Much Ado About Religious Liberty

When you back a conman, eventually you get conned.

Long-time readers already know how I feel about the corruption of the terms religious freedom and religious liberty in recent years, which I put bluntly in 2013 in “Religious Freedom means Christian Passive-Aggressive Domination“. In 2015, I explained that bigotry in America has always hidden behind religious justifications in “You Don’t Have to Hate Anybody to be a Bigot“. So if you think your religious reasons to discriminate against people because of their sexuality or their gender identity are substantively different from the reasons people gave to support slavery or Jim Crow, you need to study history more closely.

That’s why I’ve never been moved by the plight of conservative Christian pharmacists forced to provide contraception they disapprove of, or Christian florists who get sued for discriminating against same-sex couples, or Christian employers whose workers might use their health insurance in ways forbidden by the employer’s doctrine.

Non-Christians, or even Christians from unpopular denominations, bump up against this kind of difficulty all the time — and get no sympathy from Baptists or Catholics: The Hindu steakhouse waitress can quit, but she can’t insist on keeping her job without serving cow flesh. A Jehovah’s Witness EMT can’t refuse to give blood transfusions, and a Christian Scientist nurse can’t get away with just praying for her patients.

People from less popular faiths routinely pay taxes to support things they disapprove of: Pacifist Quakers finance wars, vegetarians pay meat inspectors, orthodox Jews provide food stamps so that people can buy bacon, and so on. The most extreme case is that of atheists, who are forced to carry around (and even distribute to others) pieces of paper saying “In God We Trust”. Imagine the outcry if Christians had to use money that proclaimed “God is dead”.

In short, Christian conservatives imagine that they’re persecuted, but in fact they want special rights. They think that the law should give their moral quandaries unique consideration while ignoring everyone else’s comparable concerns. And it’s even OK if their special rights come at the expense of people who don’t share their beliefs: Employees should have to pay for their own contraception, and if they have to search for a drug store that will supply it, too bad for them. Gays shouldn’t be able to participate in the economy like anybody else, but should always have to check whether their business is welcome. Women who have been getting publicly-funded mammograms or Pap smears at a convenient local clinic should have to go somewhere else; not because they have moral objections to Planned Parenthood, but because someone else does — someone whose beliefs get more respect under the law.

So you can imagine how I was dreading the ceremony at the White House Thursday, when Trump would unveil his “Presidential Executive Order Promoting Free Speech and Religious Liberty“. But in spite of previously leaked versions, the final order was surprisingly lightweight. Paul Waldman says it well:

But when the final order was written, it turned out to be a whole lot of nothing. Instead of creating broad exemptions from laws and regulations for conservative Christians who want to discriminate against LGBT people or not follow the law on providing contraception benefits in employee health plans, it merely instructed various departments to enforce current law or issue guidance to other departments.

Waldman finds this to be typical of Trump’s over-hyped executive orders (at least the ones unrelated to immigration):

Over and over, the White House takes some issue that Trump has promised to aggressively act on, and then issues an executive order that studies it, examines it or investigates it but doesn’t actually do anything about it.

If you want to know just how vacuous the order was, consider this: The ACLU decided it’s not worth suing over.

“Today’s executive order signing was an elaborate photo-op with no discernible policy outcome,” ACLU director Anthony Romero said in a statement. “After careful review of the order’s text we have determined that the order does not meaningfully alter the ability of religious institutions or individuals to intervene in the political process.”

And in spite of the smiling faces at the White House, a lot of Trump’s supporters noticed the bait-and-switch he had played on them. National Review called the order “dangerous nothingness“. The Alliance Defending Freedom said the order “recalls” Trump’s campaign promises “but leaves them unfulfilled”.

Strange how that works: When you back a conman, sometimes you get conned. The Little Sisters of the Poor give Trump a great photo op, and he gives them … what, exactly?

Right after the election, I listed a number of things I’d be watching for in a Trump administration. One of them was “taking credit for averting dangers that never existed”. That’s what this is: Maybe you’ve been imagining that Christian preachers are afraid to express their political views because they live in fear of over-zealous persecution by the IRS. (I can barely imagine what Franklin Graham and Pat Robertson have been holding back.) Well, you can stop now, because this order puts an end to that non-existent practice.

Not that I think Trump’s evangelical supporters should have gotten more. They want unfair advantages over the rest of us, so I’m not crying that they didn’t get any on Thursday.

But conservative Christians might well ask what I want out of them. It’s a fair question, and the answer is simple: I want them to state a definition of religious freedom that is not tied to their specific doctrines or issues (like same-sex marriage or abortion); that applies equally to everyone; and that they would be willing to defend not just as it applies to Christians they agree with, but also to Christians they think are heretics, to Muslims, Hindus, New Agers, atheists, and everyone else.

