I am blessed to live in a ward which has really amazing Sacrament speakers, consistently, week after week. Seeing how they do things has inspired me to do better. These thoughts represent simply my own personal opinions on some of the rules of preparation that can allow a Sacrament Meeting Talk to do what it is meant to do. Though described as rules, they are not hard and fast. I'm sure some of the best talks I've ever heard have broken one or more of these rules:
So there you are. It's Sunday morning, and you stand in front of a congregation of your fellow Latter-day Saints, freshly rebaptized by the Sacramental ordinance, and ready now to be spiritually fed. By you. Today's Sacrament meeting speaker. They are your neighbors and your friends and your co-workers in the glorious cause of building Zion. According to C.S. Lewis, they are among the holiest sights that will ever be presented to your senses. Daunted? You should be. Your task is important, and you have hopefully taken it very seriously. A talk which uplifts, edifies, engages, and elevates will allow the members of the congregation to feel the spirit. It may even accomplish the most important task of all. It may even inspire us in the congregation to repent, and thereby fully effectuate the promise of the bread and the water which we have just taken. Alma 31:5 teaches that the effective preaching of the word has a more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword. An uplifting Sacrament talk is one of Heavenly Father's most powerful tools. Present it unto him sharpened and clean and ready, and His Spirit will help you to use it true.
A meandering, mediocre, dialed-in performance will, on the other hand, make it just a little bit harder for the members of the congregation to want to come to Church next week. The faithful can persist for week after week of boring Sacrament meetings. But the less faithful? The investigator? The recently baptized member who misses NFL afternoons? The young person struggling with their testimony? Not so much. A boring Sacrament meeting talk is a tool in the hands of Satan. Don't give it to him.
This is not to say that avoiding boredom is your first task. Novelty for the sake of novelty, or entertainment value for the sake of entertaining is not the point. If it were, we could bring in rock music, like some of the other Christian churches are doing. No. Your task is not merely to engage. Engagement for its own sake has no value. You are there to teach. And you need to engage so that we in the congregation might be taught.
So here are some rules you might consider as you prepare your talk.
1. Number one: Organize your talk around a doctrinal premise, not a doctrinal topic. This, more than anything else, will bring focus to your task, as you organize your thoughts, and will ensure that you will sit down from your presentation having actually said at least one thing. And if you actually say one thing, the possibility at least exists that it will be something which was worth saying. A premise is a full sentence. A topic is a word or a phrase. The bishopric member who asks you to speak will likely give you a topic. That is a place for you to start. Now narrow it by choosing a premise. Let's say, for example, that he asks you to speak on faith. There's about a billion things you could say about faith, many of them not even religious. Or, if he is having a particularly good week, he may even ask you to speak on Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. That's better, but you'll still need to focus. Now, turn that word or phrase into a statement (that is to say: a full --not an incomplete-- sentence) which statement will form the core message of your talk: "Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ invites repentance." Perfect.
You can tell the audience what your premise is right from the beginning, and then discuss it, and then remind them at the end what your talk was about (tell them what you are going to tell them, then tell them, then tell them what you told them), which is a good structure for youth and beginners; or you can build to your premise. Whatever works. The important thing is that, if you choose your premise carefully, you will be teaching doctrine. Boyd K. Packer has repeatedly stated that true doctrine, properly understood, changes behavior, and that the study of doctrine will do more to change behavior than the study of behavior will do to change behavior. If you organize your talk around a doctrinal statement you will be teaching doctrine, which leads to changing behavior, i.e., repentance, which the Doctrine and Covenants tells us, again and again, is the only thing that we should be preaching to this generation.
By way of illustration and example, here are some doctrinal premises, any one of which would make the core of a fine Sacrament Meeting talk: Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ motivates us to repent. Jesus Christ's Atonement allows our repentance to be effective. The Atonement of Jesus Christ allows our will to become more perfectly at one with that of our Heavenly Father. The Atonement of Jesus Christ reconciles, or brings at one, the eternal principles of justice and mercy. The Atonement of Jesus Christ can cause our spirits and our bodies to be brought at one, not only in the resurrection, but during this life. The blessings of the Atonement are available to all who offer up a broken heart and a contrite spirit. The Holy Ghost testifies of Jesus Christ. God is our Father. We are the children of heavenly parents and we have a divine destiny. We believe in being chaste. The Prophet Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ. Because of the restoration, the full blessings of the Atonement are again available on the earth. Joseph Smith was the first Prophet of our dispensation. Gospel ordinances allow us to make and keep covenants with our Heavenly Father, which will bring the blessings of the Atonement into our lives. The Book of Mormon is the word of God. The Book of Mormon testifies of Christ and of His Atonement. We are led by Prophets, Seers, and Revelators. It is only through grace that we are saved. We obey the Commandments to be changed by the Atonement. If you can't think of any premises, look through the Articles of Faith. Or open Preach My Gospel to the missionary discussion chapters, where you will find premise after premise of docrinal truth.
2. Number two: Support Your Premise. No, your talk is not a legal brief, or talking points for a debate tournament. You don't need to pretend the audience contains a skeptic and try to convince her of your premise. But the point of organizing your talk around a premise is to narrow and focus your ideas and thoughts, so that your talk will be about something specific. Having a premise doesn't do you any good if your talk then launches off into several different directions instead of supporting your premise. If you had a High School English teacher who taught you about deductive essays, invoke that format. If you didn't learn about deductive essays in High School, google it. The support for your premise can include scriptures, but if so don't just read the key scriptural passages, give the context and explain the passages. The support for your premise can include quotes from General Authorities or other "famous people", but if so don't give a "talk on a talk" where you simply rehash and summarize an entire text from last Spring's General Conference. Instead, choose quotes that fit your point as precisely as possible, or which say what you want to say more eloquently than you could say it. The support for your premise can take the form of stories, but be careful to use stories from reputable sources, not faith-promoting rumours that can end up tearing down faith when someone hears an altered variation of the same Mormon urban legend a few months later. If you are using stories that are meant to be taken allegorically, and not as factually accurate, make that clear, and choose an analogy that is appropriate. The support for your premise can include lines from a hymn, or poetry. We don't get nearly enough poems in Church anymore. It can include a scene from a well known movie, or a passage from a famous play, but for obvious reasons, choose your movie wisely. Significantly, your premise can find support in questions: "What does it mean to have a broken heart and a contrite spirit?" You aren't in a class setting though, so you'll have to handle such questions carefully, perhaps by discussing your own struggle to find an answer, and what you may have tentatively come to understand.
Unless you are a recently returned missionary giving his homecoming talk, there are no set rules for supporting the premise of your talk. (If you are a recently returned missionary reporting on your mission, then there are set rules: whatever your premise, support it with stories from your mission. That's what your relatives came to hear. And that's what all of us in the congregation are hoping our children will hear. Your talk is a recruitment tool for future missionaries and for member missionary engagement. It took you two years of gruelling labor to come up with 20 minutes worth of faith-promoting stories, and now is your time to tell them, including to a group of Deacons who don't need to know about the gruelling labor, and just need to know that missions are awesome! Tell your stories. Don't blow it.)
