Hey AP: Where is religious left on religious liberty issues?

A long, long time ago, 1998 to be precise, I wrote a column marking the 10th anniversary of my weekly “On Religion” column for the Scripps Howard News Service. I opened it with an observation about one of the major changes I had witnessed on the religion beat during the previous 20 years or so.

Add that all up and we’re talking about events in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. At the top, I noted that, when covering news events:

I kept seeing a fascinating cast of characters at events centering on faith, politics and morality. A pro-life rally, for example, would feature a Baptist, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox rabbi and a cluster of conservative Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. Then, the pro-choice counter-rally would feature a “moderate” Baptist, a Catholic activist or two, a Reform rabbi and mainline Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans.

Similar line-ups would appear at many rallies linked to gay rights, sex-education programs and controversies in media, the arts and even science. Along with other journalists, I kept reporting that today’s social issues were creating bizarre coalitions that defied historic and doctrinal boundaries. After several years of writing about “strange bedfellows,” it became obvious that what was once unique was now commonplace.

This led me to the work of a famous scholar who was seeing the same pattern:

Then, in 1986, a sociologist of religion had an epiphany while serving as a witness in a church-state case in Mobile, Ala. The question was whether “secular humanism” had evolved into a state-mandated religion, leading to discrimination against traditional “Judeo-Christian” believers. Once more, two seemingly bizarre coalitions faced off in the public square.

“I realized something there in that courtroom. We were witnessing a fundamental realignment in American religious pluralism,” said James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia. “Divisions that were deeply rooted in our civilization were disappearing, divisions that had for generations caused religious animosity, prejudice and even warfare. It was mind- blowing. The ground was moving.”

The old dividing lines centered on issues such as the person of Jesus Christ, church tradition and the Protestant Reformation. But these new interfaith coalitions were fighting about something even more basic — the nature of truth and moral authority.

Two years later, Hunter began writing “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America,” in which he declared that America now contains two basic world views, which he called “orthodox” and “progressive.” The orthodox believe it’s possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to “resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life.”

Why bring this up? This is the first thing I thought of the other day when GetReligion readers started sending in links to an Associated Press report noting that — prepare to be shocked — various groups in America are taking different stands on same-sex marriage. Thus, they are also taking different stands on some of the public-square issues linked to the right of doctrinal traditionalists to live out their beliefs in the practical details of public life.

In other words, the doctrinal, philosophical divisions of the “culture wars” era are now affecting how our nation’s leaders view religious liberty and, specifically, the free exercise clause in the First Amendment.

Surprised? There is no need to be. The problem is that this story paints this as a division primarily between religious people and secular people. More on that in a minute.

Now, here’s another key fact that is in the background of this Associated Press news feature. Truth is, the old coalitions that used to support religious liberty have been shattered — especially the remarkable left-right coalition that worked with the Clinton White House on issues of “equal access” and religious freedom in the workplace. That change in the legal landscape is now affecting debates among traditionalists about how to defend their beliefs on marriage and family (and religious liberty). Here is some key material near the top of the story:

… (T)raditional religious leaders, their supporters and the First Amendment attorneys advising them are divided over strategy and goals, raising questions about how much they can influence the outcome:

* Several religious liberty experts say conservative faith groups should take a pragmatic approach given the advances in gay rights. Offer to stop fighting same-sex marriage laws in exchange for broad religious exemptions, these attorneys say. “If they need to get those religious accommodations, they’re going to have to move now,” said Robin Fretwell Wilson, a family law specialist at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Critics reject the idea as a premature surrender.

* Religious leaders lobbying for exemptions can’t agree how broad they should be. A major difference is over whether for-profit companies should qualify for a faith-based exception.

* Some religious liberty advocates and faith leaders are telling houses of worship they could be forced to host gay weddings, with their clergy required to officiate. The Louisiana Baptist Convention is advising congregations to rewrite their bylaws to state they only allow heterosexual marriage ceremonies, and the Alliance Defending Freedom, a religious liberty group that opposes same-sex marriage, is advising the same. But legal experts across a spectrum of views on gay rights say it can’t happen given strong First Amendment protections for what happens inside the sanctuary.

