I’ve been baffled recently what exactly we are trying to protect with our push for religious freedom. It’s a topic I am heartily tired of hearing about in General Conference. This is a political argument that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me as a non-GOP voter because religious freedom is already guaranteed in our constitution. Trump’s argument that we should bar Muslims from entry to the U.S. is a threat to Religious Freedom and would be unconstitutional, but that’s not what conservatives are upset about (except Mormons who generally don’t support anti-immigration discrimination).
Liberal pundits would say that conservatives’ push for religious freedom is:
- a mask for preservation of privilege.
- the “right” to discriminate against others based on a claimed religious belief, usually women, gays and minorities.
- a way for the already-protected majority to portray themselves as persecuted and victimized.
In short, they see proponents of this flavor of religious freedom as whiny bigots, persecutors of the downtrodden who want to have their cake and eat it too, while refusing to let the gays have any.
Conservatives see it as a focus on:
- individual rights.
- the ability of the marketplace to self-regulate–or maybe not.
- the framers’ intent, namely the tradition of special privilege for religion.
In short, they see opponents of this flavor of religious freedom as secular modernists hell-bent on turning us into a nation of godless atheists and promiscuous homosexuals which leads to the downfall of society, cats and dogs living together, mass chaos, etc. Or put much less drastically, they fear that religious people will be scorned and rejected for voicing unpopular opinions in an increasingly secular world.
This argument is incredibly polarized with neither side willing to see the other side as acting reasonably or in good faith. Whenever we can only see the other argument as ignorant, dishonest or evil, there’s a good chance we are mischaracterizing and underestimating our rhetorical opponent.
I was talking with Michael Austin about this, and he made a salient point:
Back when I was teaching stuff, I spent quite a bit of time in my Advanced Composition classes talking about “stasis theory,” or the gentle art of figuring out exactly what kind of thing we are disagreeing about. Basically, we disagree about four things: definitions, facts, values, and policies. Each of these four things requires a different kind of evidence and a different kind of argument. And the vast majority of the time, we never actually get to having an argument because we are defending one kind of assertion with evidence and arguments that are not appropriate to the kind of disagreement we are having.
- Definitions. This is clearly an area for misunderstanding because our existing laws protect individuals from being discriminated against for their religious beliefs, and the “right” to discriminate against others because of our religious beliefs is not protected.
- The purpose of anti-discrimination laws is to protect those classes of individuals who have demonstrated a pattern of consistent discrimination. Extending this to other groups or classes is fine if they pass that same requirement. They would have to demonstrate a pattern of consistent discrimination against them that deserves protection as a class. There are difficulties because individuals within religious groups often behave differently when it comes to discriminating against others based on their religious beliefs: some Mormons would sell a wedding cake to a gay couple, and some would not. These actions are then a matter of private conscience, not uniform across a religious class, and not dictated by that religion.
- Religions (as an organization) already have special privilege and are exempt from anti-discrimination laws in cases where they can claim ministerial privilege. For example, it’s illegal to only hire men for an office manager job. It’s not illegal to only hire men as seminary teachers if your religion can demonstrate that the position they are hiring is “ministerial” and therefore requires priesthood which is male only. It’s illegal for a clerk to refuse to sign a gay marriage certificate, but it’s not illegal for a Cathedral to refuse to perform a gay wedding.
- Individuals have legal protection for freedom of speech, even to say things that are unpopular, but that doesn’t mean that our speech won’t cause us problems in society or interactions with other people. I can share my opinions as a matter of conscience, and you can share your opinion that I’m an idiot for the opinions I hold. Everybody wins.
- Some conservatives would like to create new ground for protection here by allowing individuals to discriminate against others in pretty much anything they claim is a matter of conscience. Liberals are concerned that doing so only harms those most in need of protection: existing protected classes. Conservatives assert that this is not an extension of the definition of religious freedom, but that it is already protected and must not be eroded. From the newsroom’s article on religious freedom: “And indeed, religious freedom protects the right of individuals to act in line with their religious beliefs and moral convictions. Religious freedom does not merely enable us to contemplate our convictions; it enables us to execute them.” But the newsroom article also adds: “Religious freedom and freedom of conscience are vital because they help sustain this system of peaceful coexistence, and they must be balanced against other considerations, such as the rights of others, the law and public safety. However, because these freedoms are so fundamental to human dignity, and because they contribute so much to society, they merit careful protection.”
