I know many think the focus on religious liberty is misplaced. To my eyes it seems we have more religious liberty now than at any time in American history. I recognize not all feel that way although often it is due to the majority religion being constrained in some ways from acting as the de facto religion. But in terms of individuals practicing their religion in general rather than limited practices of the majority in government contexts, we seem to be doing great. Why then the worry of the brethren over religious liberty?
Robert Couch sent me a link today that may highlight the problem. It’s Rod Dreher talking about famous Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne giving a paper at the Midwest Meeting of the Society of Christian Philosophers. Note that this is a philosophy conference that is supposed to be discussing Christian philosophy. Swinburne is speaking about traditional Christian sexual ethics and arguing for homosexuality being extrinsically wrong.
For the moment let’s bracket the question of whether Swinburne was correct in his theology. (It makes assumptions about the genetic basis of homosexuality I find problematic – although I don’t think the full paper is up to know for sure) The real issue was the response.
Yesterday, I gave Richard Swinburne, the famous Oxford Christian philosopher, a piece of my mind. As one of the keynotes of the Midwest Meeting of Society of Christian Philosophers, he referred to homosexuality as a “disability” and a “incurable condition.” While Swinburne did not think homosexuality was intrinsically wrong in the same way that adultery was wrong, he argued (if that’s the right verb under some principle of charity) that homosexuality was extrinsically wrong. Homosexuality was a disability in the lacking of the ability to have children, and God’s commands of abstaining from homosexuality might prevent others from fostering this incurable condition in others.
Yeah. I know.
My response was mixture of abhorrence and overwhelming anger, and I tried as I might to encounter this idea calmly. I told him he medicalized being gay in the same way that phrenology medicalized racism. It was obnoxious to listen to Christians lay claim to sacrificial love at this conference, but at the same time not see the virtue of that same love as a possible quality underlying other configurations, yet I told others this is the reason why Christians should read Foucault. When you do, you start to notice how power manifests in local contexts in which those discourses occur.
The society issued an apology for Swinburne’s paper.
The issue to me isn’t Swinburne so much as that even at a Christian conference there’s an instinctive view that traditional beliefs are not discussable. I may find those beliefs, which I suspect come out of Aquinas, wrong. But simply on the basis of them being emotionally painful they are out of bounds even at a conference discussing Christian philosophy.
Now Dreher, as is often his tendency, spends the much of the rest of the column waxing hyperbolic. To me what’s notable though is first how fast this shift has happened and what it portends for the future.
Yesterday the Deseret News had up a an interesting discussion of Pew’s latest data on religious freedom issues.
Pew’s statistics paint a bleak forecast for resolving religious liberty debates over nondiscrimination laws and illustrate why compromise has been elusive in courtrooms and statehouses since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage last year.
Many people are giving up on balancing religious and civil rights protections and instead are committing to “their side winning the culture war,” said Douglas Laycock, a renowned religious freedom scholar and professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, during a Friday presentation at the Religion News Association’s annual conference.
“One of the goals of the survey was to see how many Americans feel torn because they can understand where both sides are coming from on these issues. The short answer is: not many,” researchers noted.
Most Americans only sympathize with people on their side of religious liberty debates, which could complicate efforts to solve disagreements over the best path forward from same-sex marriage legalization or how to ensure all people feel safe and comfortable in public restrooms.
My sense is that anything short of full acceptance of homosexuality will be seen as hurtful and as such out of bounds. Regardless of how one may feel on gender and gay issues, I’m not sure that is healthy. That said I think we’re at a position that reminds me of discussions of gay rights in the 90’s. Then I thought it was very clear that all the trends were for full normalization and acceptance of homosexuality. That is, to my eyes the culture wars were already lost. I thought at the end that even if the Prop-8 battle was inspired it was at best a losing rearguard action. It really was an issue of how many years before it was normalized.
I think we’re at the same point at religious liberty. Regardless of what more conservative religious people may want, they’ve lost. The public is coming to have no patience for religious liberties that they feel cause harm – even emotional harm. The application of the harm principle already means religious liberty will be trumped in the public sphere. At best only unobjectional religious practices will be allowed in the public sphere.
Now as I see it this is a return to the status quo of religious freedom in America. The only difference is that the majority will be secularists rather than Protestants imposing their views in the public sphere. As was the case in the 19th century main force in this return will be social stigma rather than government action. However almost inevitably government action will follow given what so many take as obvious applications of the harm principle relative to religious liberty. There is no common ground given that emotional harm is seen as harm.