, 2015 @ 6:17 pm

Not one among all challenges the central thesis – that not being allowed to publicly engage in bigoted behavior is an infringement of “religious liberty.” In what, exactly, consists the infringement? Are you denied the option to think that blacks, homosexuals, Muslims, et alia, are going to Hell, because they are not white Evangelical Christians? Are you denied the option of going to Church with like-minded individuals? Are you denied the option to wear a T-shirt reading “God hates Fags”? Are you denied the option to demonstrate at the funeral of a dead homosexual, carrying a sign that reads “Homosexuals Go To Hell”?

Are you imprisoned for any of these actions? Wherein, then, lies the “infringement” of your “religious liberty”?

When Mildred Loving and her husband were sent to prison for marrying, the judge declared that “God did not intend for the races to mix.” Rod Dreher, and every one of his supporters here, declare that this is a legitimate reason for every business to declare that it will not cook, bake, nor a candlestick make, for the wedding. When Maurice Bessinger declared that “God did not create the black race equal with the white,” and therefore, blacks should not be allowed to eat in his restaurants, every one of you declares that such is his right as “religious liberty” to do so.

There are no limits in American society, apparently, to the invocation of the “religious liberty” excuse. Businesses should be allowed to hire only whites, only Christians, only men, only Catholics, only heterosexuals, because, you know, “religious liberty.” You feel perfectly safe in this contention, because you’re confident that you belong to one of the protected classes.

That is not what “religious liberty” is about. Religious liberty is not an absolute power to engage in exclusionary behavior based on personal preference. The founders of this country did not see it as such. And, it’s no credit to you lot, that you do.

There is no such creature as a “Christian” business. Nothing like that is mentioned in the Bible, nor is there any allusion to it. Commerce is a secular activity. The government has every power to regulate it.

If you, as a “Christian,” feel that you do not want to do business with Muslims, then find another line of employment. It’s that simple. You have absolutely no moral right to exclude anyone from the marketplace. None. Zip. Zero. Nada. You don’t have to like it. You do have to live with it.

That is “liberty and justice for all.”

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 6, 2015 @ 12:40 am

“If you, as a “Christian,” feel that you do not want to do business with Muslims, then find another line of employment. It’s that simple. You have absolutely no moral right to exclude anyone from the marketplace. None. Zip. Zero. Nada. You don’t have to like it. You do have to live with it.

That is “liberty and justice for all.””

What generic emptiness. When someone walks into a place of business they operate under the domain of that business. All businesses operate under some form model and expressed ot ethic. Christian business simply means operates under christian princiles. When a muslim walks into a christian run operation they will abide by those ethics. The business owner is not expected to put on a burqa or any manner.

While, you use the word choice, you seem to contend that such choice does not exist. And while no one here is being excluded from the marketplace, they are exercising their based on their ethics whether they will engage in a business arrangement that violates their moral code. And by moral code we are talking about behavior and belief.

The homosexual practitioner is in no manner being prevented in seeking another supplier to meet their wants. Nothing prevents them from starting their own business. And no they don’t have to live with it, because they are not doing anything close to what you suggest.

The use of market implies choice. The very nature of why it works is that there are options. What remains amazing is that blacks exercised that otpion when they didn’t have to based on their skin color discrimination, not behavior or moral code as to behavior.

As you express it they don’t have to live with it, because what you claim is wholly false.

#17 Comment By c matt On April 6, 2015 @ 5:59 pm

However, that practice directly conflicts with the right of a customer to not be discriminated against in a public accommodations context.

Since when is catering your (private) wedding ceremony, to whom only your guests are invited, a “public accommodation?” This does not involve travel accommodations or serving meals on your premises.

#18 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On April 7, 2015 @ 10:46 pm

Perhaps the outrage on the part of the LGBTQ community can be better understood against the background of the many members of that community who lost their lives to homophobic bigotry:

Can we all agree that we are all opposed to murder? Thank you.

Now, can we also agree that the baker or photographer should politely send the customer on their way, affirming “I’m sorry, we don’t do those,” and most certainly should NOT pull out a gun and shoot the customer?

I thought so.

Glad to have this discussion back on track.