But even though there are no set rules, some things do work better than others, and you should be aware of two of them:
First and foremost, know that personal stories, from your own life, or stories from the lives of your own family, or ancestors, will be far more meaningful to you, and therefore far more engagingly told, than will any story you get from any other source. This is so important that it's almost a hard and fast rule. If your entire talk consists of other people's stories, or quotes and scriptures, throw out the middle 1/3 and replace it with something closer to home. There is a brother in my ward who tells a story about an incident which occurred one December evening that he spent at his failed Christmas Tree Lot venture. I have heard that story about three times. It has never failed to make me cry. Brother J is engaged by that story, because it is his story. And so I am engaged as well. I will never forget the first time I heard Brother L, recently released from our Stake's high council, tell his story of growng up in a broken home and being converted to the gospel. His story is so powerful that just hearing it can convert others. Keep it personal. We want to add YOUR TESTIMONY and YOUR WITNESS and YOUR STORY to our hearts, not just be told hearsay from others whose voices we can read at home on our own. Secondly, for scriptural stories, try as much as possible to use stories that come from the life and the teachings and the parables of the Savior. For my money, one of the greatest BYU Devotionals ever given was from Thomas B. Griffiths, The Root of Christian Doctrine, from March 14th, 2006. http://magazine.byu.edu/?ct=view&a=1897.
In that address, Judge Griffiths' spoke about an organized effort by a student Stake over which he presided, to ensure that all of their Sacrament and other Sunday meetings were rooted in the Atonement of Christ. To do so, he encouraged instructors to draw upon Christ's life and teachings in presenting curriculum material, making this point: "When we are talking about [Christ's] life and using the words he said, we are remembering him, and a power comes into our teaching that is otherwise not present."
3. Number Three. Avoid Unforced Errors.
A lot of important points could be made here. I'll stick to some essentials:
- Practice your talk at home, and time it when you practice it. It will almost certainly be longer than you imagined. Giving the last speaker little time to give remarks which he spent just as much time as you to prepare can create spirit-destroying awkwardness in a meeting. Keeping young children squirming in their parents' laps long after the time for the meeting to end has the same effect. Keeping it short will help you to keep it focused and concentrate on the good stuff.
-Do not write your entire talk or you will be tempted to read it, and a talk which is read is lifeless. Write down quotes. Write down scriptural passages. Write down important ideas or your treatment of any potentially delicate issue, that you want to make sure you articulate carefully and correctly. But everything else should be in the form of an outline so we in the congregation can hear you conversing with us, not reading to us. The spirit might direct you to say something you hadn't quite expected to say. This can only happen if you are open to being guided by the spirit, and you won't be open to that if you are controlled by a written text.
- Avoid politics and controversy. Most of us have very strong political viewpoints. Anyone who has read this blog knows I do. And those opinions are very much influenced by my own personal take on the Mormon paradigms which instruct my worldviews. It is certainly appropriate to speak on our Mormon paradigms and the spiritual components of our worldviews in Church, but not in a manner which hints of partisan promotion. When in doubt, don't go there. Not in Sacrament Meeting. Not the time. Not the place. If you are going to quote a famous historical figure who was involved in politics, he or she should be dead. The longer he's been dead, the better. If she died before any one in the congregation was born, she's perfect. On rare occasion, it may be appropriate for the Sacrament Meeting speakers to deal with an issue which has political dimensions, such as freedom of religion, the divine origins of the Constitution, or the importance of civic engagement and awareness. On even more rare occasions, some political topic of current concern which has a clearly moral dimension, on which the Church has taken an explicit stand, might be addressed in Sacrament Meeting. The wise will not volunteer to address these topics or look for opportunities to put their thoughts regarding the same into their talks unless they have been expressly and explicitly asked to do so by the bishopric. If the Bishopric or the Stake leadership feels inspired to have such a topic addressed, let the Bishopric carefully choose the speaker who will address that matter, or let them address it. If you have been tasked as that speaker, find recent Conference Address quotes from the Apostles and the First Presidency on the topic in question to guide your thoughts, and run your remarks by the bishopric ahead of time. Otherwise, choose a gospel premise, not a political premise. Your task is to inspire the congregation; to help them feel the spirit; to strengthen their testimony and understanding of a doctrinal principle of the restored gospel, to motivate them to repent. Not to tell them how to vote.
- No gimmicks. The handbook advises that Sacrament Meeting is not the time or place for visual aids or multi-media presentations. The same is true of other forms of novelty. Some clever method you have found to get your Sunday School class's attention at the beginning of class; or some behavior that might work well in a skit, and might be perfectly approriate and even effective during the second or third hour of church, is not thereby rendered safe for Sacrament meeting. Don't encourage your audience to be like the people of Mars Hill at Athens, who were described in the book of Acts as constantly seeking after "some new thing." Novelty for its own sake has no place in Church. And even novelty for the sake of something important, which might be effectively deployed in Sunday School, still has no place in Sacrament meeting. You are not there simply to engage or entertain. But to engage reverently and for a higher purpose. When a great speaker sits down, her audience will not be thinking about what a great or entertaining speaker she is. They will be thinking about what they learned. (My favorite Roger Ebert movie review is his skewering of the film, The Dead Poet's Society, in which he made the point that, at the end of a truly great teacher's class on English literature, the students would love English literature, not just love the teacher. The same principle applies here. Your talk is about the gospel, not about your skills as an engaging speaker.)
- Know the very first thing you are going to say when you first stand up. Hemming and hawing for the first several seconds will not invite the spirit. Don't start with humour unless you really need to do so to relax yourself, or the audience looks dead tired and you are sure you are good at it, and you are sure you know the bounds of propriety. Most people don't pass all those tests and should just take a pass on the opening joke. Telling us about the phone call from the first counselor and the topic you received is inherently uninteresting. You shouldn't be speaking on a topic anyway, you should have taken the topic you were given and turned it into a premise. Stand up and start saying something that matters.
4. Number Four: Testify of the Atonement and Tie the Atonement into Your Premise. The Atonement of Jesus Christ is the core principle of the Gospel. Boyd K. Packer has called it the very root of our doctrine. The Prophet Joseph taught that all of the other doctrines of the restored gospel are merely appendages to its core truths. Whatever the topic you have been assigned, in order to fully understand that topic, you must understand how it relates to the Atonement. If you are not able to see the connection, than you don't understand the topic you have been asked to speak on as well as you need to. Ponder and pray and make the connection and help the congregation to make it as well. Again, from Brother Griffiths: "If you cannot figure out the link between the topic you are to teach and the Atonement of Christ, you have either not thought about it enough or you shouldn't be talking about it at church. In our limited time in church, we must be talking about the Atonement of Christ." Testify of the Atonement as you conclude your talk. This will make you a prophet, giving revealed truth. Revelation 19:10. Nothing could be more powerful.
5. Number Five. Stay Humble. The members of the congregation who were most influenced by your talk will be those who left the service with an idea in their mind which was put there by the spirit. There is a better than even chance that this concept won't be directly based on anything you actually stated. This doesn't let you off the hook. The spirit won't tell any member of the congregation what the spirit needs us to know if we are trying to puzzle out where you are going or falling asleep during your remarks. All of the foregoing rules still apply, and there may be some members of the congregation who are actually taught what you hoped they would be taught. But remember that that is not necessarily the point. After taking the Sacrament, the members of the congregation didn't stay in our pew to hear you, but to hear the Spirit, through you. Follow these rules, or another set that works better for you, and you may be able to give us that opportunity.
