Over the past few decades, the United States has engaged in a great struggle to balance civil rights and religious liberty.
On the one hand, there is a growing consensus that straight, gay and lesbian people deserve full equality with each other. We are to be judged by how we love, not by whom we love. If denying gays and lesbians their full civil rights and dignity is not wrong, then nothing is wrong. Gays and lesbians should not only be permitted to marry and live as they want, but be honored for doing so.
On the other hand, this was a nation founded on religious tolerance. The ways of the Lord are mysterious and are understood differently by different traditions. At their best, Americans have always believed that people should have the widest possible latitude to exercise their faith as they see fit or not exercise any faith. While there are many bigots, there are also many wise and deeply humane people whose most deeply held religious beliefs contain heterosexual definitions of marriage. These people are worthy of tolerance, respect and gentle persuasion.
At its best, the gay rights movement has promoted its cause while carefully respecting religious liberty and the traditional pillars of U.S. society. The cause has focused on marriage and military service. It has not staged a frontal assault on the exercise of faith.
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The 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was supported by Sen. Ted Kennedy and a wide posse of progressives, sidestepped the abstract and polarizing theological argument. It focused on the concrete facts of specific cases. The act basically holds that government sometimes has to infringe on religious freedom in order to pursue equality and other goods, but, when it does, it should have a compelling reason and should infringe in the least intrusive way possible.
This moderate, grounded, incremental strategy has produced amazing results. Fewer people have to face the horror of bigotry, isolation, marginalization and prejudice.
Yet I wonder if this phenomenal achievement is going off the rails. Indiana has passed a state law like the 1993 federal act and sparked an incredible firestorm. If the opponents were arguing that the Indiana statute tightens the federal standards a notch too far, that would be compelling. But that’s not the argument the opponents are making.
Instead, the argument seems to be that the federal act’s concrete case-by-case approach is wrong. The opponents seem to be saying there is no valid tension between religious pluralism and equality. Claims of religious liberty are covers for anti-gay bigotry.
This deviation seems unwise both as a matter of pragmatics and as a matter of principle.
In the first place, if there is no attempt to balance religious liberty and civil rights, the cause of gay rights will be associated with coercion, not liberation. Some people have lost their jobs for expressing opposition to gay marriage. There are too many stories like the Oregon bakery that might have to pay a $150,000 fine because it preferred not to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony. A movement that stands for tolerance does not want to be on the side of a government that compels a photographer who is an evangelical Christian to shoot a same-sex wedding he would rather avoid.
Furthermore, the evangelical movement is evolving. Many young evangelicals understand that their faith should not be defined by this issue. If orthodox Christians are suddenly written out of polite society as modern-day Bull Connors, this would only halt progress, polarize the debate and lead to a bloody war of all against all.
As a matter of principle, it is simply the case that religious liberty is a value deserving our deepest respect, even in cases where it leads to disagreements as fundamental as the definition of marriage.
Morality is a politeness of the soul. Deep politeness means we make accommodations. Certain basic truths are inalienable. Discrimination is always wrong. In cases of actual bigotry, the hammer comes down. But as neighbors in a pluralistic society, we try to turn philosophic clashes (about right and wrong) into neighborly problems in which different people are given space to have different lanes to lead lives. In cases where people with different values disagree, we seek a creative accommodation.
In the Jewish community, conservative Jews are generally polite toward Orthodox Jews who wouldn’t use their cutlery. Men are generally polite to Orthodox women who would prefer not to shake their hands. In the larger community, this respectful politeness works best.
The movement to champion gay rights is now in a position where it can afford to offer this respect, at a point where steady pressure works better than compulsion.
It’s always easier to take an absolutist position. But, in a clash of values like the one between religious pluralism and equality, that absolutism is neither pragmatic, virtuous nor true.
The New York Times