Religious Freedom Requires a Secular Government

This recent attempt in North Carolina to establish a state religion was a little too dumb and a little too doomed to actually be scary. It fails on its face, because it violates the very first line of the very first amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—and much like Kansas trying to ban abortion in spite of Roe v. Wade, it was never going to result in anything more than a costly public spectacle at the state taxpayers’ expense.

But it does reveal a genuinely troubling strain of ignorance among our duly elected representatives, who apparently do not realize that devoutly religious people, perhaps more than any other group, need secular law. Secular law is not a decadent intellectual luxury, nor is it by any means an attack on anyone’s religious freedom. Quite the opposite, secular governance is a necessary precondition to the free exercise of religion.

The erection of the Tabernacle and the Sacred vessels

Let’s assume that the hypothetical theocracy in question is an Abrahamic one (even though that’s not necessarily a given). Is the government Christian, Jewish, or Muslim? If Christian, is it Catholic, or Protestant? If Catholic, does it adhere to the principles set forth at Vatican II, or those that were in place beforehand? Even if we assume that the state religion is exactly your own, does it operate according to the teachings, interpretations, and rhetoric of your religious leader, or of someone else’s? You only have to have been to two houses of worship in your life to know that the differences between them can be substantial, even within the same sect/order/denomination/faith. And those particularities, so fussily esoteric to an outsider, are often intensely important to a practitioner.

In other words, if you’re devoutly religious, a theocracy would be far more likely to impede, disable, and criminalize your faith than to support it. As I’ve argued in past posts, religious people are demonstrably more free to practice their religion under a secular government than they are under a theocratic one.

If your religious beliefs align precisely with the those of the theocrats du jour, then you are in a certain sense free to practice the state religion, unpersecuted. But that’s not religious freedom. It’s merely a false and accidental approximation of religious freedom, a dart thrown in the dark that so happened to hit the sweet spot on the Venn diagram of your beliefs and your government’s. The moment that your conscience compels you to change your beliefs in any way, or that some new elected or appointed official changes the law of the land in the slightest, your illusory freedom evaporates and your faith has no protection whatseover.

Secular law protects all of us, whatever religions we do or do not practice, from falling into so precarious a situation. This means that you and your religious beliefs are protected, both from the tyranny of the majority and from the vagaries of bureaucracy. But it also means that your personal morality is not and can never be one-to-one with local, state, or federal law.

Anthony Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, shortly after the latter appointed the former.

As Anthony Kennedy wrote in his majority opinion for Loving v. Texas (the case that established the unconstitutionality of sodomy laws), the United States cannot outlaw “private conduct not harmful to others” purely because one religion (or even all religions) might find that conduct objectionable (or even wrong).

If your religion forbids homosexuality, then the law protects your right to practice that religion, but those very same laws can and must (and will, sooner or later) protect gay rights. The opponents of same sex marriage have categorically failed to explain what harm committed gay relationships will somehow do to the institution of heterosexual marriage, or to adopted children, or to the stability of family units, or to anyone or anything else—so their moral revulsion is not a valid legal argument. (We all have the right to keep Kosher if we want to, but we also have the right not to keep Kosher, so however much we may want to, we can’t criminalize cheeseburgers).

We can believe in religious liberty, or we can believe that one particular religion’s morality should be the law of the land. But we plainly, clearly cannot believe both of those things, because they are mutually exclusive.

4 comments

  1. I’m not from North Carolina. However, I’m inclined to believe that this incident doesn’t “reveal a genuinely troubling strain of IGNORANCE among… elected [officials].” I think it’s just as likely that it shows a troubling strain of cynicism. I think these people knew the initiative was a farce from the beginning. They just wanted to froth up their ignorant voters and establish their religious bona fides.

    ‘Look! We’re defending the threatened faith from the threatening gay, liberal, Muslim, [insert boogeyman], scientists.’ Vote for me!’

    • Fair point. It’s entirely possible that they were trolling (both in the Internet shit-starting sense and in the straight-up fishing metaphor sense: trolling for votes).

      Only time will tell, I suppose.

  2. Re: failing to explain gay marriage’s harm. Even allowing someone to frame the debate this way is wrong, I think. That’s not the only issue. The issue is whether or not it’s reasonable for government to take an interest in encouraging heterosexual marriage in a special way, given its obvious (but not absolute–it doesn’t need to be) connection to childrearing. For more on this, I’d recommend Dan McLaughlin’s very thoughtful and very thorough piece here: http://baseballcrank.com/archives2/2013/03/lawpolitics_sam.php

    Even aside from that, though, and even addressing the “harm” argument on its own terms and accepting the assumptions therein, anti-discrimination laws render it completely false. People have been successfully sued for refusing to provide services for gay marriages. We have laws about workplace discrimination, as well. There is no way to reconcile the “live and let live, if it does you no harm” philosophy (which is obviously a very compelling argument) with the current statues about discrimination on the books.

    • So first of all, thanks for reading, and for taking the time to comment.

      The thing is, there’s no particularly compelling reason to give special preference to those who produce children, because we don’t have a shortage of children. We have huge numbers of children who have already been born, but who lack stable homes—and in that light, it’s important to keep in mind that while heterosexual couples do have an obviously special role in child-bearing, they have no special role whatsoever in child-rearing.

      Most arguments against same sex marriage and same sex adoption, including the one you linked, cite studies that incorrectly and uncritically lump same sex parents in with single parents when determining outcomes for children, thus skewing the results. The article you shared does point out some faulty methodology in various studies that suggest the viability of gay parentage, but it would be quite a stretch to say that Regnerus study—or Gunnar Andersson’s study, or Matthijs Kalmijn’s —is methodologically unassailable.

      So for the moment, let’s get away from the micro-level arguments about individual studies and go with the American Sociological Association’s macro-level conclusions: “The claim that same-sex parents produce less positive child outcomes than opposite-sex parents—either because such families lack both a male and female parent or because both parents are not the biological parents of their children—contradicts abundant social science research.”

      The ASA goes on to state that “whether a child is raised by same-sex or opposite-sex parents has no bearing on a child’s wellbeing,” and they quite frankly cite a whole lot more research (with a whole lot fewer holes) than Regnerus or his advocates at Baylor University ever did. Men and women are different, and therefore children need one parent of each gender is an argument with an intuitive, visceral appeal. But the overwhelming majority of credible evidence suggests that, despite its appeal, the notion holds no water.

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