Thursday, April 30, 2015
Sunday, April 5, 2015
What does the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act actually say? The core text of Indiana's Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) actually says: "A governmental entity may substantially burden a person's exercise of religion only if the governmental entity demonstrates that application of the burden to the person: (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest."
What does that even mean? Indiana’s RFRA statute sets forth and restores a balancing test to be applied by a court in cases where a claimant or a defendant asserts that a law or regulation infringes on her religious liberty in violation of her First Amendment rights to the free exercise of religion.
What do you mean “restore”? This was the balancing test which the United States Supreme Court applied to such cases in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, before repudiating this test in 1990, in the case of Employment Division v. Smith, which upheld a federal law banning the use of peyote, even though it burdened a Native American’s right to utilize peyote in religious ceremonies. The Smith case led congress to enact the federal version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, with large bipartisan support. Over 90 Senators voted for the legislation, and it was sponsored by, among others, Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York and was signed into law by Bill Clinton. When the Supreme Court held that the Federal RFRA only applies to federal legislation, several States began passing State RFRA’s. Barack Obama voted for the Illinois RFRA when he was an Illinois legislator.
How many states have a State RFRA? Around 20, with another 10 states having equivalent case law or judicial rules.
Where does Indiana’s RFRA statute say that businesses can discriminate against gays. Did you fail to quote that part? The statute doesn’t say that. You’ve been lied to by left wing hacks in the news media and celebrities on Twitter, who relied on your gullibility and susceptibility to populist demagoguery to inflame your passions with respect to a statute which, let's be honest, you had never previously read and whose history and meaning and contents you knew nothing about.
But won’t some people try to use the law to be allowed to discriminate against gay people or to be excused from providing services to same sex weddings? Sexual orientation is not currently a protected class under Indiana's anti-discrimination laws, so probably not. But, at some point in the future, yes, it is possible that some people will try to use the law in this way. And some people (those evil and nefarious nuns, the Little Sisters of the Poor, for example), might try to use the law to be excused from any health care regulations Indiana might pass which would require them to provide abortifacients to their employees against the employer’s religious conscience, and some indigenous peoples will try to use the law to escape prosecution for smoking peyote or using eagle feathers in their religious ceremonies, and other people will invoke the law in all kinds of other circumstances, to be freed from the ever widening scope of big government's intrusion into every aspect of our lives, just like people used to invoke the same balancing test under the First Amendment in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s, during which time period, the Republic maintained its existence just fine. Whether all these people succeed or not is a different story and will depend on how Indiana courts apply the balancing test to the facts of any particular case. A wedding photographer in New Mexico, for example, was prosecuted and fined under a New Mexico anti-discrimination statute for declining to provide her services to a same sex commitment ceremony, and this fine was upheld by the New Mexico Supreme Court, despite the wedding photographer’s invocation of New Mexico’s RFRA (the court distorted the facts and rewrote New Mexico's anti-discrimination statute to reach this result, but that's a post for another day). As with any law, it's effect on any given set of facts will be determined on a case by case basis, depending on the facts of that case, and the degree to which the judge is or is not able to exercise intelligence and impartiality.
So how come there's so much attention to Indiana's RFRA, when no one protested any of these earlier laws? It's been a bad news week for Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration (missing emails; concessions to Iran) and so the news companies decided you needed to be distracted by lurid tales of heartless conservatives discriminating against people because of their sexual orientation. Also, the left has become much more comfortable in actively seeking to undermine religious liberty in our country than they were even a few years ago, as they recognize that it blocks them from pursuing much of their agenda. Thus, Chuck Schumer has tweeted his outrage about the Indiana law even though he was a sponsor of the substantially identical federal RFRA and Hillary Clinton has tweeted her opposition as well, even though her husband signed the original substantially identical federal RFRA, and the New York Times, which editorialized in favor of the original RFRA, has editorialized against Indiana's substantially identical RFRA, using scare quotes around the phrase "religious liberty."
But I heard that Indiana's RFRA was substantially different from other RFRA statutes, such as the Federal RFRA or the RFRA's of most other States. Isn't that why Indiana's RFRA is so offensive? What you heard was false. After about 24 hours of what I am sure was very satisfying righteous indignation and smug sanctimony over Indiana's statute, a few inconvenient questions were asked in some corners of the internet, where calmer voices were being employed. Facts came out which made it seem awfully weird and hypocritical that Indiana's protestors hadn't been nearly as concerned with earlier enactments of the exact same law, sponsored or voted for or signed by some of their personal heroes. And so they desperately started trying to find something to give them post hoc justification and cover for their absurd lynch mobbing of religious freedom. Many of them, for the first time, had to actually find and read the law they had been protesting against. As they did so, two main talking points developed, each of which was disingenuous, deceptive, and false: First, they claimed that Indiana's RFRA protects for-profit businesses and the federal RFRA does not. This was false. The Federal RFRA did not internally define certain of its terms, including the "persons" who could invoke the law, which is what congress does if it wants the definitions established in the Federal Dictionary Act to apply. The Dictionary Act defines person as including corporations, just like the Indiana RFRA does. The U.S. Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby decision last term included this very obvious point. So the claim that the Indiana RFRA law is different from the federal law based on this distinction is simply bogus. There is no such distinction. Second, they argued that Indiana's RFRA was inherently malicious, or unique, in that it was allowed to be invoked even in cases which don't involve the state as a party. This talking point was also bogus. A large number of state statutes which allow the government to fine or penalize or jail or otherwise prosecute a citizen for unlawful behavior, also give a private right of action to private citizens who feel they have been victimized by a violation of the statute. (This prevents government from having to spend its own resources to prosecute every single case). A defendant who is either prosecuted by the government for violation of a statute, or sued by a private citizen for violation of that statute, is of course allowed in either case to bring all of the same defenses which they could have brought had they been prosecuted by the government, including by challenging the validity of the statute under which they are sued on any grounds available to them (due process, equal protection, first amendment rights, RFRA, that the facts don't match what the statute prohibits, yada yada yada). This principle goes without saying and is essentially obvious and axiomatic. The fact that Indiana's RFRA explicitly stated this obvious fact did not mean that it would otherwise have been untrue; nor does the fact that other state RFRA acts don't make this point explicit mean that the law would be applied any differently in those States.
