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Candor, the Religious Liberty Fight, and Ross Douthat

July 30th, 2012 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

Ross Douthat:

Like a belief that the gods want human sacrifice, [Western monotheism's ideas about human sexuality] are permissible if held in private. But they cannot be exercised in ways that might deny, say, employer-provided sterilizations to people who really don’t want kids. Nor can they be exercised to deny one’s offspring the kind of sexual gratification that anti-circumcision advocates claim the procedure makes impossible. They certainly cannot be exercised in ways that might make anyone uncomfortable with his or her own sexual choices or identity.

It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.

It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.

There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.

U.S Postage Stamp, 1957 U.S Postage Stamp, 1957 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, that sort of candor would be nice but it's almost certainly not going to happen.  Transparency on that level is inimical to the aims of those who want to subvert religious freedom on the altar of the reigning sexual morality.  In a liberal democracy of the sort we have, the sort of stark statement that there is a "fight" afoot invites chastisements from those who want a more tolerant discourse, a less divisive polity.  And if religious liberties for conservatives are genuinely at stake, well, it's best for those who oppose them to masque their intentions until the freedoms have been irreversibly eroded.  Obfuscation and vagueness, in this case, are on the side of freedom's decay.

But I think the more likely reality is that those in our American context who, for instance, support the HHS decision to mandate contraception don't have the sort of conscious awareness of the threat their position poses to religious liberties at all.  I keep running into the notion that, "Hey, this is America.  Religious freedom is what we do!"  There's no good reason for it, other than the lore and legacy that makes up the affirmation that America is unique (though point out that this is a sort of American exceptionalism and, well, it doesn't generally go well).  But I suspect that more often than not people simply struggle to imagine the genuine difficulties these positions pose for religious believers.  Call it the soft despotism of a failed moral imagination, or something along those lines.One final point:  if I'm right and unclarity is actually a tool against conservatives, then asking for candor risks  sounding like scare-mongering.  After all, it would be easy to retort that Douthat is conjuring up something that simply isn't there.  And we all know how well sounding the alarm tends to go.  But that is, it seems to me, simply the dilemma that conservatives face on all of these issues.  And if anyone has a way through that's better than Douthat's, I am an eager and attentive listener.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.