What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

The difficulties of religious freedom

Here is an interesting article called, more controversially than mine, "The Contradiction of Religious Freedom." It states the paradox that in order for religious freedom to work in a society, there must be a good deal of informal agreement on basic moral principles. So in order for de jure religious freedom not to cause a society to self-destruct, there needs to be a lot of de facto religious homogeneity.

I think this is correct, especially if "religious homogeneity" is understood in sufficiently broad terms. For example, I think that (non-polygamous) Mormons can live more or less in peace and harmony with devout Catholics, though there could still be some tension between Irish wakes and "dry" Mormonism. But that, of course, is as nothing compared to the real conflicts among ethical systems and worldviews that we now see laid out before us in the oh-so-pluralistic West. Mormons, after all, do not issue threats against the owners of restaurants who serve liquor, as Muslims do.

In order for members even of different Christian denominations to get along, there needs to be an understanding of what sorts of things are a) important enough to enshrine in law and b) in a gray zone where a law is appropriate but where religious exceptions are not a problem.

I've sometimes myself doubted the existence of such a gray zone. Time and again, it has seemed to me that where people are asking for religious exemptions to particular laws (for example, laws against "discrimination" against homosexuals), and the request seems reasonable, the laws should not exist in the first place. And where people are seeking religious exemptions to rules or laws and the request does not seem reasonable--e.g., Muslim women who want to testify in court without showing their faces or Muslim cabbies who want to refuse to give rides to the blind with guide dogs--why, then, the religion is simply not being reasonable and should not be specially accommodated.

But I will admit in theory and occasionally in practice the possibility of such a gray zone. One might, for example, have a law against swimming or wading in a particular river--to avoid pollution and possible drowning--while allowing a limited number of baptismal services (conducted by people who know the waters and aren't going to drown anybody) per year in the river. Certainly it is entirely reasonable for children to receive a sip of wine at Communion and for this to be considered no violation of laws against underage drinking.

Decisions regarding what behavior should be prohibited and what behavior may selectively be permitted (while usually prohibited) under the aegis of a religious exemption are paradigmatically moral as well as prudential decisions. And as increasingly Western society splinters into groups which share less and less common moral ground, not to mention prudential ground, the necessary give and take becomes nigh impossible.

The founding fathers, when they made special provision for religious freedom, had particularly in mind the religious wars of the centuries preceding theirs, wars between (in particular) Catholics and Protestants. That Catholics, Protestants, Quakers, and so forth share significant common ground and can grant one another religious freedom without rending the fabric of society has been proven ambulando by the existence of America itself. Allowing a Quaker to say "I affirm" in court instead of "I swear" is nothing like as problematic as allowing him to testify without showing his face. What the founders never envisaged were people who consider female genital mutilation to be an expression of religious freedom. Nor, on the other hand, did they envisage a world in which religious bodies had to beg for special exemptions in order to be permitted to refuse to hire those who engage in homosexual sex acts.

Islam and homosexual activism both show the need for a wide swathe of shared values, but in different ways. It would be tedious to chronicle the many disruptive and unreasonable demands for special accommodation (in law, in employment, in medicine, and so forth) made by Islam. We have blogged many of them here.

To the ideologue liberal, on the other hand, the employer who wishes not to hire persons who engage in homosexual acts is the one making the unreasonable demand. He should not be accommodated, even on religious grounds, any more than he should be if he demanded special religious accommodation for animal torture or child marriage. The ordinary actions and decisions of ordinary Christians and even of Christian institutions are thus, to the homosexual activist, beyond the pale and must not be permitted.

President Obama's EEOC nominee, Chai Feldblum, is explicit about this:

Just as we do not tolerate private racial beliefs that adversely affect African-Americans in the commercial arena, even if such beliefs are based on religious views, we should similarly not tolerate private beliefs about sexual orientation and gender identity that adversely affect LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender] people.

(HT on Feldblum: VFR)

You can have your private Christian beliefs. You just can't act on them in any way that would adversely affect the preferred groups of Chai Feldblum. And, of course, the same attitude lies directly behind the new APA non-discrimination policy. One commentator below claims that it is "downright silly" to hold that the new policy is an attack on Christians, but then adds, "unless, of course, being a bigot is somehow 'integral' to being a Christian." An interesting qualification. "Being a bigot," of course, is name-calling shorthand for "believing that homosexual sexual acts are wrong and intending in even some employment contexts, such as hiring for a Christian school, to take this into account and demand that employees not engage in such acts." And what if being a "bigot" (as the commentator intends it) is a predictable and normal expression of being a Christian, or even of being an agent of an explicitly Christian institution? What then? Well, then, I guess the new APA policy is an attack on Christians. Because as Feldblum says, the tug-of-war between religious freedom and homosexual activism is a "zero-sum game."