Are you one of those people who think they should be allowed to discriminate against Homosexuals or others with a minority sexual orientation? No. I think the local Diner should be required to accept the money of any paying, appropriately clothed, customer, regardless of that customer's sexual orientation, or race, or religion, or gender, or disability. And I am confident that nothing in Indiana's RFRA statute would allow a Diner operating under an anti-discrimination law to suddenly get away with doing otherwise, just as I am confident that conservative religious believers are not itching to engage in such discrimination, and that anyone who tells you different is selling something. I also personally think that florists shouldn't care what their customers are going to use their flower arrangements for, and bakers should probably be in the same category, although the facts of any particular case might make me change my mind. I do think, though, that people who don't want to participate in an event which violates their religious or social conscience, or which implies endorsement of the event or of the customer's message, should be allowed to decline doing so, without being prosecuted under an anti-discrimination statute or fined or penalized for their behavior. For example, if a caterer or a photographer who would be happy to provide services to gay customers in other contexts, and are not discriminating against a customer because he is gay, do not want to participate in and attend or host a same-sex wedding due to their religious beliefs, they should be allowed to decline. They are not, in that instance, discriminating because of their customer's sexual orientation, but declining to endorse or participate in something with which they disagree. Similarly, if a gay couple's web design business doesn't want to assist an evangelical Christian in setting up an anti-same-sex marriage web page, but would be perfectly happy to provide design services for his tax consulting business's web page, the gay couple should be allowed to make that choice. Why? Because that choice was not based on a desire to discriminate against the customer due to his religion, but instead involved a desire to avoid participating in an activity which violates their conscience or in endorsing a message with which they disagree. Different courts will come down differently in these various examples, and the opinions of others will differ with my own. All that RFRA does is provide the balancing test to be employed in examining such cases, it does not say who will win in every such case.
But aren’t people going to be discriminated against in Indiana now? Yes, many many people are being discriminated against as a result of this new RFRA law. For example, states that believe in religious freedom are being discriminated against by Angie’s List, which is cancelling expansion plans in the state of Indiana, because of the law, which discriminatory conduct by Angie's List is clearly motivated by animus and hostility towards people who believe in religious freedom. A pizza restaurant whose owners answered a newspaper's hypothetical question about hosting a same-sex wedding had to close its doors because of an angry Twitter mob which threatened to burn it down, even though this angry twitter mob discriminated against this pizza establishment by not making similar threats against other similarly situated pizza restaurants.
What are the immediate consequences of this law? Cable TV news providers will continue to get richer while making Americans dumber and more angry at each other. Twitter will continue to prove that it allows just enough characters to promote a lynch mob mentality among people who like to get themselves really really sanctimoniously angry over stuff they don’t understand.
Let’s talk about the biggest threats currently pending against our first freedom: religious liberty, which I will define for purposes of this review as including the following concepts:
- Groups and individuals cannot be penalized for exercising their conscience. Such "[p]enalties are impertinent" if used to "compel men to quit the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences." (John Locke 1689.)
- There should be no religious test for a public office or public trust. (U.S. Const. Art. VI.)
- There should be no officially established state church (or “establishment of religion")(U.S. Const. Am. 1).
- There should be no legal infringement on one's right to the "free exercise" of religious belief and practice. (U.S. Const. Am. 1.)
- "[N]o official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein." (Justice Jackson, W. Va. State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)[emphasis added].)
- "Government may neither compel affirmation of a repugnant belief [i.e., a belief a particular citizen believes to be repugnant] nor penalize or discriminate against individuals because they hold religious views abhorrent to the authorities." Justice Brennan, Sherbert v. Verner (1963).
- "[G]overnment coercion of moral agency is odious." Gilardi v. U.S. (D.C. Cir. 2013).
Today, each of these principles is under increasing attack, and examples of their violation can readily be found by any one who reads the news and is paying attention. This is a startling development. For more than three centuries, the general thrust of history in the western world, and certainly in America, has involved advancing religious freedom and liberty. The ideal of religious tolerance was a core component in the writings of Locke and other Scottish Enlightenment thinkers. This was progress, and Locke’s writings were a fundamental influence on the American founders.
But Jefferson, Madison, and Washington, each in their own way, sought to expand this ideal even further, beyond mere tolerance (by a majority or state sanctioned religion with respect to a dissenting sect) towards a broader concept, involving governmental neutrality towards different religions, and protection against infringements on any individual’s right to choose and worship in accordance with his own personal beliefs. Madison’s tweaking of Locke’s formula in the Virginia Declaration of Rights was the first step, followed by Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrances Against Religious Assessments. The Declaration of Independence and our Constitution and Bill of Rights affirmed these principles, providing official legal authority for the same on a federal level, and they were beautifully articulated in Washington’s 1790 letter to a Newport Rhode Island Jewish Synagogue. From that foundation, the ideals of religious liberty have been further developed and expanded, by subsequent jurisprudence and case law, by the 14th Amendment, and by a religiously devout citizenry which cared sufficiently about the issue to protect and preserve the cause.
However, this history of advance seems now to have ended, and we now seem to have entered a new and troubling phase of regression, in which the trend and thrust of history is for religious freedoms to be increasingly constricted, and defined more narrowly, rather than enlarged and defined more broadly. This is true both legally, but also in our culture, where religious liberty has recently come to be treated with disdain, as a retrograde notion that stands in the way of advancing newer and more trendy current political fixations, surrounding rights to freedom of sexual expression. What happened? Secularism is obviously a big part of the story. Citizens who do not exercise a particular right are far less likely to care about its infringement. But there are other trends which directly relate both to the growth of secularism and the attack on religious rights. I would identify the following three trends as the chief dangers to religious liberty in our time:
1. Threat Number One: Big Government.
Our First Amendment protects religious liberty by proscribing what types of laws the U.S. Congress (and, by extension under the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, state and local governments as well) may enact, including by forbidding laws and regulations which prohibit the free exercise of religion. While this protection is not absolute, even a law which has only the unintended consequence of impinging on religious belief is potentially subject to First Amendment challenge. But not all such challenges will win the day in court. As government gets bigger, as the scope of its domain increases, and the number of previously private activities which it deems worthy of its attention grows longer, it is inevitable that more and more areas of life (including religion) will potentially become subject to its restrictions.
The rest of the story is a matter of simple mathematics: As the number of laws and regulations proliferate, the percentage chance of some of those laws impinging on First Amendment freedoms obviously increases as well. Where religion’s role in the public square is constricted or forbidden, including on establishment clause grounds, in order to avoid governmental involvement in private citizens’ religious life, then, the larger the public square, the smaller the domain left to private religious speech and activity becomes.
But there is also more going on here than simple math. As government increases its role and increasingly forces new and more intrusive relationships between itself and its citizens (or subjects?) it forgets its own relative unimportance, in the face of bigger questions, which are not the proper domain of government oversight. As people come to think of the government, through its public schools, through the political rhetoric of its political leaders, through the values clumsily expressed in certain of its laws, as a legitimate source of moral teaching, the government can become its own Establishment of Religion, with any one who dissents from its claims to be treated as a new heretic.
In the inaugural issue of First Things magazine, its founding editors penned an introductory essay explaining the purpose of that “journal of religion and public life” which included these important insights:
Authentic religion keeps the political enterprise humble by reminding it that it is not the first thing. By directing us to the ultimate, religion defines the limits of the penultimate. . . . .
By religion and public life we mean something like what Saint Augustine meant by the City of God and the City of Man. The twain inevitably do meet, but they must never be confused or conflated. . . . The polis constituted by faith delineates the horizon, the possibilities and the limits of the temporal polis. The fist city keeps the second in its place, warning it against reaching for the possibilities that do not belong to it. At the same time, it elevates the second city, calling it to the virtue and justice that it is prone to neglect. Thus awareness of the ultimate sustains the modest dignity of the penultimate.
