To Continue My Rant…

I know I’m harping on this, but yesterday a commenter suggested that religious liberty should trump other social goods. (Not his phrasing, but the consequence of his demands.)

That isn’t the law, but more importantly, it isn’t good philosophy either.

Back before so many libertarians made common cause with social conservatives on culture-war issues, and others turned a small-government philosophy into an anti-tax, anti-government cult, I identified as libertarian. The libertarian principle is (deceptively) simple: we each have the right to “do our own thing”– to live our lives as we see fit, free of government interference– so long as we do not harm the person or property of a non-consenting other, and so long as we are willing to extend an equal liberty to others. 

The caveats that follow the “so long as” phrase are important. And they have a critical bearing on the so-called “religious liberty” bills like the one I posted about yesterday– measures to “protect” businesspeople who who defend discrimination against LGBT employees or customers by citing their “deeply-held and sincere religious beliefs.”

As I noted yesterday, similar efforts followed the 1964 Civil Rights Act; then it was a “sincere religious belief” that God wanted to keep the races separate. The courts didn’t buy that argument then, and they are unlikely to buy it now.

As I have written previously, there is a reciprocal relationship–a social contract– between government and its citizens. Government collects taxes from all of us, no matter our race, religion or sexual orientation, and uses those tax dollars to provide public services. The services we taxpayers finance provide an essential infrastructure for American commercial activity.

Businesses ship their goods to market over roads we paid for. They are protected by police and fire departments supported by our tax dollars. Public transportation and sidewalks bring workers and customers to their premises. The deal is, businesses get the benefit of the infrastructure supplied by our taxes, and in return, agree not to discriminate on the basis of race, gender, religion and other markers of group identity.

We can and should argue about the nature and scope of the services government provides, but few people really want to revoke the social contract, dispense with government and return to a Hobbesian state of nature.

Religious liberty is capacious. It allows you to hold any beliefs you want. It allows you to preach those beliefs in the streets, and to refuse to socialize with people of whom you disapprove. It gives you the right to observe the rules of your particular religion in your home and church and social circle without government interference. It gives you a broad right to “do your own religious thing” until you harm someone else, and so long as you respect the right of other people to do their “own thing.” Which “thing” may be different from yours.

Religious liberty doesn’t include the right to disadvantage people who should be entitled to equal treatment, or to use the power of the state to impose some people’s beliefs on everyone else.

Neither the libertarian principle nor the social contract defines “religious liberty” as a right to pick and choose which parts of the social contract you will honor and which ones you will disregard.


  1. I think it’s interesting our country was founded by folks seeking religious freedom…and freedom from tyranny.

  2. We should have not only Freedom of Religion but also Freedom from Religion. Contrary to our current situation Religious Institutions should not receive any special tax breaks. Religious Institutions should not receive any tax dollars.

    This idea or notion that strongly held Religious Beliefs is a trump card is a joke. Is there a test for a strongly held Religious Belief?? There are many Religious that preach they are the Righteous Path. Which one is correct??

    The West is struggling with Religious Freedom. How far to do we let the preaching and ideology go?? At what point does the State intervene to assert that Religion has crossed the line. During the 1960’s we had people who felt some Religious Institutions their leaders and members crossed the line in supporting Civil Rights or opposition to the Vietnam War.

    We have countries in the world in Asia, and Africa who do not permit the free exercise of Religion. The State enforces and punishes those who do not adhere their Religion. Blasphemy can be punished by death.

  3. “Congress shall make no law representing an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”

    What is your point, Jim? This is easily understandable wording to everyone but the GOP, Hobby Lobby and some members of SCOTUS. Making laws that are based on a specific religion, whether it is my religion or not, is prohibiting the “free exercise thereof” for other Americans. The Bill of Rights, Constitution and all Amendments are NOT based on the Bible – the Koran or the Torah – contrary to our current Congress action and/or nonaction. Your comment doesn’t clarify if you are for or against that statement or if you understand it.

  4. “use the power of the state to impose some people’s beliefs on everyone else.”

    What does she think hate-crimes are? Hate is a sin not a crime.

