Russ Douthat from the NY Times is a marvelous editorialist. I've enjoyed reading his perspectives on politics and culture over the last few years. Today, Russ contributed to the cultural debate that is raging over the past week regarding the Religious Freedom laws. Truthfully, I had some inkling about the law in its various incarnations over the past decade or two. I do have recollection of President Clinton's words and affirmation of the RF law that he signed into law back in the 90's. Even so, the framework of the law and, as I mentioned above, its multiple manifestations around the country are now under scrutiny in a manner that was NOT an issue during Clinton's presidency.
It appears to me that the cultural conversation regarding homosexuality is taking a very militant shift and I believe Mr. Douthat has raised some necessary questions that highlight that shift. What I'm seeing is not just a growing apathy regarding religious issues and affiliation within our contemporary culture (which many of us have seen growing exponentially over the past decade or two as pluralism and secularism continues to flourish) but a heightening of hostilities. My perceptions are just that…perceptions. I don't claim to have a conclusive "take" on cultural or cultural conversation. I am a student of culture but by no means an expert. Yet, I am noticing what appears to be a deliberate pairing of TWO words within cultural deliberation as of late – I'm seeing the conflation of the words, "religious" and "discriminatory/discrimination." In other words, it appears to me that there are many "forces" (and believe me, I'm not some sort of conspiracy nut job) within culture that are working overtime to insure that any time religion or religious people or principles are discussed within culture that the concepts of moral and societal discrimination immediately come to mind. For me, it is one thing to disagree with people of faith or people of a religiously informed worldview, it is a VAST difference to move beyond disagreement and continue to polarize or demonize those who don't cooperate with rapidly changing societal "norms."
As Mr. Douthat states in his article, there are many disturbing implications of the current conversation regarding the Indiana (and other states) law on Religious Freedom. As I said, it appears that NOW anytime a religious stance is being taken in our society, that the conversation has changed from "I disagree with you" to the accusation of "you are a bigot." Frankly, that one change alone is concerning and alarming. To be sure, the equating or melding of the words, "religious" and "bigoted," can and has been seen as reality in some cases (in my world those instances are extremely rare). In the past (and I'm sure even in the present) there are glaring and shameful examples of that type of behavior. Yet, make no mistake about it, it is NOT a Christian principle to hate any one no matter their behavior or lifestyle. It has happened but it is not what should be happening according to any fair and/or thorough reflection on what many of us believe are the core tenets of Christian ethical imperatives. Even so, what's shocking to me is how intentional some aspects of our society are being in working overtime to convince everyone that IF you are religious you are automatically viewed by the rest of culture as bigoted or discriminatory. Believe me, there are those in culture who KNOW that if they can brand all religious people as bigots or discriminatory then they are close to winning the day. No one likes discrimination and if religious people and institutions are seen as discriminatory…if religious people and institutions become conceptually paired with Jim Crow and discriminatory/racist behavior of a tragic past, that will be one way that religious people and institutions will be publicly humiliated and harassed into submission. It is one way that many who are adherents to a more "liberal" perspective on gay marriage change the conversation from being one of acceptance of variety of opinion, interpretation and action to one of societal coercion. I, for one, really do believe that NO ONE accepts bigotry. And further I believe that NO ONE accepts discrimination (at least from a Christian perspective). Even so, it appears now that IF a person stands for traditional marriage and does not affirm by action and permissive affirmation within every circle of life (including their own) a different agenda that they will be branded as discriminatory or bigoted as a means of shaming them into acquiescence.
Believe me, Mr. Douthat is much more articulate and thorough in his analysis than I can ever dream of being. His seven questions are very important questions for consideration. IF the "state" can force some one like me to do something contrary to my personal beliefs by threats of lawsuit, cultural ostracization or taxation, we have more than "shifted" in our view of freedom…we then become a totalitarian society where perceived non-acceptable worldviews are punished to the point where they are silenced. For me, I know that my views of the gay marriage issue are not the same as some of my colleagues and friends. I have friends who are as "religious" as I am…I admire and respect them…I love them as brothers and sisters in the faith. Even so, I cannot agree with them…my view and their view of the bible, the exegesis and interpretation of critical biblical passages, theology and practice don't line up. That's OK by me. I'm not saying to any of my friends that they are going to "burn in hell" or that they are going to face my condemnation based upon our disagreement. My practice for decades has been to prayerfully release my tendency to want to play God. Everyone, including myself, will stand before a holy God one day and we will be held accountable for our faith and practice. I don't need to or want to judge because that is GOD'S prerogative. Thank God there still appears to be room within religious circles to disagree and allow every person of faith to take responsibility for their positions. There are great debates going on even I as write this…I read those debates and follow them carefully. I'm glad they are going on. As I said, I may not agree with them but I am still called by my faith to embrace them and their viewpoints as fellow members of the Body of Christ. And I expect the same from them. What has changed is what's going on in culture. In a growing secular world we have taken the concept of separation of "church and state" to the point where it has shifted to some people's desire to see a condemnation of the church by the state. If that comes to be it will be one more way for the "many" to usher in and force the issue on what they consider to be their moral and ethical non-negotiables.
So, I'm alarmed and I'm engaged. I don't think this is a time for people of faith to bury their heads in the sand. But I do acknowledge publicly that it is dangerous in culture these days. Many, like me, have concerns that we are being branded for being something we are not. Is it a "diabolical" conspiracy? Maybe or maybe not. I have my personal feelings on the subject but those are irrelevant in terms of this blog post. What is concerning is what appears to be on the horizon. I think Mr. Douthat is MORE THAN fair in saying what he does as he closes his article (and with this I'll close my thoughts for today):
"No doubt others could add more questions to the list, but that seems like decent range to me. Again, I’m genuinely interested in the answers, and not just for the sake of putting people on the record or playing some kind of “follow the logic” game. At the very least, I think liberals would benefit from recognizing that the current thinking of religious conservatives, in the RFRA debate and elsewhere, is shaped not only by these kind of specific fears but by a near-total uncertainty about what happens after this, and after that, and so on. And given how the ground has shifted recently, I think there would be real benefits for both sides to having more people on the left and center-left taking explicit positions on where we might and ought to go from here."