What all this means is not that I believe religious freedom to be something other than a noble goal. What it does mean, however, is that substantive issues cannot be avoided on either side. And when no substantive agreement exists--when one side's exercise of religious freedom (say, to discriminate on the basis of homosexual acts) is another side's abomination (say, the "bigotry" of discriminating on the basis of sexual acts) which must not be tolerated, then appeals to religious freedom will necessarily fail. When one side's exercise of religious freedom (say, forcibly marrying off twelve-year-old girls to adult cousins) really is an abomination, it is right that the appeal to religious freedom should fail.

Our society as a whole will fail if we do not agree about at least a wide variety of ethical matters, and no contentless concept of religious freedom will be able either to prevent that failure or to put Humpty Dumpty together again afterwards. Nor is consensus the only goal. A takeover by Islam and a consensus to enforce sharia would not be a better outcome than the takeover we are now seeing by totalitarian liberalism.

I do not know how it all will end, but I urge my fellow conservatives to realize that Feldblum has one thing right: Given the actual goals of our opponents, we are indeed engaged in a zero-sum conflict.

HT: Michael Liccione, for the link to the American Catholic article.

Comments (18)

What it does mean, however, is that substantive issues cannot be avoided on either side. And when no substantive agreement exists--when one side's exercise of religious freedom (say, to discriminate on the basis of homosexual acts) is another side's abomination (say, the "bigotry" of discriminating on the basis of sexual acts) which must not be tolerated, then appeals to religious freedom will necessarily fail...it is right that the appeal to religious freedom should fail....
Our society as a whole will fail if we do not agree about at least a wide variety of ethical matters, and no contentless concept of religious freedom will be able either to prevent that failure or to put Humpty Dumpty together again afterwards.

Lydia, I agree completely. I have been saying this for years. No purely formulaic or algorithmic approach to religious freedom can possibly work in the long run when other fundamental elements of social cohesion have become so attenuated.

The fact of the matter is that there is no such thing as absolute and total religious freedom across the board, because sometimes one person's religion directly contravenes another's. When this happens, it _must_ be possible for society to step in and referee the dispute. Which means, perforce, that society must be able to discern and declare which one of the two is unreasonable and must give way (though sometimes both are equally unreasonable, but that's OK for the following point). And if society has the inherent right and authority to discern when a religion is unreasonable, then society has the right to declare some limits on that religion, when reason demands such limits for the common good.

According to Dignitatis Humanae , this is all of a pattern with true religion, because on the one hand, God wants men to worship in true freedom, and on the other hand He has ordained BOTH that men should be reasonable about it AND that true religion should have intelligible evidences and rational supports to buttress its case in the field of ideas. Even though society at large, without working from faith itself, may be unable to judge sufficiently between 2 Protestant sects based on reason alone as to which is the only true (or truer) one, still it is valid to say that society CAN, working from reason alone, discern that child sacrifice to Baal is false religion.

Of course, all this is anathema to the secular humanistic view, which mainly holds that (a) there is no such thing as Truth, so there is no one true religion as such, and (b) even if there were some Truth, religion is essentially a matter of superstition or personal taste so no religion can be centered in the Truth. Naturally, this amounts to a religious view, so it constitutes very basic point of departure for the competing points of view in our society. In the secular humanistic religion, we don't suppress Baal worship because it is known to be false religion; we suppress it because as a superstition, it is only allowed freedom until it intersects with some perceived social good. And (like all religion), when it interferes with any such good, that's where religious "freedom" exceeds its bounds. So your public school teacher's hope of getting people to think openly about Islam is all the social reason needed to force your kid to play at Islamic practices for a day.

Ultimately, the only way to deal with the dispute between the worldview of the religion of secular humanism and the Christian worldview is for one to assert and successfully maintain a right of privilege over the other, but (in order for this to makes sense in pluralistic society, rather than simply constitute religious war) it must do so on the other's notional turf. I have no problem asserting that the Christian religion is more true than the religion of secular humanism, and asserting this on the ground of reason alone, which is secular humanism's home turf. And if the case is made on reason alone, there is no reason why the state cannot or should not referee the dispute by demanding that secular humanism should give way to Christianity in the public sphere where there is direct contradiction between the two.