  5. It’s part of the common myth that Puritans (and Separatists) were seeking religious freedom, but history does not necessarily support that totally. After all, it was only 33 years between the Mayflower landing in 1620 until Cromwell (a Puritan) became Lord Protector of England. Like many of the other religious groups that came over, they wanted freedom to run the place, and were happy to be a homogeneous group. Boston, during the mid 1600s, had a whipping post on virtually every block, so it was not a good idea to violate religious practice the way it was defined by the Puritan establishment. You had “religious freedom” if you were a rule-biding Puritan, but woe be ye if you were a Presbyterian. As it happened, the Anglicans and the Congregationalists felt the same way as did the Puritans, and Baptists and Quakers were in the minority, so they got the short end of the stick. The Danbury (Conn.) Baptists were concerned because religious liberty was not seen as a right by the legislature so much as it was a privilege granted to them. But mythology sure is grand!

  6. Stuart, the first amendment was written to protect the right of the people or the state to decide for themselves the religious standards, which is why almost every state’s constitutions protect religious liberty.
    This why states demanded that congress shall make no laws, they wanted to be free. You and I may not like another state’s constitution, but why should they care?
    This was later amended,
    Article III. [As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of God, and of public instructions in piety, religion and morality: Therefore, to promote their happiness and to secure the good order and preservation of their government, the people of this commonwealth have a right to invest their legislature with power to authorize and require, and the legislature shall, from time to time, authorize and require, the several towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies politic, or religious societies, to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God, and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality, in all cases where such provision shall not be made voluntarily.


    Article I. [Any person chosen governor, lieutenant governor, councillor, senator or representative, and accepting the trust, shall before he proceed to execute the duties of his place or office, make and subscribe the following declaration, viz.–

    “I, A. B., do declare, that I believe the Christian religion, and have a firm persuasion of its truth; and that I am seised and possessed, in my own right, of the property required by the constitution as one qualification for the office or place to which I am elected.”

  7. WMOU- a hate crime is still a crime, it’s in the name. Stuart- it is my understanding (it has been several years since “studying” that so I could be incorrect) that the Puritans left England because they didn’t want to be forced into the Church of England. Of course they wanted to make the rules, they thought their way was the only path, and they did until people realized that it was not right. Not mythology but perhaps a realization that religion should not rule a country, even if it took a while to figure that out.

  8. It amazes me how much we know about what we surely don’t know. We were TOLD Cromwell was a Puritan just as we were TOLD Jefferson wasn’t. We don’t know what is in the mind of a Bush or Obama. How can we tell what Cromwell was thinking and believing? Think for yourselves!!!

    The tyranny of incompetent confidence.

  9. Amber, is it a crime to hate? Many progressives hate conservatives and vice versa?
    Hate is protected under the first amendment. It is a crime because it is some people’s belief it is wrong.

  10. I subscribe to a daily prayer and inspirational offering on line. Two or three times a week they include a picture of a business establishment, over which is written, “This is not a church.” Today’s picture was of a bakery. There have been pictures of chicken restaurants, social halls, jewelry stores, and florist shops. All have the same words, “This is not a church.” These folks understand.

  11. The cultural problem that leads to many of these legal problems is that it is impossible to define what makes “deeply-held and sincere religious beliefs” religious. Yesterday we referenced some indigenous people’s belief that the use of mind altering drugs was a deeply-held and sincere religious belief. I guess that makes Haight Asbury in the 60s the Vatican City of those religions.

    Religion is faith in things beyond evidence. That means everything or anything beyond science. Anything not knowable by measurement and mathematics.

    That’s a whole lot of room. To say that the law must accommodate all of that is ludicrous. It pretty much guts the concept of law. Like when Gordon Gecko expresses his deeply-held and sincere religious belief that “greed is good” in the movie.

    Unfortunately the neoliberal capitalist Supreme Court has fallen for what guts law. I see a lot of trouble coming putting that toothpaste back into the tube.

  12. wmou; please, please, please – tell us where you find the word “hate” in the 1st Amendment! The 1st Amendment addresses “Freedom of religion, speech, and the press; rights of assembly and petition.” I’m sitting here looking at my copy of the Constitution and Amendments to the Constitution – the right to hate or prohibition to hate is NOT included – hate is a personal feeling. Feelings are not protected or denied by law – not yet, anyway.

