July 29, 2012 · 11 Comments
By Marie Burns:
It is Sunday, so Ross Douthat of the New York Times is pouting about liberals infringing upon his religious freedom. In this week’s essay, Douthat gets quite wound up, ending with the virtual equivalent of a Howard Beal rant:
If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.
There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.
Douthat’s cri de coeur today is “the great Chick-fil-A imbroglio, in which mayors and an alderman in several American cities threatened to prevent the delicious chicken chain from opening new outlets because its Christian president told an interviewer that he supports ‘the biblical definition of the family unit.’” Ironically, Douthat is right to call out officials in Chicago and Boston who are discouraging or are threatening to disallow Chick-fil-A from establishing new stores in their cities.
Clearly, the First Amendment protects a businessperson’s religious and political beliefs, and there can be no law, regulation or zoning restriction which infringes upon that person’s right to hold unpopular beliefs. A few weeks ago, Dan Cathy, Chick-fil-A’s president and CEO, told Allan Blume of the Baptist Press, “We are very much supportive of … the biblical definition of the family unit.” Let’s assume that what Cathy means by “the biblical definition of the family unit” is a man, a woman and maybe some kids. (The actual “biblical definition of the family unit” is a man, some women and some kids, along with maybe some slaves and castrated servants, but I doubt that’s what Cathy has in mind.) While Cathy’s view that is losing favor among the American public, it is hardly a far-out point-of-view. It is one widely held by people of many faiths and no faith. In and of itself, holding to “the biblical definition of the family unit” is not a threat to the rights of others.
BUT. If a businessperson exercises that belief – whatever basis he claims for it – by hiring only straight people or by discriminating against gay vendors or patrons (or even passers-by by, say, putting an offensive sign in the store’s window), then he is violating the Constitutional guarantee of equal protection as well as the biblical principle of the Golden Rule. That seems pretty straightforward to me.
It is odd then that Douthat links to the Blume story because it does suggest that Chick-fil-A practices discriminatory hiring: Cathy told Blume,
We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. We operate as a family business … our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that.
Are some of those families that “lead” their restaurants headed by gay couples? Are many of the singles openly gay? We should find out.
Further, Cathy indicated, however delicately Blume worded it, that the company contributed to “a marriage program in … support of the traditional family.” According to Media Matters, “in 2010 alone, Chick-fil-A donated over $1.9 million to anti-gay causes.” Well, that’s one way to “support the traditional family.” Expanding the base of traditional families to include gay couples is another way. Still, Chick-fil-A’s political contributions should not disqualify the company from setting up shop in Chicago or Boston. That doesn’t mean people should buy chicken sandwiches at their local Chick-fil-A. I don’t and I won’t.
Not a dime of public money should be spent discriminating against Chick-fil-A, but regulators in every municipality that has or contemplates having a Chick-fil-A restaurant in its jurisdiction should determine whether or not the firm employs discriminatory hiring practices. Cathy’s remarks strongly suggest the answer is yes. If so, that should make the company ineligible for zoning permits under most municipal codes.
Let’s get back to Ross Douthat, who – having taken up the cause of Chick-fil-A – forgets such “biblical principles” as the Golden Rule. The “conceit” of the city fathers, Douthat writes, “seemed to be that the religious liberties afforded to [church] congregations … do not extend to religious businessmen. Or alternatively, it was that while a businessman may have the right to his private beliefs, the local zoning committee has veto power over how those beliefs are exercised and expressed.” That is, according to Douthat, religious beliefs trump other laws and codes of behavior. He thinks liberals are “confused”:
You can see this confusion at work in the Obama White House’s own Department of Health and Human Services, which created a religious exemption to its mandate requiring employers to pay for contraception, sterilization and the days-after pill that covers only churches, and treats religious hospitals, schools and charities as purely secular operations. The defenders of the H.H.S. mandate note that it protects freedom of worship, which indeed it does. But a genuine free exercise of religion, not so much.
A similar spirit was at work across the Atlantic last month, when a judge in Cologne, Germany, banned circumcision as a violation of a newborn’s human rights. Here again, defenders of the decision insisted that it didn’t trample on any Jew’s or Muslim’s freedom of belief…. So while the ruling would not technically outlaw Jewish theology or Jewish worship, it would effectively outlaw Judaism itself.
(Where is Douthat when it comes to defending “Sharia law”?)
Douthat does admit that “every freedom has its limits. We do not allow people to exercise beliefs that require, say, forced marriage or honor killing. You can believe in the gods of 15th-century Mesoamerica, but neither Chicago values nor American ones permit the use of Aztec sacrificial altars on the South Side.” (Hmm, when Douthat writes of “Chicago values,” he wouldn’t be dog-whistling Barack Obama, would he?) So, it is permissible to deprive women of reproductive choices and neonates of their prepuces, but forced marriages and honor killings are a bridge too far. It is notable that Douthat himself will not be needing women’s health services, and it’s a few decades too late for him to do anything about circumcision. Of course, he might decide to have his own sons circumcised, and he evidently wants to retain that right.
