Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Moderation Means Respecting the Right of Christian Bakers to Discriminate, Correct? A Consideration of the Argument

At Talking Points Memo today, Ed Kilgore offers a very persuasive argument for why the religious freedom campaign may be backfiring right now for conservatives. As he notes, when the religious and political right put the campaign together in the past several years (under the leadership of the Vatican and the U.S. Catholic bishops, something I noted here as 2011 got underway), conservatives imagined they had a winning campaign on their hands. 

It allowed people of various religious stripes to gather under the single banner of religious freedom, a core American value. And it allowed them to depict the Obama administration as posing a serious threat to core American values, middle-of-the-road values, including the right to worship in peace according to one's conscience without infringement from the government.

But today this campaign is badly faltering, Kilgore reports. And he's right. It's faltering, he suggests, because its own political actions have given away its game: it's a campaign to enshrine in law extremist positions of selected religious communities about issues like contraception and homosexuality. And the longer the religious freedom campaigners talk about what's behind their religious freedom campaign, and the more we see that campaign spelled out in legislation like the "religious freedom" law just passed in Arizona, the more apparent the extremism becomes--precisely to the "mushy middle" to whom this campaign was designed initially to appeal.

As Kilgore notes, what has transpired with the religious right's attack on Obamacare's contraceptive mandate (an attack mounted under the rubric of religious freedom) is that the religious right has sought to mainstream the extreme, marginal view that the "morning-after pill" is an "abortifacient," and that the Obama administration is seeking to compel religious groups which object to abortion to support abortions through the Affordable Care Act. The religious right, including the Catholic bishops of the U.S., has ended up arguing for the "right" of private businesses like Hobby Lobby to discriminate against employees in the provision of healthcare on grounds of conscience--because these businesses persist in maintaining that the morning-after pill is an abortifacient no matter what compelling scientific consensus says about how this contraceptive works.

And then the argument that bakers and florists and photographers are being discriminated against and that their religious freedom is being violated, when they refuse services to same-sex couples on grounds of conscience: as Kilgore notes, once again, when we see the extremism that defenders of "religious freedom" are now seeking to enshrine in law, ostensibly to defend such business owners, the "moderate" argument with which the religious-freedom campaign claimed to begin appears to be not moderate in the least. 

Kilgore writes,

Similarly, the effort to "protect" religious believers from the consequences of a sudden shift in policies on same-sex marriage began as a reasonable-sounding request for two-way tolerance that might unite the near-majority of Americans who are not presently "comfortable" towards marriage equality with those whose views had recently "evolved."
But the more the demands for religious "exemptions" from compliance with new marriage laws have become concrete, the less reasonable they have seemed. Nobody’s talking about requiring that religious communities perform same-sex marriages (or for that matter, ordain gay ministers, the most heated issue within many U.S. Christian communities). So the martyr's cross of the "persecuted" must be found among the small ranks of marriage professionals who refuse to bake wedding cakes with two plastic men on top, or offer to offer planning services to two women.

I think Kilgore's absolutely correct in this analysis. I'd go further and argue that his analysis provides a very strong argument for concluding that private businesses like bakeries, florists, photography studios, or Hobby Lobby should not be permitted to claim religious warrant to discriminate against targeted minority groups. Because what they are about as they press this claim is the very opposite of moderation and holding together the center of American culture . . . . 

Yesterday, a reader of Bilgrimage, gbullough, left a comment here about this debate. He wrote, 

Truth to tell, I'm not entirely convinced that a tiny bakery or a one-man show shouldn't be given the latitude to turn down any business for any reason (not corporations; not accommodations like hotels or restaurants or housing) particularly if it involves some deeply-held religious belief.

This argument is a facet of a broader argument pushed by gbullough in the same comment, which accepts the claim that "Christian" bakers are under attack by gay radicals who are seeking to force these bakers and other "Christians" who object to providing goods to gay people to violate their consciences. Andrew Sullivan appears to take the same tack in a posting yesterday at his Dish site about the religious objections of bakers, florists, photographers, etc.--just as he does in defending the Little Sisters of the Poor as they object to signing paperwork that would permit a third-party to handle the provision of contraceptive coverage to their employees to which they object: Sullivan writes,

My view is that in a free and live-and-let-live society, we should give them space. As long as our government is not discriminating against us, we should be tolerant of prejudice as long as it does not truly hurt us. 

And, of course, I disagree. I disagree because such prejudice--and the discrimination in which it issues when it refuses services or goods to targeted minority groups on grounds of conscience--do truly hurt us. They hurt all of us.

One of the most crystal-clear lessons I learned growing up in the segregated South and during the Civil Rights movement is that permitting any group within the body politic to claim, on grounds of conscience and religious belief, that it should have a "right" to engage in discrimination against targeted minority groups affects all of us. This behavior certainly affects those targeted by the discrimination.

But it affects the entire body politic by permitting islands of resistance to democratic principles and human rights to be established within society as a whole--thereby undermining the democratic principles and affirmation of human rights on which the entire society depends as it seeks the common good. From the beginning, the story of American democracy has been all about the gradual, contested extension of rights from the minority of white male property owners who initially enjoyed rights and privileges denied to others including non-property owners, people of color, and women. 

At each juncture in American history at which a broadening consensus develops which maintains that one of the excluded outsider groups should have as much right as the insider group to enjoy the rights and privileges cherished by the insider group, resistance predictably develops. The outsider group seeking rights and privileges for itself is accused of radical activity that justifies the heated and often violent resistance of the insider group.

Suffragettes were just asking for it when they marched in the streets like hooligans, asking for "rights," when they should have been at home tending to their husbands and children. They were asking for the beatings, imprisonment, and force-feeding that they got from the male rulers of their world. 

An argument I heard over and over again as I grew up in the South as the Civil Rights movement came along was an argument of pseudo-moderation which went something like this: if they'd only stop the agitating, the chip-on-the-shoulder screaming about rights, we'd work out some way to comply. With all deliberate speed. We nice white people who never wanted to deny rights to them after all, in any case . . . . 

These are, as I say, predictable arguments. They have to do with a predictable dynamic of hot resistance to the claims of rising new groups who maintain that the democratic principles articulated in the foundational documents of the nation apply to them, too, and not only to the already privileged groups that want to restrict the reading of those documents so that they do not apply to new groups coming along to claim human rights.

These entirely predictable arguments on the part of dominant groups resisting the intrusion of new groups into the center are posturing, mendacious arguments about a moderate middle that doesn't really exist in American society when any group is denied basic human rights. They are posturing, mendacious arguments that refuse ever to take into account the unmerited power and privilege of those in the mythic center who offer such arguments to impede, slow down, and turn back the rising human rights tide represented by outsider groups claiming their rights.

They are, above all, posturing, mendacious arguments which seek to paint what is extremist and harmful to the common good as moderate: in the case of "Christian" bakers and Hobby Lobby, they seek to depict destructive discrimination, which frays the common good and illicitly appeals to religious warrants, as moderate. As "religious freedom."

But as the legislation just passed by the Arizona legislature demonstrates as clearly as possible, absolutely none of this is about moderation. And it hasn't been from the outset, when the religious and political right cooked up this phony "religious freedom" crusade several years ago.

Moderation is never the name of the game, when those resisting the extension of human rights to targeted minority groups claim a "right" to special privileges of continued discrimination against the targeted group on grounds of conscience and religious belief. Never has been over the course of American history up to the present. Never will be.

The graphic is from the website of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, and is a photo of a kind of sign once typical in many places in the U.S. (and Canada), which informed Jewish patrons of a business or a public place like a beach that only Gentiles were welcome at the business or public place.

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