  13. Who keeps misleading these folks into believing that their religious liberty is accompanied with an, “exempt from prosecution” card? If a religion endorses and practices bigotry and you choose to practice that religion, you have simply chosen to practice a religion that endorses and practices bigotry. By choosing which religion to practice, and there are plenty of religions from which to choose, you are exercising your religious freedom. If you no longer agree with the endorsements and practices of the religion you have chosen, you have the freedom to choose another religion.

    Your conundrum might be whether to stay with or to leave that religion. This is your religious freedom in action. Catholicism endorses practicing abstinence before marriage and prohibits practicing contraception. Many Catholics stay with the Catholic Church and choose to use contraception. One religion might endorse and practice bigotry and another might endorse and practice beheading. If you’ve chosen a religion that endorses and practices bigotry, perhaps you need to be careful with your practices. And if you’ve chosen a religion which endorses and practices beheading, you might need to be careful how close you stand to the chopping block because your freedom to choose and practice your religion doesn’t come with an “exempt from prosecution” card.

  14. So if hate is not covered by the first amendment, we only have a right to speak, but not to think or feel. Hate is a crime because some believe it is wrong. A moral judgement.

  15. Wmou–Hate is not a crime. The term “hate crime” applies to situations where an actual crime has occurred–battery, for example. If the motive was hate–“let’s go beat up a Muslim” for example, courts are permitted to consider that as an aggravating factor in sentencing.

    There is NO independent “crime” of hate.

  16. I was raised as a Christian. After attending the Protestant church I grew up in for 45 years and then attending a Friends church for another 11 years I came to the conclusion that I do not like organized religion at all. It is all about MAN MADE RULES. Rather than focusing on Jesus’ teachings of being kind and loving towards others, organized religions focus on being judgemental of others. And, I might add, many of the most powerful religious leaders have been exposed to be the most blatant offenders of their own religious rules and teachings. Personally, I have known people who were the most vocal about their judgemental religious beliefs to be the very people that were committing the biggest sins. It seems that they thought being extremely vocal would trick people into not finding out about their absolutely terrible sins and crimes. Specifically, I am speaking about men who committed rape and incest. Even worse, were the wives that chose not to expose their husbands.

    Having grown to almost despise organized religion, I have found that choosing to lead a spiritual life with a personal connection to a higher power frees me from the pain of regularly hearing pious people condemn others for sins that are much less than the sins they themselves are commiting. Those judgemental “religious” people refuse to look into the mirror to recognize their own terrible and sinful behavior.

  17. We are not just “told” that Cromwell was a Puritan. We have his letters and speeches which you can read in a book edited by Thomas Carlyle. Now, maybe his letters and speeches were all made up so that he “passed” for Puritan, but that’s quite a stretch.

    I believe that our understanding of circumstances in the 1600s, who the Puritans were and their relationship to the Separatists as well as their relationship to the Church of England gets fuzzier over time and as sensitivity to specific doctrinal issues wanes. For sure, the Puritans did not fall into the situation of the Hugenots in France. My point was that the Puritans continued to influence England, to the point of being connected with Cromwell, who was a Puritan. Regardless of all that, we know that all the stuff you hear about wanting freedom to worship carried a lot of baggage, including the tendency for the Puritans, as well as other denominations, to persecute others who wanted to be free to worship on their own terms. For sure, by the time the Constitution was written, it is clear that they had “worn that shirt”, and didn’t mention God throughout the document. I think it’s pretty clear that the founders understood that people get along better when religion and government are separate.

  18. Nancy; I consider myself to be spiritual rather than religious and have been anti-organized religion for many years. They issue rules and orders to follow, scary tactics if we don’t follow them and demand we donate money to their benefit, rarely using it to help others, whether we can afford it or not. Being spiritual connects us to the universe; making us aware how very small a part we are on the grander scale but how vital we are in the scheme of things.

    “You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”

    Some of the most beautiful words ever written. If we can accept this as our reality; we must accept that others are also a part of this universe and have a right to be here…whether or not it is clear to any of us…including the GOP.