So there is a line. Women’s reproductive rights and Chick-fil-A’s hiring practice fall on one side of it; forced marriage and murder on the other side. Where exactly is the line, then? Douthat has set himself up as “the decider.” He will decide what “the limits of freedom” are for the majority of us. So no Dionysian sacrifices, no “Wives for Sale” ads. Great. But Douthat thinks that – except in such extreme cases as forced marriage and sacramental murder – religious believers have a right to impose their beliefs on others as part of their “’free exercise’ of religion.” People with narrow religious beliefs are more equal than others. The rest of us are necessarily and correctly – in Douthat’s view – victims of the “more equal” believers. That is an astounding philosophy, and one that Douthat has consistently held.
In his column today, Douthat makes clear that every religious citizen – not just those operating within a religious community – have extraordinary rights to impose not their religious beliefs but their religious practices on others. That’s why he means when he refers to “the religious liberties afforded to congregations … extending to religious businessmen.” That is, we must all abide by the beliefs of the few. Not just respect their beliefs – abide by them if not adhere to them. For us to live by our own beliefs is to deprive them of their First Amendment rights.
It doesn’t occur to Douthat that such a scenario – in a multi-cultural society – is worse than unfair. It is impossible to establish. Today a friend sent me a link to a post in the Daily Kos complaining about the Mormon practice of baptizing the dead of other faiths. In “a 2010 pact…, the Mormon Church promised to at least prevent proxy baptism requests for Holocaust victims.” Apparently, the Mormons continued the practice anyway. This year, “prominent Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has called on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney to ‘speak to his own church’ and ask them to stop performing posthumous proxy baptisms on Jews…. Wiesel said that proxy baptisms have been performed on behalf of 650,000 Holocaust dead.” Obviously, the religious beliefs of the Mormons and Jews cannot be reconciled in this regard, and the adherents to one belief or the other will have to constrict their “free exercise of religion.” Either the Mormons will have to stop baptizing Jews, or Jews will continue to be victims of Mormon beliefs. One way or the other, there’s a loser here.
How does Douthat deal with this conundrum? He picks a winner. He has not picked a winner and loser in the Mormon-Jewish dispute, but he has chosen winners and losers in other fundamentalist-progressive Christian disagreements. He has decided that his orthodox Roman Catholic beliefs are more valid that yours, and that he and his church have a right to impose those beliefs on you. If you’re an employee of a Church-run hospital or a student at a Church-run university who needs contraceptive protection, too bad. Similarly, Douthat chooses the fundamentalist beliefs of Dan Cathy, the Chicken King, over those of, say, Episcopalians or Church of Christ congregations. If you’re a gay person who would like to manage a Chick-fil-A store, that’s apparently too bad, no matter how qualified you might be for the job.
As is typical of Douthat, he thinks the whole “confusion” comes down to sex: “To the extent that the H.H.S. mandate, the Cologne ruling and the Chick-fil-A controversy reflect a common logic rather than a shared confusion, then, it’s a logic that regards Western monotheism’s ideas about human sexuality – all that chastity, monogamy, male-female business – as similarly incompatible with basic modern freedoms.” No, Ross, you chose examples where sex is tangentially related to religious beliefs. Substitute “interracial” for “gay” in the Chick-fil-A controversy and it would have aroused the same horrified response from “liberals.” It is true that some religious groups – like the male Roman Catholic hierarchy – are sex-obsessed, so such groups more commonly raise issues related to sexuality than they insist upon their First Amendment right to perform ritual killings. (Animal ritual killings? A-Okay in the U.S.A.) It is not “Western monotheism’s ideas about human sexuality” that are “incompatible with basic modern freedoms.” It is some monotheists’ narrow ideas about human sexuality that impose upon basic modern freedoms – like the guarantee of universal equal protection.
At the top of his column, Douthat ruminates on the meaning of religious freedom:
The words ‘freedom of belief’ do not appear in the First Amendment. Nor do the words ‘freedom of worship.’ Instead, the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans something that its authors called ‘the free exercise’ of religion. It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair.
Douthat makes a big deal of the obvious. Nobody can prevent you from believing something, but others can prevent you from acting on that belief. The authors of the Constitution recognized that. That’s why they guaranteed you the right to build a church (or a mosque!) where you can engage in “the free exercise of religion” with your co-religionists. You can tell each other fantastic Bible stories as if they are true things. You can proclaim that marriage is between a man and a woman. Amen, amen. You can declaim against pleasurable sex. You can walk outside the church and carry out those beliefs in the way you conduct your daily life. I won’t bother you.
But do not impose your specific beliefs on me. Stick to the general rule of religion, please, the one all religions hold: “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” Sometimes the solution is simple.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com