I agree with you, Tony.

Part of the problem, though, in putting this into practice is that we and the secularists often mean something radically different by "reason." As an illustration, I was downloading some materials for teaching AP English and came across a sort of informal logic section in one of them. (English teachers teaching logic. Bad news.) It had an absolutely classic fact/value section in which it said that some statements are factual--gave some scientific statement--and other statements are statements of value--gave an ethical claim. Then said that factual statements are made on the basis of things like scientific evidence, but value statements are made on the basis of some authority, like the Bible. Compared the ethical claim to a claim about the good taste of food (seriously), and that was that.

So "reason" _by definition_ has nothing to say about ethical claims. In particular, human teleology is taken to be completely indiscernible, so any statement like, "Homosexual practice is wrong because it is contrary to the natural use of the human organs" is going to be laughed out of court--couldn't _possibly_ be something apprehended by the rational faculties.

This makes the bottom line culture war more like a fact on the ground that cannot be avoided. My fundamentalist friends who wouldn't know natural law _theory_ if it hit them in the face understand and apprehend the natural law itself on the moral issues of our day far better than the supposed proponents of reason. This, even though the fundamentalists might _say_ that they consider homosexual behavior wrong strictly because the Bible says so.

The claim--"religious freedom is a human right"--is wonderful until we discover that the terms "religious," "freedom," "human," and "right" are themselves contested. Hence, the attempt on the part of Rawls and others to come up with a neutral state that embraces a "thin theory of the good" is, and has been, a complete failure. This is why I say "Locke leads to Rawls leads to Rorty leads to tyranny." Politics without philosophical anthropology is like language without grammar. Can't be done.

The Left realizes this. So, they resort to name-calling as a substitute for argument. They have come to understand that if we start debating the technical questions on which our political regime depends, their own cluster of beliefs will not survive unscathed. As long as they can get away with pretending that their beliefs are the deliverances of reason--when they know that they are not--they will do so.

As an illustration, I was downloading some materials for teaching AP English and came across a sort of informal logic section in one of them. (English teachers teaching logic. Bad news.) It had an absolutely classic fact/value section in which it said that some statements are factual--gave some scientific statement--and other statements are statements of value--gave an ethical claim. Then said that factual statements are made on the basis of things like scientific evidence, but value statements are made on the basis of some authority, like the Bible.

My word, that's straight out of C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man from over 60 years ago, first chapter, Men without Chests . I mean, this is the exact point he shreds into confetti. I wonder what this English teacher would say if you pointed out that he (she?) had plagiarized (the only mortal sin of academia left, now that making up your own data is OK in defense of global warming), and not just plagiarized from C.S. Lewis, but borrowed from the debunked argument !! It's like watching the Colts beat the Jets in real time, and then going out and wagering on the Jets winning the game when you watch the highlights.

Here are the ipsissima verba. Readers will see the small slips in my summary from memory. E.g., The examples of factual claims were from geography and history rather than from science. But the contrast between factual claims that are true if they "correspond to reality," on the one hand, and value claims that, evidently, are not even intended to correspond to reality, on the other hand, is quite clear. As you say, Tony, it's right out of Lewis's foil, The Little Green Book. If I recall correctly, that was also written by English teachers and was intended to teach students about writing or prose or something of the sort.

A factual claim is a declarative sentence that asserts something is or is not the case, was or was not the case, or will or will not be the case. “Denver is the capital of Colorado” is a claim about reality. “Dallas is the largest city in Texas” is also a claim about reality. “The Chicago Cubs will win the pennant” is a claim about the future. (One must wait until October for verification of it!) “Socrates lived in ancient Athens” is a claim about the past which can be verified by reading accounts of his contemporaries. Thus, claims of fact can be verified or falsified. That is, a factual claim is true if it corresponds to reality—or is a tautology (something true by definition, such as “A bachelor is an unmarried man.”).

A value claim is a declarative sentence that asserts something is good or bad, right or wrong.Some value claims are merely expressions of personal taste, of liking or disliking: “Broccoli tastes bad.” “I prefer living in the city to living in the country.” “I feel hot.” Such claims cannot be disputed.

Other value claims are moral or aesthetic judgments: “Stealing is wrong.” “A liberal education is better than a technical one.” “Andrew Wyeth is a better painter than Jackson Pollock.” Such value claims are supported by reference to a code of values, an accepted ideal, or a set of criteria the arguer uses as the basis of his claim. The Christian Bible might be the basis for the first claim, the Humanist ideal for the second, and standards of realist painting for the third.