First Things, March 1990, founding editors.
This humble view of government and politics, as important, but, ultimately, not the end-all be-all of our lives, is difficult to sustain the more our lives intersect with government at every turn.
A helpful look at the possible spectrum may be gleaned from two contrasting views of government in relatively modern times. The totalitarian vision of Benito Mussolini: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state” would not be likely to allow any religion at all, of which it does not approve, and it is not likely to approve of any religion which it has not perverted to its own ends. A government guided by Jefferson’s vision, as expressed in his first inaugural: “wise and frugal” and concerned only with “restrain[ing] men from injuring one another” but which “shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement” and “not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned” would likely allow a full flourishing of religious belief, and non-belief, in a variety of denominations, to peacefully coexist, with or without a First Amendment. Under such a national policy, it would be possible for even a crazy new religion, with remarkable claims of new visions, new scriptures, and a restoration of primitive Christianity and the biblical priesthood, like Mormonism, to be founded, and to flourish, even though its early leaders, a couple of generations earlier, would have been promptly beheaded or burned at the stake.
I am not really a Jeffersonian libertarian (Jefferson’s government, not even willing to outlaw slavery, is far too libertarian for me; and modern libertarians are often overly simplistic and doctrinaire in their supposition that there is no reason for the government to support policies which will strengthen families and spare their neighborhoods from harmful drugs, as though a country full of broken homes and drug-addled neighborhoods is not the surest route possible to strengthened government, as the state finds itself invited to take over the role of provider to and disciplinarian of the children in the affected neighborhoods and communities). Nevertheless, on the spectrum of beliefs about the proper role of government in our lives, I certainly want to see us far closer to the Jeffersonian vision than to the Mussolinian. There was a time when most Americans would have agreed. But I’m not so sure anymore.
Which country, Benito’s or Jefferson’s, does America 2015 more closely resemble? Reasonable minds may differ, but it’s a pretty good bet that Mussolini was more likely to take over, to choose one random example, the health care insurance industry, than Jefferson, given the former’s belief that there was no area of life outside of the state, and the latter’s ideal of leaving citizens “free to regulate their own pursuits of industry”. This probably explains why Jefferson’s administration never found itself attacking a group of nuns, like the Little Sisters of the Poor, who simply don’t want government forcing them to engage in conduct against their religious conscience, while they go about their work of feeding and clothing the destitute remainders of our increasingly atomized, faith-and-family-deconstructing, society.
Totalitarian governments, by contrast, would have no compunctions about such a fight. Indeed, as Anne Applebaum documents with numerous examples in her book Iron Curtain, about Soviet dominated Eastern Europe after WWII, totalitarians will always make it their first matter of business to target religion, both in law and in the culture, with the newspapers of such a society to be full of stories decrying the reactionary forces of religion, standing against the vision of progress offered by the collectivists and their progressive revolutionaries. There is a simple reason for this: religion represents a fundamental threat to the vision of the collectivist state as the source of all authority. As do the private voluntary organizations (Boy Scouts, Rotarians, private charities) which form the basis of civil society. As does the family.
The Soviets were right to fear religion and private civic organizations. The unwillingness of the Polish people to give to the Communist Party the legitimacy which they gave to the Catholic Church eventually led the way to freedom in the nations of the Eastern Bloc. But now the same battle has come to the West, to our own shores, and the same anti-religious rhetoric with which the Soviets tried to overcome faith in Eastern Europe, are now being used by our own collectivists here at home. William F. Buckley got this point long ago: “I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.” William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale.
2. Threat Number Two: Radical Militarized Islam.
No, I don’t fear the rise of sharia law in America any time soon. Certainly, the birth dearth in an increasingly secularized Europe and the resultant need of an aging population to accept waves of Muslim immigrant workers from northern Africa and the middle east, to work the jobs which pay the taxes needed to fulfill the economically unsustainable promises which were made to these pensioners, who had few children of their own to meet that burden, will be a huge part of the story for many decades to come. But what I fear in the shorter term is how the current conflicts with Islamist terrorists will cause Americans to define themselves.
America has long defined itself against our enemies and our foreign competitors, and in the coming years, those competitors are going to provide plenty of ammunition for those who wish us to define ourselves as a secular nation with a secular culture. For the first 140 years of our existence, we proudly told anyone who would listen that we were special, because we were a “republic” practicing “republican virtues.” These were rhetorically charged terms, that meant different things to different Americans at different times. But one core meaning all Americans intended when they used them during the first many decades of our national life, was that America was not, like most of the rest of the civilized western world, a hereditary monarchy. We saw ourselves as the exemplars of a better way of life, and we were only too happy when other peoples took up the revolutionary cause, and overthrew hereditary monarchies in favor of democratic republics.
This was the bragging right that Lincoln invoked and challenged us to preserve in his Gettysburg Address, calling on the nation to remember that our republican experiment was not yet a century old, and that the outcome of the Civil War would prove to the peoples governed by hereditary kings and aristocrats in foreign lands, whether any nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” (as opposed to some men being born to rule others) with a government not of kings, but “of the people, by the people, for the people” may long endure.
This encouragement of anti-monarchical revolution (without much intervention, as it was up to the citizens of each nation to overthrow their own bondsmen) was the guiding principle of our foreign policy throughout the 19th Century, during which “the United States was usually the first state in the world to extend diplomatic recognition to . . . new revolutionary regimes.” Gordon S. Wood, The Idea of America at p. 328 (Penguin Books 2011). This tradition continued through March of 1917, when the United States took only seven days from the abdication of the Tsar to become the first nation to recognize the government which replaced his monarchy. Id. at 330. And then the tradition ended six months later. Upon the October 1917 Bolshevik takeover, no such recognition was extended to this new regime by the United States for 16 years, making America the last major western power to grant it. Id. at 330-331.
The 20th Century revolutionary tradition was no longer anti-monarchical, it was communist, and American enthusiasm for revolutions abroad was therefore over. Despite a brief future alliance of convenience between the USSR and the USA to face down Hitler during WWII, the Cold War had already, in truth, begun. A Swiss playwright and essayist, Herman Kesser, understood the new question facing the nations of the world early on, noting in 1918 that it was now “certain that mankind must make up its mind either for Wilson or for Lenin.” Id.
And so, in the Twentieth Century, Americans began to define themselves against communism. As communism was godless and officially atheistic, we would emphasis our own religiosity. Thus, in 1954, we added the words “under God” (a phrase taken from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address http://www.firstthings.com/article/2010/08/god-and-gettysburg )
to our Pledge of Allegiance. As Communism was based on a controlled economy, we would emphasize the benefits of free economic markets. Thus, American economists like Milton Friedman and others gained a following by articulating theories describing the benefits of free markets and capitalism, and our own left-of-center politicians had to refrain from going too far towards governmental ownership or control of private industry, lest they be labeled as ideologically sympathetic to our foes.