“A few people at both ends of the spectrum have talked about religion and religious freedom in a way that is really destructive,” said Brian Walsh, executive director of the Ethics & Public Policy’s American Religious Freedom program which has formed legislative caucuses so far in 18 states. “I think they’ve made it polarized and difficult to understand.”

All kinds of fine details get mashed in some of those summaries. For example, the question is whether individual owners of for-profit companies (think Hobby Lobby) retain freedom of conscience to set policies for their own companies. Also, few people are questioning freedom of worship (that’s the Obama White House stand), the question is the status of court cases that have established wider Constitutional rights of religious liberty.

But, as a whole, this story provides a quick summary of the landscape of the arguments that are taking place among those defending religious liberty.

So what is missing? Near the end of the story, readers learn:

Many cities and states have anti-discrimination ordinances that include sexual orientation, setting up fines or other penalties for failing to comply. Absent an exemption, objectors may have to shut down their businesses or give up their jobs, religious leaders say. They argue losing your livelihood is too harsh a punishment for views on such a core religious issue as marriage.

But gay rights advocates say this argument puts too heavy a burden on gays and lesbians, and presents them with an unfair set of choices.

“In some states, the price of equality in marriage has been agreeing to give up protections against discrimination as part of the negotiations,” said Jenny Pizer, senior counsel for the gay rights group Lambda Legal. “In ways, I think, other politically vulnerable groups are not required to pay that price.”

And there’s more on the cultural left:

Jonathan Rauch, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is one of the very few gay-rights supporters publicly urging fellow advocates to be more magnanimous. He argues that offering religious accommodations makes sense politically.

“I think there’s a real risk that we will overreach and set up the other side to portray itself as the victim if we decide we have to stamp out every instance of religious based anti-gay discrimination,” Rauch said. “I also think that there’s a moral reason. What the gay rights movement is fighting for is not just equality for gays but freedom of conscience to live openly according to their identity. I don’t think we should be in the business of being as intolerant of others as they were to us.”

Others reject such accommodations.

Rose Saxe, an ACLU senior staff attorney, said the call for a middle ground, “while trying to sound reasonable, is really asking for a license to discriminate.” And the Rev. Darlene Nipper of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force said religious groups have another choice: They can accept same-sex marriage.

So what is missing? As is often the case, this story assumes that this debate is taking place between traditional religious believers and a secular coalition of gay-rights advocates. In other words, the story omits the “Culture Wars” factor in the religious landscape.

Where are the views of religious liberals in this story? Where are the leaders of the denominations that actively favor same-sex marriage and what they view as the modernization of both ancient religious doctrines and the nation’s approach to the First Amendment? This is not, trust me, just a debate between religious people and secular people.

So the camp of the “orthodox” made it into this story. Where are the believers in the camp of the “progressives”? What are they saying about these religious-liberty cases?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Thomas Nichols

    Are you referring to the same 1990s when you cited to a salacious hit piece in Penthouse as a source in an attempt to smear the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island? Those 1990s? Terry, really. I would think you might want to put that behind you.

    You are correct in that Christians are not monolithic on the subject of gay people and their place in our society. See here for a good discussion: http://notalllikethat.org/about/

    • tmatt

      Nice slam. No, I was actually talking about the press doing serious coverage of the doctrinal and political views of liberal churches that are taking part in the religious liberty debates. BTW, there are still some liberal religious leaders who are sticking with their old liberal views that strongly support free exercise of religion. The left includes some diversity on this.

  • Philmonomer

    Is “religious liberty” now just code for a right to discriminate against gays?

    [Well, I suppose there is the Hobby Lobby court case, so maybe not entirely...]

    • tmatt

      No, it’s a reference to free speech, freedom of association and the free exercise of religion. That affects of host of issues, not just changes in gay-rights laws.

      • Philmonomer

        In theory, sure.

        In practice–right now, at least–it seems to mostly mean 1 thing.

