I’ve posted several defenses of religious exemptions on BHL, particularly those requested by objectors to the HHS contraception mandate and forcing people to serve gay couples against their conscience. I have been dismayed at the hostility I’ve encountered from some of you, from fellow academics and, in particular, other professional philosophers.
There are many reasons for this hostility, among them the lack of respect for religious belief increasingly popular among progressives and American intellectual elites. But I think there’s a reason for hostility that is worth examining in some detail. This hostility is based on the sense that those insisting on their religious liberty, and those defending such individuals, are hypocrites. Here’s the progressive and secular libertarian thought:
Those insisting on religious exemptions are largely religious conservatives who support using coercion to ban gay marriage, and so when they complain about religious liberty, they’re demanding special treatment. They support religious liberty for me and not for thee.
Such was the reaction to my sharing an article of Ross Douthat’s on Facebook. Douthat claims that conservatives aren’t being allowed to negotiate the “terms of our surrender” on the gay marriage issue. The left, says Douthat, will show religious conservatives no mercy. Instead of being content with relegating defenders of traditional marriage to cultural minority status, the left insists on branding everyone who holds to traditional marriage a bigot or anti-gay. Where gays were once stigmatized (and still are), they now will be liberated and the stigma shifted to religious conservatives.
One of my co-bloggers, secular but ordinarily highly respectful of religious believers, pointed out that he was unsympathetic to religious conservatives complaining about religious liberty, even if he was sympathetic to allowing religious exemptions. The thought, again, was that religious conservatives are demanding special treatment.
And there’s something to this worry. Conservatives who think it is the business of the state to enforce the True Moral View don’t have much ground to complain when they’re on the losing end of moralistic state coercion.*
This is how coercion discredits liberty. If conservatives had not insisted on legislating their definition of marriage, there would be less hostility to their requests for religious liberty.
We can draw a more general lesson: the cause of liberty is set back when people insist on liberty for themselves and not for those they despise, dislike or disagree with. If Douthat had not supported legislating traditional marriage in the past, people might take his concerns more seriously.
Now, I agree with Douthat’s general concern. I don’t want my fellow Christians treated like bigots for trying to follow Jesus as honestly and consistently as they know how. Regardless of my own views on marriage (traditional libertarian), I love my brothers and sisters in Jesus and want to protect them from scorn.
More important, however, is treating gay and lesbian Christians much better, giving them the love and community they need. Far too many believers forget this, in part because the gays and lesbians in the church still feel too afraid to speak out and share their experiences and struggles. We have a duty to remove this atmosphere of fear and shame, whatever our moral views of about homosexual sex acts.
In sum, everyone deserves liberty, and those prepared to coercively impose their views on others set back that cause by demanding special treatment.
Update: Sarah has already opined on this, very nicely.
*Notice how few conservatives actually argue that they have cause to complain because they merit religious liberty in virtue of holding the True Moral View, whereas gays and lesbians merit less liberty in virtue of living out the False Moral View. A more consistent conservative perfectionism would make this claim, but even conservatives, I think, want to resist perfectionist reasoning in some cases.