Category Archives: Religious Liberty

The Retreat of the Puritans

Last week, Irish voters overwhelmingly voted to recognize same-sex marriage. Leave aside, for now, the question whether fundamental rights should ever be subject to popular vote, and consider that Ireland has long been considered a very religious country.

Whatever it may mean to be “very religious” today, for growing numbers of people, it’s clear it doesn’t mean obediently following the doctrinal pronouncements of the relevant clerics. Increasingly, the ways in which people connect with their religious traditions have changed.

Earlier this week, my friend Art Farnsley had an excellent op-ed in the Washington Post, addressing this decline of religious authority. It is well worth reading in its entirety. Art notes the recent, widely-discussed Pew poll showing a decline in the number of Americans identifying as Christian, and suggests that numbers don’t adequately tell the story:

.. behind the story of Christian decline and the rise of “nones” is a long-standing debate about what religion theorists call “secularization,” the broad process by which religion gradually loses its social influence….

By the last two decades of the 20th century, secularization theories were in retreat for a number of good reasons. Most people did not stop being religious in the sense that they still had beliefs, intuitions, feelings and practices they defined as sacred. Modernity had not pushed spirituality out of their lives in America, and maybe not even in Britain or the Netherlands.

As Art notes, whether secularization has grown depends upon how you define the term.

Sociologist Mark Chaves redefined secularization as declining religious authority back in 1994. He suggested we stop worrying about whether individuals thought of themselves as religious and focus instead on religion’s social influence.

The evidence for this kind of secularization, the decline of religious authority, is everywhere. It is quaint to think of a time stores did not open and liquor was not sold on the Sabbath. But that is a small, symbolic change compared with the massive growth in individual choice at the expense of tradition, especially religious tradition.

Understood in this way, secularization is an inevitable consequence of modernity. We no longer see diseases like smallpox as indicators of God’s judgment; we call a doctor. We no longer ask the minister or rabbi to mediate our disputes; we call a lawyer.  For most inhabitants of modern, Western countries, religion is an incubator of values, not the source of binding law. So we have cultural Catholics, social Protestants, ethnic Jews…individuals still attached to their respective traditions who nevertheless feel free to pick and choose aspects of the relevant doctrines.

Change in the role of any social institution is never linear, of course, so we still have a number of the folks I called Puritans in God and Country- the “old time religion” fundamentalists who continue to wage war against religious diversity, women’s rights, same-sex marriage and any effort to grant LGBT citizens equal civil rights.

As Art concluded, they aren’t likely to win that war.

“In the struggle for authority with modern individualism, American religion is slowly losing.” That would be my headline for the recent Pew report. “Christians are declining in America” is just the tip of the iceberg.

 

 

 

RFRA, Language, WorldViews

A couple of days ago, a group of Indiana Pastors gathered at the Statehouse to deliver a long letter accusing the Governor and legislators of “betrayal” for amending RFRA to include a modicum of civil rights protections for LGBT Hoosiers.

I encourage readers to click through and read the letter in its entirety, because it is a (rather chilling) window into a world in which words like “liberty” mean something very different from their meaning in the world I inhabit.

This “fixed” RFRA legislation has opened the door to a trampling of our liberties….You received godly counsel from strong and knowledgeable leaders from across our nation who encouraged you to stand strong and to veto this legislation. You failed. In doing so, you betrayed the trust of millions of Hoosiers who elected you to protect the liberties we hold dear….

You state that you are committed to an Indiana where religious rights and individual rights coexist in harmony. While this sounds wonderful, we all know that the demands of the LGBT lobby make this untenable with those who profess faith in Christ and faithfulness to the Scriptures. It was clear from the press conference that the next “discussion” will involve the creation of sexual orientation and gender identity as a special protected class in Indiana. Leadership from the gay community told all who were listening that this will become a reality in Indiana….

God’s Word is very clear about the proper expression of human sexuality, and homosexuality is one of a variety of sexual behaviors God expressly condemns. For Christians, therefore, sexual sins can never be treated as civil rights.

There is much, much more.

Let me be clear: drawing a line between the right of people to the free exercise of their belief systems–no matter how foreign or even repugnant those beliefs may be to other Americans–and the civil rights of their fellow citizens is not simple, nor is the placement of that line uncontested. The Pastors’ letter highlights a consistent and probably unavoidable tension in an America that values both liberty and equality.

That said, the letter vividly demonstrates the worldview of would-be theocrats who believe they speak for God– who believe they have the right to demand laws that privilege their beliefs and impose them on everyone else, and who believe that failure to occupy that privileged legal position victimizes them.

This is the worldview of the Taliban.

As Long As We’re Talking About Religious Liberty…

Can we at least examine whose religion deserves to be “protected” by giving businesses an exemption from otherwise applicable civil rights laws?

Despite the ignominious fate of RFRA (the so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration Act”) in Indiana, other states–most notably Louisiana–are moving to enact similar measures. Louisiana’s increasingly bizarre Governor, Bobby Jindal, insists that he won’t be dissuaded by crass business interests from “protecting religious liberty.”

The rhetoric around this issue would have us believe that measures like RFRA are needed to protect a monolithic and undifferentiated Christianity from the vast secular army bent on its destruction. So we see Mike Huckabee warning that the “criminalization of Christianity” is imminent, while Shawn Hannity recently proclaimed that the “three most persecuted groups in America today are Christians, the wealthy, and white males.”