  19. Humanity’s rational organ yearns for more control over our personal time and place. The avoidance of the death which is the end of our reign over that time and place. The avoidance of pain and the gift of pleasure.

    Wouldn’t it be great if we could enlist the help of someone with more power than we in helping us with the random threats and opportunities that come our way?

    Of course it would. We all know that. There isn’t one of us who wouldn’t want that.

    Is such a power available? Maybe. At least I’d like to believe so.

    So, as it is with all things that we want and need, it is also a business opportunity for some. A living for many, real privilege for a few.

    How do we know what to do?

    We don’t know. We just don’t. So pick something and hope.

  20. We have Hitler’s letters and books. Did he wake up one morning and say, “Think I’ll destroy Western Civilization?” Who really knows what he was thinking or even if he was. We have today. The total concept of ‘religion’ as interpreted, does not fit in with ‘today’.

    The scourge of mankind has been his penchant for looking to some ‘higher power’ to remedy ills which he has created and which he could heal.

  21. “The scourge of mankind has been his penchant for looking to some ‘higher power’ to remedy ills which he has created and which he could heal.”

    Thanks for this comment, Earl, it reminded me of what I omitted when I quoted the Desiterada, the fact that we have a responsibility being part of this universe. We are our own “higher power” and only we ourselves can heal the ills we have caused. Back to Pogo, “I have met the enemy, and he is us.” It is not religion that will cure pollution; not pollution of the earth or pollution of the souls of mankind; we must take responsibility for saving ourselves. We can begin this road to salvation by voting out scourges like Mike Delph and his ilk. All roads lead back to ourselves; the cause and the cure is in our hands. Religious liberty is a catch-phrase sorely missused by politicians when money is their religion, their Lord and master, their goal in life as they trample on the rest of us in their quest as they shout that God is their leader and the Bible is their book of instructions. And Romney is making another bid for the presidency; bring on the dancing horses!

  22. Making any of the dictates of Christianity into the law of the land is bad theology. Central to being Christian is choosing between good and evil and being responsible to God for the choice. Once the temporal lawmakers become involved the whole issue of choice and responsibility become corrupted. Government agencies are assigned responsibility for judgements that belong to God. People no longer make choices based on their love of God but on fear of immediate persecution.

  23. Just returned from IPL and picked up a book about the WWII Montgomery fiasco called ‘Market Garden’. A story about ego and macho over sense and info, I was well aware of the history but thought I might enjoy it viewed from the aspect of a German Jew.

    When I opened the book, a personal note fell out. I present that note in its entirety:

    “Father, when we make our petitions, I wish we could say something like: “We pray that the word of Jesus Christ will reach the billion souls of The People’s Republic of China, transforming them into a faith driven and God loving nation”.
    Your chanting today was the best I’ve heard in a long time. I think you can be a magnificent chanter.”

    I am not going to comment on this note because the author is not present to defend. But there are those out there who can look into this missive and see just how far we have to go. Don’t forget the perspective: The book was about the biggest raid deep into Germany which resulted in very high, needless deaths.

    These are the people who take time to vote and elect those who make the decisions. We are lost.

  24. @Pete, you wrote ‘How do we know what to do? We don’t know. We just don’t. So pick something and hope’, and that’s exactly where I’ve been for decades, since junior high school.

    And, in picking something, as you wrote, I’ll always hold the right of admitting ‘I might be wrong’ and ‘You might be wrong.’

    A few years ago, my husband and I who both enjoy live performers with original music attended a Paul Thorn concert at the Music Mill, formerly on E 82nd Street. What a treat from a talented guy from somewhere outside Tupelo, Mississippi, who was raised by his father who was a Pentecostal traveling tent revival preacher and his uncle who was a pimp. Thorn was also a boxer, had 50 fights including Roberto Duran. No, I’m not inventing this story as I write; it’s a bit of the southern gothic culture of blending, understanding, and accepting the sacred and the profane in each of us. Here’s a link to a video shot on Thorn’s tour bus, no band, no props, just Thorn and his acoustical guitar and ‘You Might Be Wrong’.

    And, my favorite is Thorn’s ‘Joanie, the Jehovah Witness Stripper’.

    Paul Thorn will be performing at Birdy’s in Indianapolis in March, 2015.

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