There was a time when religious freedom was a big deal to Americans. It used to be at least a consideration. I mean, it is in the Constitution and all.
People have asked for all kinds of things — psychedelic mushrooms, exclusion from the draft, not to get blood transfusions when they’re bleeding to death — and if they cited religious freedom as the reason, at least they got a hearing.
But thoughtful consideration was not the general reaction to the proposed, and now vetoed, Arizona law that would’ve protected business owners who chose to deny services on religious conscience grounds. Instead, the story was covered as if the bill was an incantation from The Book of the Dead, and passing it into law would cause the dead to start rising from their graves, opening bakeries, and not baking cakes for gay people.
When supporters pointed out that, without the law, they might be required to do things in violation of their religious conscience, their concerns were waved away like a tantrum from a sleepy child. Even a lot of religious leaders dismissed the need for a law, as if they couldn’t imagine anyone’s conscience demanding anything that wouldn’t be completely approved by all governing authorities including the ladies of The View.
But the thing about consciences is that no one can tell what yours says but you. Your religion is yours; it’s more intimately yours than anything else in your life. Not even the NSA can bug that conversation (and to the NSA keyword algorithm that’s reading this, I’d like to say Biden llama tranquilizer webcam). So any argument against religious freedom protection that says, “Well, your religion would never require that,” is hogwash, even if it comes from — dare I say? — Andy Stanley.
However, it is hogwash that people seem increasingly comfortable with. The respect for religious ethics seems to be falling by the wayside in favor of a popular-acclamation, government-approved ethics which can be imposed on dissenters via shaming, browbeating, lawsuit, and/or legislation.
In a world where ethical standards aren’t based on religion, religious freedom ends up being an obstacle. Timeless religious principles are kind of harsh and rigid. They end up making people feel bad about their life choices, and man, that’s just not nice. Nobody wants that, so nobody fights for the conscience of the religious believer. Better to forget all that and have a Coke and a smile. When people with religious ethics resist popular ethics, they end up getting both barrels from every other part of the culture (see Lobby, Hobby and Fil-A, Chick). And this seems to be the way that most people now think it should be.
The farther we go down this road, the more we curb the individual’s conscience, the closer we get to a state-sanctioned religion, which is exactly what the First Amendment was supposed to prevent. When that’s the case, your religious freedom is limited by whomever happens to be controlling the government at the time. Whatever they think is cool, is cool. Anything else… well, no real religion would ever require that, anyway. You can be a conscientious objector from serving in the army, but you can’t be a conscientious objector from serving cake at a gay wedding, because one ethic is socially acceptable and the other isn’t. One ethic will be protected by law, and the other won’t.
We live in a pluralistic society, so everybody has to give a little bit of ground for us all to get along. But when religious convictions with thousands of years of history can be dismissed out of hand, we’re in a dangerous place. Some may think that it’s making us more free, but it’s doing exactly the opposite.