Why Religious Liberty Arguments Aren’t Working

I am a very committed, very public advocate of marriage as a gender-based institution. Many of my fellow proponents of man/woman marriage cite religious liberty as an argument against redefining marriage. While I have great respect for those who promote this view, I must respectfully disagree with their assessment.

The uproar over the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act demonstrates that religious liberty arguments don’t work anymore. I take no pleasure in saying this. But religious liberty arguments are not compelling enough to induce our fellow citizens to sacrifice something they value, namely, sexual liberty.

I can think of three reasons for this.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

An increasing number of our fellow citizens do not believe in any god. A substantial number describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.

The American religious situation at the time of the American Founding was quite different. James Madison spoke for most when he regarded religion as “the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it.” When so many people do not regard themselves as having any “duty to the Creator,” the social foundation that made religious liberty appealing or even intelligible, no longer exists.

So, Reason #1 why religious liberty arguments are not working: People who don’t believe in God, couldn’t give a rip whether we religious believers are inconvenienced in our religious practice.

Secondly, the controversies over religious liberty are not about transubstantiation or the Trinity or predestination. We are arguing about sex: abortion, contraception, homosexuality and similar topics.

Our fellow citizens have absorbed and are committed to a particular view about the meaning of human sexuality and its place in our lives. Millions of people have ordered their lives around these beliefs. They are not going to give up those views, in the absence of an attractive alternative.

Reason #2 why religious liberty arguments are not working: we are asking our fellow citizens to give up something they value, without offering anything they value in its place.

Finally, when we talk about religious liberty, we are putting the emphasis on ourselves. We don’t like the HHS mandate because it will harm our religious institutions. We don’t like gay marriage because it goes against our beliefs.

Reason #3 why religious liberty arguments aren’t working: we sound like we are whining about ourselves. No one finds whining appealing.

I honestly think further appeals to religious liberty are not helping our cause. These arguments are not helping the immediate particular cause, such as defending man/woman marriage. Nor are religious liberty arguments helping the general cause of the church itself. Appeals to religious liberty once made sense, but no longer.

We need a different strategy: argue against the Sexual Revolution because it has hurt people.

And I do mean the whole Sexual Revolution. We are tacitly giving a pass to the earlier phases of the Sexual Revolution, by saying so little about them. The only serious exception to this generalization is abortion: the Catholic Church, and more recently, other Christians, have put up a noble fight against the Big Abortion Machine. But other aspects of the Sexual Revolution? Divorce? Contraception? Taxpayer-funded Sexual Miseducation in the schools? Not so much.

It is as if we are saying, “We like the Sexual Revolution just fine: we just don’t like the Gay Parts.” That simply will not do. It is not fair to individuals who are same sex attracted. And, it is intellectually incoherent, since the acceptance of genderless marriage actually depends upon our acceptance of those earlier phases of the Sexual Revolution.

True enough, there is no constituency right now for winning elections on some of these issues. Too bad. That just means we have not made the substantive case on these issues often enough and persuasively enough. The pro-life movement has shown that it is possible to build a constituency for the Culture of Life.

The truth is that the Sexual Revolution has harmed millions of people: Children of divorce, whose families were broken up and who never really felt like part of a real family again. Reluctantly divorced people, who wanted to stay married but whose spouse pulled the plug. Heartbroken middle-aged professional women, who “had it all,” except for the children they are now too old to bear. Refugees from the hook-up culture, jaded, cynical, and old before their time. I could mention many other groups of people. They need our help connecting the dots between the lies of the Sexual Revolution and the misery they are experiencing.

I mean no disrespect to anyone. Many advocates of religious liberty have also spoken out against these evils. My point is that bringing up religious liberty no longer strengthens our case: it weakens our case.

Christianity has a viable, humane, intellectually coherent alternative to the Sexual Revolution. Sex makes babies. Children need their own parents. Men and women are different. These are facts: trying to build an entire society around their opposites is inhuman and impossible.

Our society desperately needs to hear this message. Demanding our First Amendment Rights is a distraction. If we religious believers won’t proclaim these truths, who will?

(Photo credit: Alex Brandon / AP)


Join the Conversation

in our Telegram Chat

Or find us on

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...