Lincoln said, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” That’s the attitude I’m looking for: Don’t just tell me the rights you want for yourself, tell me what rights you are willing to defend for others.

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  • Lydia Spitzer  On May 8, 2017 at 9:53 am

    So comforting to have something that “oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed” given lucid emphasis. A blurb on the back of a new book about Leahy refers to his “accurate moral compass.” Such a thing is of little use if it can’t be clarified. You’re my go-to clarifier these days — thank you!!!

  • Nancy  On May 8, 2017 at 11:09 am


  • Worshipfulness  On May 8, 2017 at 11:27 am

    This reminded me of the recent ‘Free Speech Controversy’ with college students protesting speakers and shouting them down/preventing them from being heard. I’ve heard on NPR that some states are considering legislation to prevent this from happening and I think that is the result of a fundamental misunderstanding of ‘Freedom of Speech.’ It’s the freedom to speak, not the freedom to be heard. You can say what you want, but if enough people also want to say what they want at the same time you’re speaking, then that’s their right. Ironically, this ‘defense of Free Speech’ is actually an attack.

    • weeklysift  On May 8, 2017 at 12:11 pm

      You mean there’s no freedom to make other people sit down and shut up? Damn.

      • pauljbradford  On May 9, 2017 at 10:58 am

        Preventing others from speaking is antithetical to free speech, and it is not something true liberals would do.

    • Guest  On May 8, 2017 at 5:06 pm

      I think I agree completely with Your Worshipfulness here Doug, but the defense of the position underlines how messy things can get, at least in principle. It calls to mind the tree falling in the woods. If others are actively making it so that nobody can hear you, how much is your freedom of speech worth? Maybe there’s no freedom to make others sit down and shut up, but if we plug our ears and shout over whoever we disagree with then maybe we get a working approximation. I just have my doubts about it as a long term strategy.

      • Anonymous Poster  On May 9, 2017 at 10:54 am

        “If others are actively making it so that nobody can hear you, how much is your freedom of speech worth?”

        If this were a day and age where someone’s message could be effectively silenced by, say, cancellations of speaking engagements or book deals, this question might have more sting. But this is a day and age where anyone with a YouTube account and enough followers on social media can get their message out.

        With that said, I also say “let people like Ann Coulter and Milo Yiannopoulous speak on college campuses”. They want the attention and the notoriety that comes with these protests, after all. But I would also suggest that their critics stop protesting. Coulter and Milo are but trolls who want the attention of rabid frothing crowds, regardless of who is actually in the crowd. Antipathy towards those trolls—paired with a robust and critical discussion of their ideas that revolves around those ideas instead of the messengers—will do more to shrink audiences for the trolls more than protests ever could.

      • Guest  On May 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm

        I think we are of one mind here, Poster. But let’s not take social media as a golden bullet free speech protector for granted. We need look no further than Russia, China, and in the extreme, North Korea, to see censorship at work on the internet. Net neutrality is on the ropes under Trump here at home, which is bad enough, but meanwhile the big brother surveillance and manipulation from govt and corporations alike, started under Bush II and expanded under Obama, show no signs of throwing in the towel.

        I completely agree with you on how to handle the trolls you mentioned, but I’m hearing (admittedly anecdotal) stories that “shout em down” style censorship from apparently left of center groups is expanding beyond the usual troll cases on campuses. To affirm Paul’s note above, I’d rather see censorship remain a conservative value.

  • Linda Buechting  On May 8, 2017 at 12:50 pm

    I’m assuming that none of the Trump voters were upset that the Little Sisters of the Poor had scarves that covered their heads. Imagine if some Muslim women had been in the photo-op. Then we would have heard the screams that they were trying to impose their religion on everybody else.

  • Salpy  On May 9, 2017 at 11:09 am

    I haven’t finished reading everything yet, but did want to comment on the “no one dies from lack of health care.” I have a client who ignored his pain and problems after the first ER visit because he couldn’t afford the ER visit and didn’t want to bankrupt his family. Of course, he fell apart anyway, because his condition ran unchecked and now he’s been out of work for over a year because he physically can’t. But had he had better insurance, affording him access to doctors regularly… well, who knows.

    • Salpy  On May 9, 2017 at 11:10 am

      Ughhh, wrong article, scrolled too far. This should have been posted on the main Sift article. Sorry!!

  • michaeljordahl  On May 18, 2017 at 8:52 am

    I wonder how persecuted they would feel if they had to use money with “In Allah We Trust” on it?


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