        • Opinionated Catholic

          That really does not seem to be bore out by the facts. From Orthodox Jews in New York , to the debate over anti Sharia laws , to Mosque in Tenn , to various religious liberty rights on the college campus there is a good bit of religious liberty action

    • Opinionated Catholic

      It is not ” code ” Do the issues involve the right to dicriminate. Well in part they do. Not all discrimination is bad. We discriminate every day in the choices we make and what we wish to affirm. In this case do you aas a Baker have a right to discriminate against a gay person by not selling them a donut and cup of coffee . I think not. However do you have a right to discriminate by not being forced to affirm their sex same marriage ceremony by being forced to make a wedding cake. I suspect and I indeed think you mght.

      Still ” religious liberty’ is more than the discrimination issue. Ir really has in the background the fascinating battle between negative liberty ( Govt Shall not ) to its newer brother positive liberty ( your rights are useless unless the Govt helps you use them ). Thus in just a few short decades we have gone from Court cases that said on Birth Control issues the Govt SHALL STAY OUT to the Government proclaiming since its a right we have to pay for it via the HHS Mandate.

      The role as positive vs negative liberty is a fascinating one in the relgious context and I hope some future reporting goes into that. Faith Communities accross the spectrum are actually big on positive liberty. A right ot an education , a right to a living wage, a right to health care etc. The problem is perhaps as we see in these religious liberty cases that they are TOO IN all the way and give little thought for the need of some negative liberty protections. I think that is largely playing a role in all this. Perhaps someday an article might get into it

      • Philmonomer

        However do you have a right to discriminate by not being forced to affirm their sex same marriage ceremony by being forced to make a wedding cake.

        This would have more force if you also affirm that it is ok for a baker to not make a cake for an inter-racial couple, if that baker sincerely believes that “race-mixing” is an affront to God and against the Bible.

        The role as positive vs negative liberty is a fascinating one in the relgious context and I hope some future reporting goes into that.

        I am not sure there is anything to this, as most any right can be framed in either a negative or positive form.

        • Opinionated Catholic

          Actually like Rod Dreher recently has I do affirm that as to an interracial couple scenario. Sometimes the Govt power just peters out no matter how bad we think the injustice is. We have to use other levels of power and influence

          That being said the positive vs negative libety is a big deal and recognized as such. It is very play in the area of reproductice rights issues. See the cases of Pharmarcist and plan b

          In fact as to Obama care the Positive vs Negative liberty dynamic played out big time not only in the discussion but at the Supreme Court oral arguements itself.

          Law Prof Josh Blackman laid that out here quite well joshblackman.com/blog/2012/03/28/two-conceptions-of-liberty-in-aca/

          • Philmonomer

            Ok. Points for consistency.

            I don’t know enough about “negative” versus “positive” liberty to comment intelligently about it. [I didn't find the link very helpful.]

          • tmatt

            URL to the Dreher comment please. We cannot assume you are quoting him accurately.

          • Philmonomer

            I also would like a link to the Dreher piece.

            I actually tried to find it online, but after realizing how much stuff he posts, I quickly gave up.

        • tmatt

          At this point, the US Supreme Court has not equated race with the mysterious spectrum of behaviors and orientations linked to same-sex and bisexual- orientation.

          But you guys are arguing about the issues, again, rather than the journalism and Disqus gives us no ability to keep the discussion on topic.

          • Randy McDonald

            And you’re not arguing about the issues, too, if in a more indirect form?

          • tmatt

            I am saying that there are important voices missing from this story and that is a journalism gap.

            I believe the religious left is an important part of this story, that these issues are not a stereotypical fight between believers and secularists.

          • Philmonomer

            I agree wholeheartedly with the point of this blog post. There are religious voices that are missing.

  • FW Ken

    As a general rule, the news media seem to support the notion that religious beliefs have no place in the public square. Therefore, to report on the Religious Left would acknowledge that religious beliefs are actually being played out. I recently got slammed on another blog for noting that as a liberal Protestant, Pres. Obama was acting out liberal Protestant values in his office. Personally, I expect nothing less of any politician. However, it would be nice for reporters to recognize and report on the religious roots of their preferred policies.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    A good recently published book looks at some of the issues mentioned here. It is “Worshipping The State” by Benjamin Wiker who has a PhD and Master’s Degree from Vanderbilt University and has taught at Marquette University. The book looks at how our First Amendment rights are slowly being circumscribed and how the total subordination of the individual to the state is underway.