Our foreign policy, beginning in the Truman administration, was centered on containment. Presidential inaugurals, such as JFK’s, referenced our distinctions with the Soviets, and our willingness to “bear any burden and pay any price” to prevent their success. No wonder JFK was killed by a communist. Reagan won re-election 49 states to 1, in large part because Americans loved his blunt talk about the Soviet Union being an “evil empire” and ridiculed the intellectuals who gnashed their teeth over such statements. Advocacy for an American lifestyle which was to be the opposite of that pursued behind the iron curtain was a sure formula for success in our politics.
But the cold war is over now, and a new generation which doesn’t remember anything about it has been taught a revisionist history: "McCarthyism was a much bigger threat than communism." "Want to learn about totalitarianism? Here, read Margaret Atwood’s sci-fi novel about totalitarianism coming to America in a dystopian future by way of religious fundamentalism; that’s much more appropriate reading than learning anything about real world events in the real world totalitarian governments run by progressive left-wing totalitarians in actual recent history." This new generation is not defining itself by their belief in God or their devotion to free markets, as there is no national challenge against which we might wish to so define ourselves. I remember when I was a teenager, if you wanted to be snarky to someone who had asked you not to do something, the phrase you deployed was, “hey, it’s a free country.” This was the great divide in our mind: there are two kinds of countries in the world, those that were free and those that were not. I don’t know that snarky teenagers use that phrase much anymore, as that is no longer the paradigm, and the millennial generation has learned its snarkiness at the feet of collectivist cheerleaders like Jon Stewart.
So, how are we Americans likely to define ourselves in the 21st Century? If we defined ourselves in the 19th Century an anti-monarchical republicans, and we defined ourselves in the 20th Century against the atheism and controlled economies of communism, how shall we define ourselves in the 21st Century, wherein our chief ideological and military adversary has, since 9-11-2001, been a foe motivated by a zealous and militant brand of religiosity? Will we now become anti-religious in our self-definition?
This seems to be one possible, perhaps even likely, outcome. Certainly, the in-your-face atheism of writers like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris was much easier to peddle post 9-11, than it would have been during the cold war. This atheistic advocacy offers a simplistic but easily understood mantra for understanding 21st century terrorism: ‘religion is the problem’ and, in Voltaire’s words: “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities” which was a favorite meme of social media secularists in the months after 9-11. (Never mind that the greatest slaughters in the history of the world were committed by atheists, including the secular communists responsible for the deaths of 80 million victims in the 20th Century, which might suggest either that human beings, not religion, are the problem, or that secular atheism is the most dangerous of all absurdities.) In post 9-11 America, atheists seized their chance to capitalize on religiously motivated murder and terrorism and this stuff started selling in ways it never would have before. Just as advocacy for public ownership or control of private industry was easier to refute during the cold war (“that’s communism” was all you really had to say, and anyone with common sense got your point), so also, atheism could never have gotten its current good press during that time.
What began on 9-11 does not look to cease any time soon. In the intervening years, new Islamic terrorist acts and atrocities, and new enemies, all of them asserting that they are followers of the Koran, from the Taliban to Al Qaeda to ISIS, to militarized Islamists in Iran and other Middle-Eastern nations, continue to bedevil the world. This provides handy rhetoric for those wishing to fight against religious liberty. Look up a news article on the subject of religious freedom and go to the comment section, and right towards the top, you’ll start finding examples: “I know a place where they have religious liberty! Saudi Arabia that’s where! The women can’t show their faces or drive because the religious are able to keep them from doing so under the guise of religious liberty. That’s what religious liberty means.”
In the fight against religious liberty, this provides handy rhetoric. To the degree this rhetoric begins to define us, as against our enemies, taking a stand for religious liberty will no longer be easy and uncontroversial stuff, as it once was. Indeed, recent events show just how far we have fallen from positions which were once so commonly held that to support them was to speak in boring platitudes.
3. Threat Number Three: Same Sex Marriage.In 1990, the United States Supreme Court decided a case (Employment Division vs. Smith) regarding a Native-American’s right to use peyote in religious rituals, despite governmental prohibitions against it. The Native-American lost. In issuing its decision, the Court repudiated the balancing test it had been following for approximately 30 years, when faced with challenges brought by a defendant or a claimant who averred that a government prohibition infringed on his rights to freely exercise his religion, as guaranteed by the First Amendment. Under the prior test, a statute which was so challenged would be upheld if it was in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and if it employed the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.
Religious freedom advocates balked, and so lobbied for a federal law to restore the prior balancing test. The result was the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), which was sponsored by congressmen and senators on both sides of the aisle, and which passed with the support of over 90 members of the Senate, and signed into law by Bill Clinton. The New York Times editorialized in favor of the measure. Standing up for religious liberty remained at the time, as it had for the prior 214 years of our history, an easy thing to do. When the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that RFRA was only applicable to federal legislation, several states began passing their own RFRAs. Currently, approximately twenty states have such a law, and another ten have a similar balancing test in place due to judicial rules or case law. None of these laws engendered much controversy upon their enactment. When Illinois passed its RFRA statute, Barack Obama was among that State’s legislators who voted for it.
Fast forward a dozen years, to 2015. Last week, Indiana Governor Mike Pence signed a RFRA for Indiana, substantively similar (despite disingenuous subsequent claims to the contrary) to the earlier state and federal RFRAs. The result: a firestorm of controversy over what was now claimed to be an anti-gay bill, which was designed for no other purpose than to allow discrimination against those with a minority sexual orientation. Everyone knew what the law said, even though it didn’t actually say that, because they’d read it on twitter. The New York times, which had supported the original RFRA, now put “religious liberty” in scare quotes to condemn Indiana’s version of essentially the same law. Apple’s CEO called for a boycott of the State. Connecticut did the same. Angie’s List announced it would withdraw plans to expand in the state. Chuck Schumer, who had co-sponsored the federal RFRA, and Hillary Clinton, whose husband had signed it, tweeted their outrage over Indiana’s new bill, and their support for the angry mob (consisting mainly of affluent white people) who were marching upon Indiana government buildings in protest.
What in the world had changed? How had America come to a pass where its citizens were actually protesting First Amendment freedoms? Silly question. Simple answer: Same-Sex Marriage.
Or, more specifically, the strategy which same sex marriage advocates, and others in the vanguard of what have been called the "erotic rights" (governing issues such as birth control, abortion, and LGBT rights) have used to advance their cause. Over the past 30 years, advocates for homosexual rights in general, and for same-sex marriage in particular, have claimed the mantle of the civil rights movement, and cast themselves in the role of modern MLKs. Never mind that African-Americans overwhelmingly support retaining the traditional definition of marriage and voted overwhelmingly in favor of state ballot measures to uphold the traditional view of marriage in the face of judicial challenges; and never mind that the real spiritual heirs of MLK, today’s black pastors, are horrified by what the modern dismantling of the family has done to their flocks. All that mattered was the strategy. And claiming the mantle of the martyred and lionized 1960s civil rights heroes, from Martin Luther King to Rosa Parks, was a brilliant political strategy, which has been executed flawlessly. But the dangers of that strategy, and especially of its success, to religious rights (and, more generally, to the rights of anyone who wants to be allowed to dissent from majority opinion on any issue involving claims brought in the name of an oppressed minority) has become increasingly clear. Whatever your views of same-sex marriage and its related issues may be, this should bother you.
