Election Day 2012: Religious Liberty in the Balance

James Tonkowich | ReligionToday.com Columnist | Friday, November 2, 2012

Election Day 2012: Religious Liberty in the Balance

Reflecting on the 2012 campaign Ethics and Public Policy Center’s George Weigel asks, “Do you want to live in a country that cherishes and protects religious freedom in full? Or do you want to live in a country where religious freedom has been demoted to a ‘privacy’ right to certain weekend leisure activities?”

The question is truly that stark.

While religious liberty in the United States has never been perfect, ebbing and flowing from one generation to the next, we are in the midst of an unprecedented erosion of this most basic freedom.

Now, to be realistic, a Romney victory will probably not usher in a golden age of religious liberty and an Obama victory will probably not set off religious persecution. Nonetheless, this election will determine our trajectory as a nation. We will either welcome religion into a civil public square or demand its silence and its obedience to the government.

And silence and obedience are already being demanded.

The mandate by the Obama administration’s Department of Health and Human Service that employers must provide — for free — contraception, abortion inducing drugs, and sterilization in their insurance plans ignores religious conviction altogether. Churches narrowly defined and businesses under a certain size are exempt. But church organizations, religious non-profits, religious schools, and private companies with religious and moral opposition to contraception, abortion, and/or sterilization are not exempt.

And lest someone think this is “a Catholic issue,” Wheaton College, Colorado Christian College, Houston Baptist University, Hobby Lobby, and other evangelicals have all filed suit against the government to stop the mandate along with Ave Maria University and EWTN. They understand what is at stake.

Beyond the HHS mandate, gay rights and same-sex marriage have been advancing over the past four years. A Becket Fund study summarized in ‪Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: ‪Emerging Conflicts makes it clear that if same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land, religious liberty will contract.

Court decisions involving gay rights in Colorado and California have already insisted that the only objection to the normalization of same-sex relationships is religious. And since religious arguments are subjective and non-rational, they should never be taken seriously as anything but homophobic prejudice.

In the judgment of people like Chai Fledblum, an Obama appointee to the Equal Rights Commission, when sexual liberation and religious liberty come into conflict, “in almost all cases sexual liberty should win, because that’s the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner.”

R.R. Reno in the May 2012 First Things writes about what he calls the “Selma analogy,” the idea that homosexuality and race are equivalent:

Unlike social conservatives who (abortion excepted) do not look to the coercive power of the state as necessary, or even useful, in their goal of restoring traditional moral views, progressives … self-consciously and programmatically seek to use the power of the state to achieve their goals. The Selma analogy gives them a rationale for deploying the vast coercive power of the civil-rights apparatus to serve their moral vision of sexual liberation. It’s a prospect that will give an even more literal meaning to the dictatorship of relativism.

Increasingly our culture lacks any belief in a transcendent morality built into the world by a good and gracious God. As a result, the notion of “inalienable rights” to things like religious liberty is, for many, little more than a quaint relic of the past. What’s left? Power — the power to control and coerce in order to force my will on everyone.

No doubt many brave pastors, Christian leaders, teachers, and parents would be willing to teach the whole counsel of God regarding life, marriage, family, and holy living even with federal and state agencies listening in for infractions. But if we can avoid that and repair some of the damage that has already been done to our religious liberty, we should. And we can begin on Tuesday in the voting booth.

Publication date: November 2, 2012