Liberty Is On Defense, and Religious Liberty Is In the Red Zone

Indianapolis Star / Twitter
Indianapolis Star / Twitter

It’s fun watching a nation supposedly obsessed with putting a stop to “bullying” engage in bully tactics on an epic scale, isn’t it? No form of intimidation is too much, when the target is a group the Left hates with every fiber of its collective being, namely people with sincere religious beliefs.

When an Indiana pizzeria owner declared she would assert her religious liberty by refusing to cater a gay wedding, the restaurant’s Yelp page instantly turned into a sewer of threats and vile mockery, almost precisely mirroring the treatment gay people have justifiably complained about receiving for generations. Clearly there’s nothing inherently wrong with bullying, intolerance, and enforced conformity; it all depends on who the bully and victim are.

This is all about the collective assertion of morality, transforming the State and activists groups into judge and jury of our souls. To extend a point from earlier this week, the anti-religious-freedom backlash is based on hypothetical abuses, possibilities, and presumed intent, not actual behavior. What matters is the alleged emotional constitution of the people who support religious liberty laws, not what they’ve actually done, or say they want to do. They are summarily stripped of the right to speak for themselves, tried and found guilty of potential offenses, with every bit of testimony offered in their defense instantly struck down as insincere. It’s like the movie Minority Report, except with a shrieking hate mob on Twitter instead of three psychics in bathtubs.

Gavin McInnes at The Federalist calls it “the invasion of the hypotheticals,” a virtual war fought in purely ideological space by people entirely disconnected from daily life in flyover country. I would add that persecuting hypotheticals is much easier than dealing with the real-world actions of actual people. Beating people up for what they might do is the easiest thing in the world, a suitably relaxed form of moral posturing for a slacktivist generation. Step One: tell a group of people you don’t like or understand what lurks in their hearts. Step Two: Win an argument with the bogeyman you just created. Piece of (gay wedding) cake!

Note that this story about the Indiana pizzeria is entitled “RFRA: First Michiana Business To Publicly Deny Same-Sex Service.” The restaurant owner said no such thing. In fact, she explicitly stated she would never deny service to gay couples if they came into her restaurant. She just doesn’t want to cater a same-sex wedding, because she believes participation in such a ceremony violates her conscience. But it doesn’t matter what she actually said. Politically useful words were stuffed in her mouth.

If you’ve spent any amount of time reading Tweets or blog posts critical of the RFRA, you’ve probably encountered some version of this hot new talking point:

You’re not allowed to make arguments about the importance of religious liberty in general. Gay marriage is the sum total of this issue, period, the end, and everything else is insincere evasion, because the Left has judged your soul and knows what’s really in your heart better than you do. And since the Left has also decreed gay marriage to be one hundred percent pure and virtuous, what’s left to talk about? All things must be bent to serve this consensus. There is no such thing as “individual conscience” any more – all moral questions are settled collectively, and total compliance with collective judgment is required.

Incidentally, there is a word to describe this business of assuming what people believe, based on collective criteria such as their physical appearance, religious affiliation, or the neighborhood they live in. The term was commonly used in school when I was young, but perhaps it’s fallen into disuse in today’s schools. That word is prejudice. We were taught it was a very bad thing.

It’s even easier to play this bullying game if the group you’re beating up on has already been culturally marginalized, to a degree far out of whack with their actual numbers, and is generally noted for their polite humility. The old chestnut says it’s best to rob banks, because that’s where the money is. Likewise, it’s best to deploy coercive power against the obedient, organize hateful flash mobs against those who make a sincere spiritual commitment to love, and act offensively against those who have been placed on permanent defense.

Liberty is everywhere on defense now, and religious liberty is playing out of the red zone. Instead of the collectivist State carefully explaining why each carefully-proposed infringement upon our liberty is absolutely necessary, we have to present an airtight case for why we need each scrap of independence remaining to us – and, as mentioned, the judges are inclined to throw out most of our testimony.

Religious liberty is a reliable leading indicator of the danger to freedom, because religion is, by definition, difficult to explain logically to non-believers. The right of religious conscience demands a degree of respect and unquestioning acceptance from society at large. Polite religions might be the first to lose that respect in an aggressively secular, statist culture, but they won’t be the last.

Faith is officially regarded as trivial now, a hobby to be practiced quietly in whatever private spaces the State chooses to permit. The case against the RFRA boils down to telling religious people they must set aside their faith if they want to do business, because the State has an interest in every transaction, no matter how small, and there are no valid objections to its moral judgment. Most of those hypothetical scare stories trivialize religious faith by equating it with random malice… or they assume religious people are insincere political operators looking to create wedge-issue crises as part of a larger hidden agenda, just like leftists. This would all be much less of a problem if the statist Left’s agenda wasn’t so large, and if so many people weren’t eager to settle their grievances with compulsive, punitive power.