- Facts. Both sides of the religious freedom debate see the facts according to the lens of their own values and definitions. One side sees a gay couple being discriminated against. The other side sees a store owner receiving backlash and being forced out of business for a matter of conscience. This is an area where I am a little confused because conservatives generally prefer to let the market self-regulate rather than having the government intervene. And perhaps the church’s push for religious freedom isn’t suggesting that the government truly intervene when a business’s unpopular actions result in it going out of business or a worker’s ham-fisted comments result in a lost promotion. But if that’s not what is being advocated, then what is the freedom meriting careful protection?
- Values. The real question here is what type of society do we want to live in. What will that society look like? The newsroom seems concerned that religious views will be so unpopular that they can’t be expressed at all: “Research suggests, in fact, that religious people in the United States contribute to, enrich and improve society. They tend to demonstrate a disproportionate level of social virtues like neighborliness, generosity, service and civic engagement. Hence it is not only required by religious freedom for religious people and their voices to be welcome in the public sphere; it strengthens the civic fabric of society.” Privileging religion may be a long-standing tradition, but I’m not sure how you privilege the speech of religious individuals in the manner being implied.
- Policies. This is of clear importance to the LDS newsroom: “An inadequate understanding of religious freedom can be problematic if it leads, for example, to policy and laws that define it too narrowly and protect it too feebly. Ignorance of religious freedom can also, without care, allow for it to be slowly and subtly eroded, leaving this fundamental liberty exposed or compromised.”
I recently listened to a Maxwell Institute podcast on the history of religious tolerance with Chris Beneke and Christopher Grenda. One of the interesting points in the podcast was that some of the most notorious Bible bashing Puritans were very in favor of freedom of belief and speech, despite their incivility, because without it, there was nobody to convert. While the Puritans might have made laws that were inhospitable to non-believers, they were also glad to have people to argue with and prove wrong. Perhaps this desire to convert is a common theme among all religious people who advocate for free speech.
To boil down the freedoms I hear the church talking about in the article, they fit into three categories:
- Freedom of Belief. The freedom we all have to believe and think whatever we wish.
- Freedom of Speech. The freedom to express our ideas and engage in discussions about our beliefs openly.
- Actions. The freedom to act based on our beliefs . . . so long as we are not breaking the law.
While the newsroom article is advocating for these freedoms within society, that doesn’t mean that those religious freedoms are applied within the church to individual members. Perhaps the article is recommending more tolerance within the church for freedom of belief, speech and action, but that seems unlikely. Declarations of belief are required to obtain an ecclesiastical endorsement to attend or work at BYU, and if beliefs change, individuals may be expelled on a case-by-case basis. Church members have been told that disagreeing with the church’s stance on gay marriage is okay, but that talking about it openly is discouraged and could result in disciplinary actions if it becomes advocacy. From an interview with E. Christofferson as reported in the Salt Lake Tribune:
“There hasn’t been any litmus test or standard imposed that you couldn’t support that if you want to support it, if that’s your belief and you think it’s right,” Christofferson said in January.
Problems arise only when a member makes “a public, sustained opposition to the church itself or the church leaders and tries to draw others after them,” he said, and that support swells into “advocacy.”
So while the recent newsroom article supports religious freedom of thought, speech and action, those freedoms only apply in the public sphere. Religions still exercise the right within their organizations to restrict free speech and action (and to inspect belief closely) if that speech and action runs counter to church objectives. It may not be a great example of what we are preaching, though. Tolerance is a one way street, which reminded me of this quote that’s been floating around about authority and respect:
Sometimes people use “respect” to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use “respect” to mean “treating someone like an authority” and sometimes people who are used to being treated like an authority say “if you won’t respect me I won’t respect you” and they mean “if you won’t treat me like an authority I won’t treat you like a person” and they think they’re being fair but they aren’t.
When it comes to religious freedom, the political discourse has often devolved to this level. Religion has been afforded a special case in the past, a position of privilege and authority as people looked to religion to provide a guide for behavior. The newsroom is defining religious freedom as preserving religious authority, the respect for religious viewpoints, the moral weight of religion in public discourse. But of course, these are things that are difficult to protect if society doesn’t agree that they are authoritative and deserving of privilege.
The newsroom article isn’t specific about what policies might be enacted that could endanger religious speech or actions. I’m not sure you can legislate moral authority, though. Your viewpoints either persuade or they don’t. One of the core conservative principles is the belief that the market will self-regulate. Requesting special privileges in the marketplace of ideas seems like a lack of faith in either the market or the ideas themselves. How do governments subsidize arguments to make them more persuasive?