Religious Liberty Is Not Enough

I want to thank those who took the time to respond to my recent article, “Why Religious Liberty Arguments Aren’t Working.” Our focus at the Ruth Institute is crafting sound arguments and clarifying the proper context for their use. Religious liberty arguments are a case in point. While there is merit in religious liberty arguments, we propose a broader strategy that will help all who are engaged in this greatest struggle of our time.

What I’m Not Saying
I am NOT saying that lawyers like Matt Bowman and his colleagues at the Alliance Defending Freedom should stop taking religious liberty cases.

I am NOT saying that advocates should stop sticking up for Christians who have been harmed.

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I am NOT denigrating the people who have lost their jobs, their businesses or their educational opportunities for the sake of their religious beliefs.

Never in a million years.

In fact, I support them all.

Nor am I saying that we don’t need religious liberty.

So what am I saying?

A Hypothetical Dialogue
A Christian baker refuses to bake and deliver a wedding cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding reception, citing deeply held religious beliefs. At one time, this might have been an acceptable legal argument providing protection from prosecution under anti-discrimination laws. This appears to be no longer the case.

But I’m not so interested in what will or won’t fly in a court of law. I trust the attorneys like Charles LiMandri, Jay Sekelow, Brad Dacus, Dean Broyles and all the wonderful men and women at the Alliance Defending Freedom to know their business. They know what arguments can and should be made in a court of law, under different sets of facts.

I’m getting at something else.

Suppose someone other than a lawyer questions the Christian baker: a news reporter or their next door neighbor or their lesbian co-worker.

“Why won’t you bake and deliver this cake?”

“Because my religion forbids gay marriage.”

“Why does your religion forbid gay marriage?”

“Because enacting gay marriage will force Christians to do things they don’t believe in.”

Do you see the problem? From the point of view of the non-religious person, this is not an answer at all. We cannot cite religious liberty as a free-standing argument at this point. If we do not provide our unchurched or poorly catechized neighbors with an answer that makes sense to them, they will supply their own answer:

“You won’t bake the cake because you hate gay people.”

Replying “no I don’t hate anyone” without offering a reason other than “my religion forbids it” just induces them to take an even further and more destructive step:

“In that case, your religion deserves to be suppressed.”

Now Matt Bowman may be correct that Americans have an instinctive sense of fair play that causes them to recoil from government coercion. I fear we are in danger of eroding that wholesome instinct if we do not offer reasons for our beliefs. The attractiveness of the florists, bakers and photographers, and the outrageousness of their maltreatment, may no longer be sufficient.

We need to give our countrymen reasons to do more than merely put up with us. We need to give them reasons to actively agree with us, endorse our views and work to put them into practice.

So What Do We Say?
There are a number of possible arguments we can offer at this point.

We can say that redefining marriage is bad public policy. Our organization, the Ruth Institute, puts most of its energies into developing these kinds of arguments. We can present these public policy arguments in many different contexts. Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco is not simply saying, “I’m the Archbishop. I can run my schools any way I want.” No, Archbishop Cordileone is giving reasons why the Catholic view of marriage and family is good and beautiful and deserves to be presented in all its fullness.

Even this past weekend’s March for Marriage, which had religious liberty as its central theme, did not treat religious liberty as a free-standing issue. Most of the speakers gave reasons why genderless marriage is bad policy, quite apart from people’s First Amendment rights to oppose it. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that redefining marriage is an untried social experiment being performed on small children. This is a reason anyone should be able to understand, regardless of their religion. The Archbishop might have added: Jesus does not want us experimenting on small children.

Blind Faith Does Not Equal Stupidity
Often, our neighbors hear our religious liberty arguments as blind faith. “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Believe it or not, I actually have some respect for the “blind faith” view. But standing alone, it doesn’t work. It is not even a properly Biblical position. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us, “Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.” (King James Version)

What are some reasons we could offer for the hope that is in us, the hope that allows us to face serious hardships rather than renounce our beliefs?

We trust God as our loving father, and that he wants what is best for us. For a child to relax into the care of a loving parent is actually reasonable and developmentally appropriate. And let’s face it. Compared to God, we are all just a bunch of little first-graders running around causing trouble and showing off.

However, our unchurched neighbors are not going to know what we are talking about, unless we give them something to work with.

I for instance, could say that I trust Church teaching because I learned from experience that the Church was right about abortion being harmful to women. I learned from experience that the Church was correct about hook-ups and sex outside of marriage. I was willing to give the Church the benefit of the doubt about Assisted Reproductive Technology, even though I had no experience with it. Eventually, I came to believe that the Church was correct about contraception, a view which I had resisted for a long time.

You no doubt, have reasons of your own to trust God, the Bible and Church teaching. Share those reasons. People need to hear them.

In the back of my mind, is always Pope Benedict’s Regensburg address. God is not arbitrary. His will is reasonable. God wills what is good: things do not become good just because God wills them. Disobeying the moral law hurts us in the natural order, here and now, not just in the supernatural realm of life after death. This is a basic point of Catholic natural law thinking.

To be effective in this arena, though, requires a different kind of preparation than we may be used to. We have to purge ourselves of anger and blame. We have to repent of our own sexual sins. We have to deal with our guilty consciences, which often block us from seeing and telling the truth. (See me, above, re: contraception!) We cannot flinch when someone brings up divorce, Third Party Reproduction, or anything else that harms the connections between children and parents.

I heard a particularly effective instance of this delivered by John-Henry Westin at the Cleveland Right to Life convention. He gave a personal confession, along with a heartfelt plea that others, especially but not exclusively, same sex attracted people, not do as he did.

As long as we are charitable and not casting unnecessary blame, we can talk about just about anything.

What Does Victory Look Like?
Besides, what kind of victory are we seeking here anyhow?

“I will allow you to have your idiosyncratic, inexplicable and probably indefensible religious beliefs, if you will allow me to have mine.” I am not satisfied with that stalemate. We need an authentic victory before the bar of history.

Victory is people realizing that children need their own mother and father.

Hopefully people will realize it before too many children are harmed.

Let’s ensure that future generations can proclaim: “People of faith were the only ones who had the foresight to see what we needed and the fortitude to stand up and fight for us.”

Religious liberty is important. But it is not enough.

(Photo credit: Reuters / Joshua Roberts)


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