  • Daniel Merriman

    Maybe the article didn’t cite any progressive religious leaders taking up the cudgels in behalf of religious liberty on the gay discrimination issue is because they couldn’t find any. Anybody on the religious left is so scared stiff of being called haters they wouldn’t dare take any risk of being seen as siding with the troglodytes. The 80′s and 90′s are over. Your frame no longer fits.

    • tmatt

      No, you missed the point. Some on the religious left SUPPORT the changes and have political and doctrinal reasons for doing so. The moral left is NOT all secular. Take liberal religion seriously.

      • Daniel Merriman

        If this is your point:

        So what is missing? As is often the case, this story assumes that this debate is taking place between traditional religious believers and a secular coalition of gay-rights advocates. In other words, the story omits the “Culture Wars” factor in the religious landscape.

        Then I got it. I read the AP story when it first came out, have now read it again, and am still convinced that nothing of any importance or interest is missing. I think it is a very good story, more balanced than I am used to seeing from the AP, and lets people who have thought about the issue speak for themselves. The “strange bedfellows” history of the culture wars is just that– history.

  • dalea

    Part of the issue here is that at least since the late 1950′s, the issue of discrimination has had a strong streak of commercial and economic reasoning in it. IE: it is unjust for a business that uses the infrastructure provided by all taxpayers to refuse to do business with some identifiable group of taxpayers. This argument was used quite effectively against the Jim Crow laws of the South when I was in high school. Under this type of reasoning, bus stations which relied on the public provision of roads could not have two sets of rest areas which were rigourously segregated.
    The same sort of rationale seems to underline the cases we are dealing with here. The main difference is that the old theology of segregation has vanished and most people under 50 never heard of it. Or can believe it existed. Should a baker who relies on taxpayer provided roads for deliveries and customers be allowed to refuse an identifiable group of citizens from his market?

    • erin

      Yes, because the state exists for the individual;the individual does not exist for the state.
      Additionally, your argument assumes a premise that it has to prove, namely that same sex marriage is an equal, common good to society as is traditional marriage. Obviously, this is not even near to being universally agreed upon, and is an entirely novel and untried idea. Same sex marriage is maybe 10 minutes old, historically speaking, and yet its advocates act as if its good to society is a given and as if they have no need to prove their case or disprove arguments against them. And there are many cogent arguments against them (the rights of children to a mother and father, the nuclear family unit as the building block of society, etc).

  • wmrharris

    The concern about the First Amendment is highlighted by the way that some conservatives have pushed for a more expansive understanding — the Hobby Lobby case being perhaps the most dramatic. This naturally will impact the ability of religious moderates to join in (hence the silence). Same impact accompanies discussions on Plan B and the non-supported science.

    This intensification of positions has its analogue in the political sphere, too, as we are regularly reminded that positions once taken by conservative political “saints” would be out of bounds in today’s rhetoric.

    As to your question (where are the religious liberals), that would seem to be a misreading of the actual politics of the mainline. I would suggest that for most it is far less about advocacy than about a civic pluralism, arising out of biblical teachings on hospitality.

  • Stagester

    You ask where is the Christian left? They left Christianity and are secular humanists.

    • Thomas Nichols

      This is obviously not true, no matter how much you would like it to be. http://www.thechristianleft.org/

      • Stagester

        When a denomination no longer holds to the basic tenets of Christianity such as the fact that Christ died for sin, that His word is sacred and true and that he was against homosexuality, divorce, etc… then yeah you’ve left the religion and established a new religion no matter that you hold on to the label. The mainline denominations left Christianity a while ago. I’m most familiar with the PCUSA but you want to read Christianity and Liberalism
        http://books.google.com/books/about/Christianity_and_liberalism.html?id=WVBgg00gJLcC

        • Philmonomer

          So no one who is on the left can be a true Christian? Wow.

          • Stagester

            If that person supports homosexuality, abortion, the fallibility of scripture, they deny that Christ rose from the grave, that he died for their sins, and other basic Christian tenets of Christianity, then yes they are not true Christians. The fact that someone would find that shocking is shocking.

          • Thomas Nichols

            If a person subverts the Great Commandment to their hatred of others and desire to control people’s sex lives, they are not a true Christian.


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