What Opposition to Religious Freedom Really Means

March 30, 2015   |  

The public debate over Indiana’s new religious freedom law is (almost) enough to drive this Baptist to drink. The conversation has been the most uninformed and ignorant I’ve seen in years. This culminated in a panel on one of the Sunday talk shows suggesting that the law would return us to the days when signs would hang in stores detailing who would not be welcome to do business there.

The law, of course, does nothing of the sort. Indiana merely passed a state version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the law that passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority in 1993 and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton. The act was supported by a coalition spanning from the far Left to the far Right.

RFRA, of course, does not grant anyone the right to “discriminate” or deny service to anyone else. All the law does is articulate that religious freedom is a factor to be weighed in making court decisions about the common good, that the government must show good cause in restricting someone’s free exercise of religion.

So where does all the ignorance come from in this case?

Many of those leading the discussion of religious freedom have little or no understanding of what motivates religious people. This shows up in almost all of these conversations, whether over the Little Sisters of the Poor fight not to be compelled to purchase contraception insurance coverage or the legislative attempts to codify RFRA. If one cannot empathize with why defying conscience on a matter of religious exercise is a life-or-death concern, then one is free to impute all sorts of evil motives. Why doesn’t the employee at Abercrombie and Fitch just ditch the head scarf to work there? After all, that’s just fashion. Why won’t the Amish just drive in cars down the road like “regular people” do?

When secularized or nominally religious people don’t understand religious motivation, then they are going to assume that, behind a concern for religious exercise, is some sinister agenda: usually one involving power or money. That sort of ignorance is not just naive. It leads to a breakdown of pluralism and liberal democracy. I shouldn’t have the power to mandate that a Jain caterer provide wild game for some Baptist church’s Duck Dynasty-themed “Beast Feast,” just because I don’t understand their non-violent tenets toward all living creatures. I shouldn’t be allowed to require Catholic churches to use grape juice instead of wine just because I don’t understand transubstantiation.

This is particularly problematic when widespread ignorance of religious motivation is joined with a zealotry that can only be called religious: for the stamping out of all dissent against the sexual revolution. The sexual revolutionaries are, by all accounts, winning the public debate in American life on matters of sexual freedom, right down to the redefinition of marriage and family. But that’s not enough. Many of them want not only to win, but to stamp out dissent with all the relish of a Massachusetts Bay Puritan.

And, behind all of that, is the question, often backed by powerful corporate interests, of why the rest of America can’t just get on board with a vision of the good life that is defined by economic stability and sexual libertarianism. Why can’t the rest of us just be “normal?” That sort of political hegemony never ends well, for anyone.

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