I Don’t Think That Word Means What You Think It Means….

I wonder what theocrats think the word “liberty” means?

I guess we’re going to find out. According to Vox and a number of other media outlets,

Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the creation of a “Religious Liberty Task Force” that will enforce a 2017 DOJ memo ordering federal agencies to take the broadest possible interpretation of “religious liberty” when enforcing federal laws. That memo, for example, prohibits the IRS from threatening the tax-exempt status of any religious organization that actively lobbied on behalf of a political candidatewhich is not allowed under the Johnson Amendment.

In a bold speech delivered at the Justice Department’s Religious Liberty Summit, Sessions characterized the task force as a necessary step in facing down the prevailing forces of secularism. “A dangerous movement, undetected by many, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom,” he said, which “must be confronted and defeated.”

I don’t think I’d call the speech “bold.” “Ignorant” might be a more appropriate adjective.

Secularism, properly understood, is simply the absence of religion–an absence which evidently constitutes an existential threat to the worldview of people like Sessions. And liberty, at least as defined by those who drafted the U.S. Constitution, definitely does not mean the privileging of Christianity and its adherents over all other belief systems, religious or secular, which is quite clearly what Sessions intends.

While the task force will only enforce the guidelines listed by the religious liberty memo, the language in Sessions’s speech was as significant as the creation of the task force itself. Using striking rhetoric and the incendiary narrative of culture wars, Sessions characterized America as an implicitly Christian nation under attack from secularists. In so doing, he is continuing a wider pattern of the Trump administration: treating the federal government as a necessary participant in the longevity of Christian America.

He’s advocating for the kind of Christian nationalism — blending patriotism and evangelical Christianity — that the administration has consistently used to legitimize its aims and shore up its evangelical base.

As the Vox article noted, over the past few years Sessions’ version of “liberty” has gained considerable legal ground–from the Hobby Lobby decision, allowing closely-held corporations with religious shareholders to deny contraception coverage to its employees, to the case of Trinity Church, in which the Court held that a Lutheran church could use taxpayer funds to build a playground on its property. The confirmation of Kavanaugh would likely carve another hole in the wall of church-state separation.

It is obvious that this task force and various other efforts to take America back for (their version of) Jesus have been prompted by fury over civil rights for LGBTQ folks–especially recognition of same-sex marriage–and hysteria over the growing recognition that White Christian cultural domination of America is on the way out.

I’m not going to waste pixels on the fundamentalists who use religion as a justification for their bigotry and who experience any loss of privilege as discrimination. But I am going to protest the misuse of language.

In America, the word “liberty” means “personal autonomy”–an individual’s right to self-government. Liberty means we each have the right to “do our own thing” so long as we do not thereby harm the person or property of someone else, and so long as we are willing to accord an equal right to others. It most definitely does not mean (as the theocrats would have it) an obligation to do the “right thing” as that “right thing” is defined by the theology of the majority and enforced by government.

The First Amendment protects the integrity of the individual conscience against government overreach, and together with the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, it prohibits government from favoring some religious beliefs over others, or from favoring religion over non-religion. (Or vice versa, for that matter.)

The fact that we have an administration filled with people who reject that understanding of liberty—who are dismissive of the most basic premises of America’s history, philosophy and law–is more than unfortunate. It’s scandalous.

Or to coin a phrase, deplorable.


Loving, Fifty Years Later

It has been fifty years since the Supreme Court struck down laws against miscegenation–interracial marriage–in the case of Loving v. Virginia. At the time the decision was handed down, sixteen states–all in the south–still had such laws on their books. The anniversary of the decision is being marked by various magazine articles, and a movie about the couple at the heart of the case (aptly named Loving) has just been released.

My students tend to think of laws forbidding interracial marriage as part of a bizarre and distant past. They have enough trouble understanding the hysteria that preceded and accompanied recognition of same-sex marriage, and to them 1967 seems as distant as 1867. Many of us in older generations, however, are painfully aware of the stubborn persistence of such laws well into our own adulthoods.

Loving is a great teaching tool, because it squarely addresses the central issue of public administration and political philosophy: what is the proper role of the state? What is government for? What sorts of decisions are appropriately made by legislatures acting on behalf of popular majorities, and what sorts of decisions represent an unwarranted intrusion into realms that should be left to individual citizens?

Despite the fact that our Constitution was based upon a belief in limited government, America’s history is replete with examples of the tensions between the respect for individual liberties that animates the Bill of Rights, and the desire of moralists to use government to control the behavior of their neighbors.

Back in 2007, I wrote a book called God and Country: America in Red and Blue, in which I examined the religious roots of public policy disputes; in it, I posited that a significant number of our most intractable debates can be explained by a conflict  in worldviews originally rooted in religious ways of understanding reality. It is a battle between those I dubbed “modernists” and those I called “Puritans.”

These differences are far more profound than we usually recognize.

Our contemporary Puritans are philosophical heirs of the early American settlers who came to these shores for a version of liberty that most of us would not recognize. The folks who braved the trip across the Atlantic came for the religious “liberty” to impose the correct religion on their neighbors. The notion that each of us should have the right to believe as we wish–let alone live lives based upon those beliefs– was utterly foreign to them. It would be another 150 years until the intellectual ferment of the Enlightenment  changed our forebears understanding of liberty to the more libertarian construction  incorporated in our founding documents.

That libertarian construction is based upon respect for individual autonomy–the belief that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit, until and unless they harm the person or property of another, and so long as they are willing to accord an equal right to others.

It can be very difficult to agree upon the sorts of harms that justify government intervention, and there are many good-will disagreements over the propriety of such things as seat-belt laws and smoking bans. But it really strains credulity to argue that your choice of a non-traditional spouse somehow harms me.

Loving reminds us of the importance of distinguishing between issues that government can properly decide, and areas where government doesn’t belong.

Tomorrow, at the polls, most of our contemporary Puritans will vote for authoritarianism and a government that does not respect America’s Constitutional limits. Let’s hope the Modernists outvote them.