I don’t know what planet Huckabee and Hannity live on, and there is no point in debating people who’ve clearly been drinking the kool-aid. But as a non-Christian, I do want to stick up for the numerous thoughtful and actually “Christian” Christians who are getting a bad name from these culture warriors who claim to speak for them.

As Political Animal recently reported,

Next time you hear somebody talk about “Christians” being opposed to same-sex marriage, or being “persecuted” for their refusal to acknowledge same-sex marriages, you might want to direct them to fresh data from the Public Religion Research Institute about the different attitudes of different denominational categories of religious folk on this subject (h/t Sarah Posner).

PRRI shows that while white evangelical Protestants do indeed oppose same-sex marriage by a 28/66 margin, white mainline Protestants support it by a significantly larger margin (62/30) than the general public (54/38). And if you want to believe us mainliners are a dying breed, there’s U.S. Catholics, who despite their church’s teaching support marriage equality by 60/30.

There are also plenty of Christian churches that support reproductive choice.

I personally know a lot of Christians who read their bibles for clues on how to be better, kinder people, rather than for evidence of their moral superiority and their right to tell everyone else how to live.

In fact, the only “embattled” Christians I’m aware of are the theocrats who find it intolerable to live under a system that accords heretics and nonbelievers an equal place at the civic table.

People like Jindal, Huckabee and Hannity look a lot more like the Taliban than like the good Christians I know.

Corporations and the First Amendment

We live in an era when everything–every case decided by the Courts, every law passed by Congress or a state legislature, every encounter between police and citizens–generates frightening headlines, hysterical tweets, and multiple emails from activist organizations exhorting recipients to take action (usually involving signing a petition and sending money).

So it’s easy to become jaded, to attribute the decibel level to partisanship, or a lack of perspective or analysis. I know I increasingly find myself thinking “just chill out. This isn’t the end of the world. Get a grip.”

Some things, however, prove to be every bit as worrisome as the scolds and screamers predicted. A grim assessment from a recent Harvard study suggests that the consequences of Citizens United and the line of cases leading up to it have been even more damaging than we were warned at the time.

Some of the study’s key findings include

While the First Amendment was intended to protect individual freedom of religion, speech and assembly, as well as a free press, corporations have begun to displace individuals as its direct beneficiaries. This “shift from individual to business First Amendment cases is recent but accelerating.”

Over time the high court has shown an increasing willingness to rule in favor of corporate interests, as a result “reducing law’s predictability, impairing property rights, and increasing the share of the economy devoted to rent-seeking rather than productive activity.”…

The ability for corporations to obtain relief from the courts gives them incentive to “place bets not on new technologies or marketing strategies, but on legal and political ‘innovation’” to protect markets they have and exclude new entrants. This also has the effect of causing regulatory agencies to reduce their efforts, because enforcing existing laws becomes increasingly difficult….

American public discourse tends to be very bipolar and “zero sum.” Policies are either right or wrong, good or bad. A right accorded to X must mean diminished rights for Y.

In the real world, however, the goal of policy is more often than not to achieve an appropriate balance between or among competing interests, all of whom are entitled to have their rights respected. Most Americans would agree that businesses have the right to participate in the marketplace of ideas, and that the law should respect the fiction of corporate “personhood” in the contexts for which that personhood was originally created.

It is when Court decisions and legislative actions create troubling imbalances of power, we risk substantial damage to our social ecosystem. Cases like Citizens United and Hobby Lobby have upset that balance, empowering corporations while disempowering individual citizens.

“These findings present a challenge to the view, articulated by the majority and concurrences in Citizens United and Hobby Lobby, that corporations and other business entities should be understood ‘simply’ as aggregations or associations of individuals, and so should not be distinguished from them for purposes of First Amendment analysis,” the author writes in his conclusion, continuing: “The corporate takeover of the First Amendment represents a pure redistribution of power over law with no efficiency gain — ‘rent seeking’ in economic jargon. That power is taken from ordinary individuals with identities and interests as voters, owners and employees, and transferred to corporate bureaucrats pursuing narrowly framed goals with other people’s money. This is as radical a break from Anglo-American business and legal traditions as one could find in U.S. history.”

Sometimes, the decibels are appropriate.

Cakes, Pork Chops and SB 101

Okay, this is sufficiently annoying that it justifies an “extra” post.

Defenders of SB 101 keep talking about the baker’s right to refuse to bake a cake with a swastika or the Muslim or Kosher butcher who the law “protects” from having to handle pork.

Excuse my french, but this is bull****.

If I go into a menswear shop and ask for a dress, am I being discriminated against when I’m informed the store doesn’t sell women’s clothes? Of course not.

Civil rights protections don’t require the baker who doesn’t bake swastika cakes, or the butcher who never sells pork to do so. Civil rights laws do keep the baker from refusing to sell the cakes he does make to “certain people” (And yes, that means that he has to sell the cakes he does make to the skinhead who comes into his shop, provided the skinhead is behaving himself and has money with which to make the purchase.)

The kosher butcher doesn’t have to carry pork, but he does have to sell his kosher chickens and beef to Muslim or Christian or even anti-Semitic customers, again, so long as those customers can pay and are abiding by the generally applicable rules of the shop.

Clear?