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.