The rhetorical strategy employed on behalf of same-sex marriage advocates was brilliant because it appealed to the ideals of a generation which had, rightfully, been taught to see the leaders of the civil rights era as courageous conscience-driven heroes, and who were looking for a similar cause they could call their own, so they could emulate their heroes and enjoy their own Selma moments. We all want to live lives that matter, and to be important, and the same-sex marriage movement allowed its advocates to enjoy that self-narrative. The fact that no moral leader in history --not Jesus, not Buddha, not Ghandi, not MLK-- had previously seen the parameters and meaning of marriage to be oppressive, or had spoken out in favor of the deconstruction of the traditional family, did not give them any pause. Rather, that theirs was the first generation to rise to this moral height, only made the movement more exciting, by appealing not only to their desire for importance, but to their tendency to revel in sanctimonious disdain towards the less enlightened. But if, under this narrative, the advocates of same-sex marriage were modern civil-rights leaders, then somebody was needed to play the part of Bull Connor and the Ku Klux Klan.
Enter people of faith.
Never mind that the pre-political institution of male-female marriage has been part of virtually every society on earth for all of recorded history, in both western and non-western cultures, in both monotheistic and non-monotheistic religious and spiritual traditions, in both Abrahamic and non-Abrahamic faith traditions, in cultures which condoned homosexuality and in cultures which condemned it, and across continents and peoples who had no contact with or influence upon one another since long before the first plow. And never mind the painfully obvious reasons for the pervasiveness of this male-husband female-wife institution, given the biological realities of human reproduction and the dependent nature of human children for the first several years of their lives, which made the importance of and reasons for such an institution intrinsically and inherently clear to any one with a brain, throughout every prior generation in history. The world suddenly learned new alleged truths, that men and women were not just equal, but interchangeable, that two moms were just as good as a dad and a mom, that no child should, or would, feel deprived by being deprived of a relationship with their dad or their mom, and that treating marriage as exclusively male-female had no rational basis whatsoever, even though a male-female relationship is the only relationship that even qualifies for the marriage designation, as that designation has always been understood.
The only reason anyone would believe otherwise was because of their backward religious faith. Thus, people of religious faith needed to be dealt with, through any means necessary. RFRA laws and the First Amendment stand in the way? Then it was time to start demonizing RFRA laws, and pushing for constitutional revisions to the First Amendment (see the proposed 2014 Udall Amendment for example, which would have allowed government to override all but one of our five First Amendment rights).
Why did some people not go along with this agenda? Clearly, because they were bigots. The only possible reason for wishing to uphold traditional marriage, we were told, was due to animus and hostility towards homosexuals. Again, this was brilliant strategy, on a number of levels. First, laws which are based on animus and hostility towards a minority group are subject to a higher level of scrutiny in the courts. So, legally, it was imperative that no rational arguments made in support of traditional marriage even be given a fair hearing, let alone any credence. Never mind that the laws of every state in the union had, before 2003, affirmed a definition of marriage which had existed since long before any of those states, or that union, had been created, which definition was promulgated for purposes which had nothing to do with taking a stand against homosexuality, or with the subject even being considered.
Books (such as The Future of Marriage, by David Blankenhorn; What is Marriage, by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, and Robert P. George; and Conjugal Union, by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George) or law review articles presenting a variety of non-religious based, logical and reasoned and coherent arguments in defense of marriage were to be ignored in the press and kept off of bookstore shelves. If this were a debate in which reasonable people had logical arguments to make on both sides, then the laws weren’t based on animus and wouldn’t face heightened scrutiny upon judicial legal review. Thus, those court decisions which overturned traditional marriage definitions (the only decisions the press ever covers) have been notorious for simply ignoring and refusing to even discuss the losing side's arguments, so they could claim that only an irrational bias could possibly have motivated laws and constitutional amendments seeking to uphold husband-wife marriage. See for example, John Finnis, “The Profound Injustice of Judge Posner on Marriage” Public Discourse, October 9, 2014 (“[T]he argument [in favor of traditional marriage laws] that Posner is said to have refuted remains compelling. His judgment is one long attempt to hide from that argument and to conceal it from his readers. In its refusal to engage the opposing argument, Posner’s opinion disgraces the federal judiciary.” http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2014/10/13896/
But the strategy of calling your adversaries bigots wasn’t just important in the courts. It was also brilliantly vital in the court of public opinion. As much as human beings enjoy being sanctimonious and feeling morally superior to those who hold lesser opinions, there is an even more powerful emotion lurking in the human heart: fear. Fear of being on the wrong side of the world’s most currently trending sanctimonious divide, fear of being on the wrong side of history, fear of being on the wrong side of the powerful elites whose opinions matter; fear of not being left alone to just deal with your life without having to pass any litmus tests in your business engagements with others.
In short, no one wants to be known as a bigot, or to be driven to the fringe margins of our culture, which is what we do to bigots. Even if you know in your heart that you are not a bigot, and that you are only being called one so the person doing the name-calling can enjoy the warm glow of comparative personal righteousness in his heart, or prevail in a political battle by making it as ugly as possible to oppose him, the claim still rankles. This is especially so when it might start to hurt your career, your family, or your friendships. So it’s better to just stay silent and nod along with what you are supposed to believe and keep your dissent to yourself.
That’s the way you have to live your life in a country where it is not safe to hold a dissenting opinion or to be unpopular. See, Vaclav Havel’s 1978 essay on post-totalitarianism, “The Power of the Powerless” in which he described Soviet dominated Poland as a country whose citizens now police each other against dissent, such that top-down control becomes less important, because the would-be dissenting citizen of such a country must honor “what everyone else is doing” and know “what they must do as well, if they don't want to be excluded, to fall into isolation, alienate themselves from society, break the rules of the game, and risk the loss of their peace and tranquility and security.” http://history.hanover.edu/courses/excerpts/165havel.html
The strategy of silencing their critics (with a compliant press spending decades ignoring election results and court decisions that didn’t fit the prevailing narrative that such critics were a marginal fringe) so that soon, everyone believed that they knew what everyone else believed, or at least was supposed to believe, and what they had better believe too if they wanted to be safe, worked brilliantly. Indeed, it worked so brilliantly that the left can now be much more overt about their threats: You are no longer in danger of being silenced merely by disapproving looks at all the right parties, or feeling left out because you didn’t put up the same profile picture as all your friends to support the cause all the right-thinking people believe in this week. Oh no, you’ll now be threatened much more explicitly, both privately, but effectively, through social media, the Big Brother Orwell never saw coming, and its electronic lynch mobs, and also by the official organs of government.
If you fail to conform to the required opinions of our time, you’ll be driven from your job, even as the CEO of a company founded on your own technological innovations (Brendan Eich); your community will lose jobs (Angie’s List - Indiana); your religious college will no longer be allowed to place its education students into student teaching internships in the local school district (Gordon College); your Olympic medals will not be enough to keep you on the U.S. Olympic Committee if you haven’t received the more important endorsement of the same-sex marriage lobby (Peter Vidmar); despite your status as a best-selling and award winning science fiction and fantasy novelist, you’ll be de-invited from penning a comic book for DC, if your dissenting views are made known, and a film of one of your books will be boycotted (Orson Scott Card).