From Fountainhead Press, Guides to Freshman Composition.

This is a good example of the provincialism of liberalism. Just ask a liberal if they believe that worshipers of the Aztec pantheon or Kali should be welcomed into polite society, let alone allowed free reign to practice their religion. The response is always that this is an act of extremism (the invocation of "extremism" is almost always an indication that the other person has no reasonable counterargument) because they cannot imagine that real people, let alone an entire group or culture, would want to practice such a violent and sadistic religion.

Of course, the example of civilizations like Carthage shows that the worship of blatantly demonic entities is not inherently compatible with advanced civilization. Inasmuch as the devil would love to give vitality to such a civilization, I think it is quite feasible that such a civilization could thrive for a time even today until its internal contradictions (such as massive demographic collapse) brought it down.

They stare at the abyss, claim it is a mere pothole and insist that anyone who claims otherwise is insane and an extremist.

Right on, Mike T.

But you know what? If some bona fide Kali worshipers showed up, they'd try to accommodate them _somehow_. Especially if a _lot_ of them showed up. And would penalize anyone who criticized them. Did you know that in California they have shamans who have special "spiritual medical practitioner" credentials in hospitals? One of them "sacrificed" a *rubber chicken* by a bedside as a compromise. Maybe the Aztec worshipers could sacrifice a rubber human being. Meanwhile, in the public schools, children would be taught, "Aztec worship has been misunderstood and misrepresented. It is really about being in tune with nature and understanding the cycles of the earth..." Blah, blah.

On the other hand, if Christians want to home school their children...now _that's_ threatening to society!

It doesn't surprise me. These are the same people who would go apoplectic about me not really slowing down when a rabbit darted out into my lane this morning (I won't risk damaging my car for the sake of a varmint), but would gladly chop up a baby so that a woman's autonomy is not impaired.

All the while claiming to be defenders of liberty and human rights.

Of course, there's nothing more fun to do to a liberal than to exploit their ideology to make them personally uncomfortable. One of my favorite ones is to get them worked up in a tizzy trying to rationalize how they are not racist toward illegal immigrants for not trusting day laborers they pick up at 711 to work around their wives and daughters in their expensive homes.

Schadenfreude is really the only vice of mine of which I'm largely gleefully unrepentant.

***My excuse to them is simple, and always slides me back under the PC radar: I grew up in the South. I would no more trust a bunch of white good ol' boys standing outside a run down VABC store than I would a group of Mexicans outside 711.


Not to change the subject too much, but I was reading this article, and it brought to mind the last thread here on "legal fictions." The part about how the federal government justifies calling a property owner a "third party claimant" in a case like U.S. versus $80,000 in cash is a perfect example for young children on such issues as "why legality is not morality" and "why the generation of the founding fathers tarred and feathered British tax collectors" (one of the few classes of men against whom cruel and unusual punishment is no vice).


A couple of thoughts:

1) I think you are right that ultimately, the key issue in this debate is summarized nicely by this sentence:

"Our society as a whole will fail if we do not agree about at least a wide variety of ethical matters, and no contentless concept of religious freedom will be able either to prevent that failure or to put Humpty Dumpty together again afterwards."

Using the example of slavery, it was obvious that at some point we couldn't remain one country with both slave-owning state and states that banned slavery and it took a nasty war to sort out our ethical differences.

While I don't think we need a war to sort out our ethical differences over homosexuality, I do think that it will be tough to pass laws again in this country that explicitly single out homosexual behavior as unlawful in some way (my favortie formulation is from the Vatican: "objectively disordered"). I suspect many Americans agree with this notion but liberalism as corrupted them to the point that they don't want to "impose" their beliefs on actual gays who might have to then have to deal with the sinful nature of their desires.

2) This is kind of off topic and I don't want to take this family blog down a road that would be inappropriate, but your comment about human teleology got me thinking about a comment a heard a conservative (Protestant) radio host make about oral sex -- he suggested that within the context of marriage it could be considered spiritual. Is there really any Biblical warrant for that view?

As far as homosexuality, Jeff, I imagine that many or most even very traditional Christians are quite willing for laws against homosexual acts per se (notice I'm _not_ talking about marriage laws that presume traditional marriage) either to be a dead letter or to be applied only in cases where the real goal is something different--e.g., when sodomy charges are used to strengthen sentencing in a case of statutory rape or forcible rape.

And my impression is that with few exceptions that has been the status quo for a long time.

