Monday, April 13, 2015

The "Because Freedom" Argument of (Some) American Catholics Justifying Denial of Goods and Services to LGBT Folks: A Consideration of Moral Parameters

So a man logs into my Facebook page to inform me that he and whatever business he wants to operate have every right in the world to choose to whom to sell or deny goods, to whom to provide or not offer services. This is America. It's a free country. Butt out of my business and my freedom.

This man is not my Facebook friend. He was (until I chose to block him) reading my Facebook feed via the page of a Facebook friend of mine. 

He's a staunch, influential Catholic. In fact, he's an international leader in the movement to strengthen faltering (heterosexual) marriages, Retrouvaille, which has Catholic roots and is largely confined to Catholic dioceses and parishes. He lives in Houston. 

When he offers me his this-is-a-free-country, butt-out-of-my-business argument, I tell him I'm suprised to hear he defends withholding goods and services from people because they happen to be black. I had hoped we had gotten beyond this point as a society, I say. He shoots back a response to the effect, "I most certainly don't support that. That's immoral!"

And so I tell him that I understand his point now: it's immoral to withhold goods and services from people because of their skin color, but it's perfectly moral to do the same to people due to their sexual orientation. I ask him how he can justify an argument that people should have unrestricted freedom to treat others any way they choose to treat them, including in a discriminatory way, when he's a devout Catholic and a leader in a Catholic movement. 

I tell him that Catholic thinking about these issues is, as I've always understood, framed by notions of the common good: freedom is a wonderful thing, but not an absolute thing. In the social context, it has to be weighed against the common good. When my exercise of freedom threatens to make your life a misery and so undermines the common good, then my freedom would appear to have moral limits that I need to examine carefully. Because you and I occupy the planet together, and what I do has implications for you. I have to consider the effects of my freedom in a social context because you are there and what I do has effects on you . . . . 

He replies that I'm a very judgmental person, and so I decide to go whole hog as the judgmental person that I am, and I block him. I don't want him reading my Facebook feed. I don't want to deal with his glozening, insincere, and ultimately very adolescent arguments that are, when all is said and done, all about his assertion of a right to treat me and other members of the minority community to which I belong like dirt, and to claim that God approves. And freedom, a word he and many other Americans have turned into a mindless shibboleth that means almost nothing except, "Don't bother me with concerns about you. Don't tread on me. I'll do what I want when I damn' well please, and I'm not about to be impeded by any chatter about morality and the common good."

It puzzles me that this argument continues to have such force among American Catholics, in particular. It puzzles me that this way of thinking holds such sway among so many American Catholics, when it runs directly counter to some of the most fundamental assertions of Catholic social teaching, which stress that freedom can never be an unlimited thing in a healthy and moral society, but must be exercised within a social network in which the lives and well-being of other human beings count, too, as I put my freedom into play.

I'm struck by the number of American Catholics today who say that requiring bakers, say, to provide the same goods and services to LGBT human beings that they provide to African-American or Jewish or Muslim human beings is an intolerable imposition on the freedom of bakers. "Let people be free to do what they want," I hear many Catholics arguing right now. "Stop coercing them. The market will decide all of this in the end, anyway."

Note what these folks are really arguing: they're either arguing that our society made a fatal wrong turn when it instructed businesses to stop discriminating on the basis of race (and how does one get from Catholic teaching and values to that position, I ask myself?), or they're arguing that gay folks are somehow different: sexual orientation is a totally new ballgame.

What we cannot and would not ever permit to be done on the basis of race, even when religion is dragged into the picture as our warrant, is discussable and thinkable when we're talking about LGBT human beings. Because religion.

(Even though Southern whites resisting racial integration used that very same because-religion argument to justify their assertion of a right to deny goods and services to people on racial grounds, and as a nation, we eventually delcared that argument beside the point, off-limits, no longer to be entertained . . . .)

As a thought experiment, I fantasize about asking the U.S. Catholics who mount these arguments to justify permitting bakers and wedding planners and candlestick-makers to withhold goods and services from people on the basis of sexual orientation why they have suddenly decided that it's a great idea to put signs into windows saying, "No Irish need apply," or "Italians not welcome here."

Because freedom

Something tells me that when the discussion is framed that way, freedom would no longer be the bright and shining thing it is for many U.S. Catholics when discrimination against gay people is being entertained. And there'd no longer be the lazy, glib, morals-lite suggestion that the market should be allowed to function as some kind of god to sort out these issues of discrimination and non-discrimination, these issues of human rights.

As if "the market" has ever functioned in that godlike fashion . . . .

The graphic is an ad that appeared in the New York Times in 1854, which has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by Rjensen.

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