Religious Liberty & Social Conservatism: Re: ‘Ryan Anderson’s Flawed Appraisal of Religious Liberty’

    People pray at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Manhattan, March 16, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

    In response to Ryan Anderson’s Flawed Appraisal of Religious Liberty

    Having read both my colleague Cameron Hilditch’s post and Ryan Anderson’s Wall Street Journal op-ed to which Cameron has responded, I have a few quick thoughts to add.

    Of course, Cameron is right to note that it would be difficult to find a Christian “who, when asked why they believe in Jesus Christ, respond by saying, ‘Well, I believe in Jesus Christ because I’m permitted to do so by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.’”

    But the point Ryan raises, in my view, has less to do with how individual Christians explain their beliefs and more with how conservatives engage in public debate on controversial social issues. In that arena, I think Ryan is correct to note that too many of us are reluctant to defend our socially conservative views on their merits. Far too often, we retreat to the easy bulwark of the First Amendment as the ultimate guarantor of our right to free exercise.

    That right is essential, to be sure. But arguing merely for the right to practice one’s faith is a far weaker strategy than defending religious liberty while also making a substantive case for the way one wishes to practice. Doing so is especially important considering that progressives increasingly attempt to paint religious conservatives as bigots, arguing that religious freedom is merely a “license to discriminate.” Consider two examples.

    In the case of the baker Jack Phillips, it is a perfectly legitimate argument that he, as a Christian, should not be compelled by the government to celebrate a same-sex wedding ceremony in contradiction to his religious beliefs. But is it not a far stronger argument, especially in an increasingly secular culture, to explain why it’s perfectly legitimate, and not discriminatory, to decline to serve such a wedding ceremony?

    In other words, though Phillips found legal success defending his First Amendment rights, social conservatives in the public sphere would have been far better served by defending marriage as being, by its nature, between one man and one woman. Explaining the substantive case for natural marriage, and explaining why Phillips did not discriminate against anyone on the basis of their orientation, would’ve been a better public-relations strategy than relying merely on religious-freedom rights.

    A second example, which I wrote about in this context last year. The Health & Human Services contraception mandate has for a decade now required all employers, regardless of religion or conscience objections, to subsidize birth control and emergency contraceptives that can induce abortion.

    Conservatives have opposed this mandate mightily both in court and in the media, arguing primarily that religious employers — most notably the Little Sisters of the Poor — have a First Amendment right not to be forced to subsidize products that violate their religious beliefs. Thus far, those efforts have found modest success.

    But it isn’t hard to imagine that those efforts, especially outside the courtroom, would’ve been far more successful if social conservatives had explained why religious employers believe they shouldn’t have to subsidize birth control, for more reasons than the Free Exercise clause. A far stronger argument would not only reference the First Amendment but would also refute two false notions: that contraception is health care and that the government has any business forcing employers, of any religion or no religion, to subsidize it.

    None of this is to deny the importance of religious-freedom arguments, nor does it require believing that most Christians explain their views primarily in the context of the First Amendment. Rather, it’s a call to those of us involved in public debates to strengthen our case for religious freedom by offering powerful substantive arguments alongside it.

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