The freedom to practice religion without empathy

April 15, 2015

While I have little sympathy for the views behind these state RFRA laws that have created so much controversy, it’s hard to dismiss their explicit arguments out of hand. Religious freedom is indeed a bedrock of U.S. culture and tradition. So, for better or for worse, are assertions of individual rights—and competing assertions of rights don’t lend themselves to easy answers. Unless you’re prepared to say one or the other claim is wholly illegitimate, some sort of accommodation must be reached.

Yes, this particular flavor of religious freedom can taste pretty sour. I reject the idea that opposition to same-sex marriage is a tenet of Christianity, central or otherwise, and even if it were it’s not clear to me how keeping your hands clean of someone else’s celebration somehow amounts to Christian practice. Besides, I’d like to think that any conversation about religious freedom and marriage would take as its starting point that a civil marriage ceremony has nothing to say for or against my religious views or anybody else’s.

Yet I get that these aren’t legal arguments—and that U.S. courts and legislatures are loathe to officially agree with me or anyone else as to what religious practice should be. That’s our tradition of separation of church and state, also known as our tradition of religious freedom. Yes, this tradition has brought us such loophole absurdities as online ordination mills and Pastafarians; it’s also brought us a rich and lively religious landscape. So while I happen to think that refusing to bake a cake for a gay wedding that isn’t even happening at your own church is a distortion of what it means to follow Jesus, this is more lament than argument. It makes me sad; and our religious freedom tradition, quite rightly, isn’t particularly concerned about my sadness.

What’s far more frustrating than pro-RFRA sentiment itself is the lack of empathy displayed by some who hold it. It’s as if fast-growing support for same-sex marriage has so stunned them that they’ve completely forgotten that gays and lesbians, unlike U.S. Christians, comprise a small minority that has faced discrimination and even outright persecution again and again.

Yet Robert George has the gall to compare same-sex marriage opponents to lynching victims. Look, there’s no question that we should hesitate to too sweepingly compare antigay sentiment (or anything else) to the scourge of white supremacy in this country. But to flip the analogy and call LGBTQ people and their allies a lynch mob? That’s just gross. What happened to Brendan Eich was a damn shame. That doesn’t make it somehow parallel to what happened to Matthew Shepard.

Then there’s Rod Dreher, whose blog I’ve subscribed to and unsubscribed from repeatedly for his graceful writing and insight on the one hand and his disdain for people who dare to be different on the other. One of his many posts on this subject actually takes the title, “Heads LGBTs Win, Tails Christians Lose.” He’s referring specifically to what he sees as a double standard for official tolerance of pro- vs. anti-gay sentiment. Still, it’s hard to take that title seriously in a country where Christians have dominated pretty much everything since the beginning, and gays and lesbians have gained wide (but still not complete!) acceptance only in the very recent past.

In short, it’s one thing to appeal to our difficult but important tradition of religious freedom; it’s quite another to appeal to the notion that Christians as a group are somehow a persecuted minority. We aren’t—fine, if I’m not Christian enough to count, they aren’t. And when we’re talking about a group that has faced much persecution, it’d be nice to at least acknowledge the power differential. From Conor Friedersdorf:

Take all the hate crimes perpetrated against Jews. Add all the hate crimes perpetrated against Muslims. Add all the hate crimes perpetrated against Christians. Add all the hate crimes perpetrated against all other religious groups too.

Combine all those hate crimes in 2013, the most recent year data is available.

The number of hate crimes perpetrated against gays that year is still higher, despite the fact that religious people far outnumber gays. So if you're gay and looking at your Facebook feed, it will likely include controversies about whether Christians should be punished for not selling stuff to same-sex weddings. But instead of seeing such controversies as would a traditionalist who, rationally or not, earnestly fears for his job or the future of his family business, you're more likely to see them through the lens of prejudices and risks that you face.

Friedersdorf’s overall point is that both sides feel like they’re under siege here, and both could use a good dose of empathy from the other. He’s right. Yet I’d maintain that the more compelling demand for empathy is made by the more marginalized group, even if they’re less marginalized than they used to be. That doesn’t mean they should automatically win every argument between conflicting assertions of rights. It does make it kind of icky when members of what continues to be the majority religion in America act like they’re the real victims here.


Empathy and freedom go together

If I were a Christian baker I would view it as my duty to sell anyone who came into my shop a dozen donuts gladly and cheerfully.

However, I would find it tyrannical it if the super state used its police powers to force me to make a gay themed wedding cake against my belief for something no one even heard of 25 years ago. We are talking about the powers of the super state to compell action. I don't think the militant left is very empathetic to beliefs of what used to be considered traditional and ordinary Chritianity. The baker case is not hypothetical. Militant and non-empathic gays are suing and trying to ruin a very real baker in the very real USA of today. Militants and non-empahetic gays are trashing and destroying a pizza parlor owner for having the temerity to say he would not cater a gay themed wedding. The left is not about empathy.

Like I said, I take the

Like I said, I take the religious freedom claim seriously; the problem is two conflicting rights claims, and it's a thorny one. And I don't condone efforts to destroy someone's business.

I have more trouble with the suggestion that the real empathy deficit here is with gays and lesbians or "the left" generally. The duty—again, speaking ethically, not legally here—to imagine yourself in the other's shoes falls first and foremost to the person with more power, not less. And it would require a pretty selective lens (and an extremely short memory) to believe that the LGBT community has more power than Christians do.

My Christian duty is too treat all as though they are golden

I think that as a Christian I need to treat everyone like they are golden. I don't have to agree with what they are doing and I should not be compelled to endorse by state power what someone else is doing. I think this issue is very much akin to the idea of forcing the Amish to serve in the armed forces. The LGBT community can train its guns on anyone foolish enough to publically dissagree with them and have activists show up at your front door, cut your tires in the middle of the night, bombard you with threatening emails and deat threats, pressure your company to fire you, boycott or trash your business etc. In short the LGBT community has the power to ruin the lives of anyone that dares to cross them. They do this on a regular basis. Neither I, nor my church would want to destroy and ruin people that dissagree with me. I do not view the LBGT communit as oprressed but on the ascendant. The LGBT community has had the upper hand since they got Anita Bryant fired and have been using that power ever since. I reject the notion that they are a powerless minority.

I didn't say they were

I didn't say they were powerless. They are unquestionably a minority group. And the fact that the power differential between Christians as a group and LGBT people as a group (not mutually exclusive groups by the way, but leave that aside) is smaller than it used to be doesn't mean it's gone, or that its past expressions don't matter anymore.