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The Eclipse of Religious Liberty

The real meaning of Indiana and Arkansas

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:

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.  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:




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