In the process, each of the components of religious liberty which have been honored in our Country since its outset, will be trampled. A wedding photographer who declines to provide her services to a same sex commitment ceremony is subject to a governmental fine, contrary to the belief most Americans have shared since prior to our founding, that such "[p]enalties are impertinent" if used to "compel men to quit the light of their own reason, and oppose the dictates of their own consciences" (John Locke 1689). As was the case in Soviet dominated Eastern Europe, the Boy Scouts will be targeted by our own home grown leftist totalitarians, and, in violation of the Constitutional principle that there may be no religious test for a public office or public trust (U.S. Const. Art. VI), California Judges will be told they may have no affiliation with the Boy Scouts, troops of which are sponsored by many of those judges' religious congregations. Religious-sponsored adoption agencies will be decommissioned from their public trust with governments which had previously sought out their assistance. The notion that “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein" (Justice Jackson, W. Va. State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943)) will be set aside in order to establish Orwellian “human rights commissions” whose petty officials prescribe away, and force citizen compliance. Indeed, each and every one of the principles of religious freedom with which this essay began have in recent years been challenged, and more often than not, a clash between religion on the one hand, and gay rights in general or same sex marriage in particular on the other, has been the root underlying dispute. The elites which control the media, the universities, education, and government have decided that in this clash, our new-found, and judicially created erotic rights (from abortion to same sex marriage) are more important than the foundational rights actually included within the text of our Constitution, such as the free exercise of religion.
In the face of such onslaughts, same sex marriage dissidents who were motivated primarily by their own reason and logic, will eventually abandon the field, rather than continue to be treated as outcasts, unfit for tenure or promotion, over political opinions which they don't feel strongly enough about to continue to be martyred for. See, e.g.,
This will leave only those with a religious conviction to draw upon, and a belief that there are truths worth being persecuted for, to stand and fight. And this, in turn, will mean that people of faith will increasingly become the collectivist totalitarians’ special target, just as they were in post WWII Eastern Europe.
The Vicious Cycle
Last week's protests in Indiana were, at root, motivated by all three of the threats listed in this essay. The protesters were wary of a law designed to decrease the power of big government, and, instead, desirous to allow government to enact and prosecute whatever laws it wants to without the need for those laws to pass any balancing tests such as RFRA imposes; unsympathetic to the religious viewpoints of those whose concerns motivated the law (with plenty of the protesters willing to equate the religious right with the ISIS or the Taliban); and, in protesting on behalf of members of the LGBT community, needed to find someone to protest against, including any local business owners who expressed religious concerns about catering a same sex wedding, with one pizza restaurant who gave the wrong answer to a reporter's question on that issue being threatened with violence because of his backward views. Thus, each of the three threats to religious liberty work in a vicious sync which feeds the other elements of the cycle. One searches in vain for some new Rodney King to ask the question, "can't we all just get along?"
But the cycle works on a larger scale as well. The law's and the culture's increasing stridency with respect to erotic rights issues will continue to deconstruct the family, leading to more fatherless children, which, in turn, will feed the need for bigger government, to provide welfare benefits and juvenile criminal infrastructures, for the feeding and disciplining of children who are unable to look to a father and a mother, acting together, to provide what the state will now handle. This bigger government will, in turn, trample upon more and more previously private concerns, including religious belief systems. In the meantime, as big government increasingly finds itself at odds with religiously motivated dissenters from its imposed mandates (Hobby Lobby) and as advocates for same sex marriage increasingly find themselves at odds with religious dissenters, the radical Islamist terrorists will be standing by, for use as a handy caricature of religious believers, and a handy rhetorical tool about the dangers of religion, to be deployed in these other culture war skirmishes.
The End of Dissent and the Death of Freedom of Conscience?
In the meantime, is there a reason we are not even allowed to civilly debate these issues? The civil rights legislation of the 1960s, affording greater opportunities to minorities and greater protections for women in the work-force, have led to changes which made the world a better place. The changes which have occurred in our society under the aegis of big government and the sexual revolution? Not so much. Big government promised it would end poverty, but seems only to have subsidized the behaviors which create poverty. The sexual revolution promised us that abortion and birth control and no-fault divorce laws would create a world of fewer unwanted children and happier adults. Instead, the rate of births to unmarried mothers has skyrocketed, from 5% to 50% within my lifetime. No-fault divorce laws, which allow for unilateral abandonment of one’s spouse without cause and against the spouse’s wishes, have led to skyrocketing poverty rates for women and children. History will determine whether government's current fixations and excuses for growth and for more and more legislation, will be as helpful to humanity as were legal civil rights protections, and whether the rise of same-sex marriage and other erotic rights will be a huge leap forward for humanity, as its advocates proclaim, or will merely exacerbate the devastating effects which earlier phases of the sexual revolution already brought us. Surely, given the now-proven falsity of many of the left's promises in support of their prior crusades, we should at least be allowed to debate these issues in the public square, including on religious grounds, without traditional viewpoints being shouted down instead of debated.
The original objector to a government so powerful it could unhinge itself from existing traditional legal and religious norms, and its chief officer could redefine marriage, was perhaps Sir Thomas More, who refused to condone Henry the VIII’s self-proclaimed divorce, or, therefore, to recognize as legitimate the King's subsequent marriage to another bride, and who was beheaded for his troubles.
In Robert Bolt’s play about these events, A Man for All Seasons, he gives to More the following speech, shortly after he is convicted: “What you have hunted me for is not my actions but the thoughts of my heart. It is a long road you have opened. For first men will disclaim their hearts and presently they will have no hearts.” The fulfillment of this prophecy about what a society will do to the wills and hearts of people who are hunted for their beliefs and thought-crimes, can be found in Havel’s above quoted essay on the Power of the Powerless, describing how life in Soviet-dominated Poland created just such an outcome: “Individuals need not believe [communist society’s required ideology and pretenses], but they must behave as though they did, or they must at least tolerate them in silence, or get along well with those who work with them. For this reason, however, they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.”
Similarly, not everyone in America will come around to believing in the lies on which the alleged benefits of big government, the alleged evils of religion, and the alleged case for non husband-wife "marriage" are based. But they will be required to pretend that they do believe these lies; and to therefore become the system which promotes the lies. Religious liberty was designed to protect us against this soul-robbing power of ideological authority and compulsion. Which is why those who want to compel "proper" beliefs in others are against this liberty.
Even if you agree with the claim that same sex marriage is a righteous and desirable cause, there is a greater principle at stake here than that cause. Even ostensibly righteous ends do not justify liberty-destroying means. That is one of the core concepts of my faith, as expressed in some of its canonized scripture, known as the Pearl of Great Price. And that is also one of the core concepts of the American faith, as expressed by its founding generation in word and in deed. “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Thomas Jefferson. There is no cause so righteous or virtuous that it justifies enslaving the human mind, or proscribing orthodoxy of societal belief. That’s why we have a First Amendment. And that’s why we need to keep it. Whatever other adverse consequences may stem from redefined marriage, big government, and the attack on all religion as equivalent to its most violent believers, including the increased fatherlessness to which all of these trends will contribute, one of the most harmful long term effects will be how these trends are utilized to destroy freedom of conscience.