So anti-sodomy laws per se aren't really the issue, practically speaking. The push in the culture wars is coming from the other side, for laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual practice, for laws recognizing homosexual relationships as "marriage," for example. And that's where we can't really live together, given that _that_ is the demand by the pro-homosexual left. That's why in my final sentence, I said that given the actual goals of our opponents, we have a zero-sum conflict. To be extremely blunt, if homosexuals were willing to take their chances in the market and in the world, even if that meant that some employers discriminated against them, others celebrated them, others asked only that they be discreet, and a whole variety of other human reactions to their behavior, we could probably live together. If they had no ambitions to have their relationships legally recognized as marriage or marriage-like (civil unions), we might be able to live together. But most of them aren't willing to continue that way and take their chances, so we can't live together. And something parallel is true on the Muslim side. If they were willing to modify their Islam a great deal and assimilate, we could live together. But they aren't, and they demand instead (as one imam actually said) that we assimilate to them, so we can't.

I would indeed rather not go down the road you introduce in your final paragraph. My only reaction is that there isn't much biblical warrant for taking some highly specific sexual act to be "spiritual," except perhaps the slightly ominous statement St. Paul makes in Corinthians that a man who has sex with a prostitute (he doesn't specify the acts) is "one flesh" with her. But St. Paul considers this a bad thing, not a good thing. (For obvious reasons.) You can make what you like of that. It's obviously pretty vague anyway to say that a sexual act is "spiritual." One might say that _all_ sexual acts have spiritual significance, as all sexual acts are important, involve intimate self-expression between two people made in the image of God, etc. But that doesn't tell us one way or another which ones are right and wrong.


No problem concerning the "road less traveled".

On the more appropriate road, I understand your point w.r.t. "if homosexuals were willing to take their chances in the market and in the world, even if that meant that some employers..." But I think this is precisely the problem if we don't FIRST agree on whether or not homosexuality, qua homosexuality, is a problem. In other words, I think the status quo probably concedes too much. Because if homosexuality not a problem (from the standpoint of the law), if some folks are allowed to think it is sinful (in private) while others are allowed to think it is not sinful (in private) we don't know how we should deal with the behavior in public. And then when homosexual activists say their beliefs should inform the public sphere, the religious folks try to carve out a space for themselves to practice their beliefs, but are basically labeled as bigots and outcasts while doing so (if not actually punished by the law for trying to do so). Which is why I think the Lawrence decision is more dangerous than a lot of people think, even though many of the anti-sodomy laws were already being repealed.

But there are many things that--at least in America--are legal but still strongly frowned upon and for which people are ostracized. An obvious example is politically incorrect speech and publication. Holding and even saying that there are intrinsic racial differences that favor whites is an example. Everyone knows that that could kill someone's career chances. Most of us have no problem _either_ with an employer's discriminating on that basis _or_ with its being legal to express such opinions. You express your opinions and take your chances. And so too regarding published opinions on a host of other topics--climate change, evolution, and on and on. For that matter, it's still legal in many jurisdictions for people to discriminate on the basis of sexual practice, but the activists in the APA don't seem to feel that this de facto legality means the action is acceptable or that it confuses the issue of whether they can censure it. On the contrary, they want to be sure they use the institutions in which they have influence to ostracize and censure such behavior.

I should add that the Lawrence decision was bad for many, many reasons. I didn't want to be misunderstood about that. Very often, the way in which a particular legal state of affairs comes about is just as important as the result. For example, if some jurisdiction simply had never passed an anti-sodomy law in the first place, that would be a very different situation from one in which it had such a law which was then rendered (ostensibly) legally null by the Lawrence decision with all its "reasoning," its claims of unconstitutionality, etc., and with the symbolism of the overturn of such a law which was in place before.

Speaking of freedom of religion being problematic at times...

The majority of Egyptian Muslims are peaceful moderates. Just like the majority of people are good citizens, everyone's kid is above average at school and all that jazz...

Yeah, when apostasy is not permitted in one's religion, that makes for big problems of justice, especially when the penalty is death!

It also becomes problematic for justice when you have a community like many Islamic communities where they actively or passively aid and abet the violence. The same Muslim communities then whimper about collective punishment in non-Muslim countries when the non-Muslim majority tires of having to sort out the "extremists" from the "moderates" who don't readily rat out the extremists in their midst.

Mao, bless his violent, psychopathic Commie heart, had a truly insightful comment to say about this sort of scenario: "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea."

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.