What interests and concerns me about the fight over Indiana’s religious freedom law is not its implication for gay weddings and whether pizza will be served at them.
Much more important are the basic principles that are being invoked to argue against the Indiana law. These arguments set out to define religious freedom out of existence, and they end up defining all freedom out of existence.
At the end of last year, I complained that “The basic problem with the left’s conception of freedom is that it doesn’t really have one.”
The left’s operational concept of freedom is that you are allowed to do and say what you like—so long as you stay within a certain proscribed window of socially acceptable deviation. The purpose of the gay marriage campaign is simply to change the parameters of that window, extending it to include the gay, the queer, the transgendered—and to exclude anyone who thinks that homosexuality is a sin or who wants to preserve the traditional concept of marriage. Those people are declared outside the protection of the law and in fact will have the full weight of the law bear down upon them until they recant their socially unacceptable views.
The point is not whether you agree about which views are or should be socially acceptable. The point is that this is not a concept of freedom. It’s a regime of state-controlled ideas, softened by an amorphous zone of official tolerance.
And now, to prove that point, along come my three stooges—Michael Tomasky, E.J. Dionne, and Charles Blow—writing in response to the Indiana law.
Tomasky decries the incoherence of continued resistance to gay marriage, given that judges have ruled it legal.
So if the court rules for same-sex marriage this June, it will have said, in the space of exactly one year: Same-sex marriage is the law of the land, but refusing to honor same-sex marriage is the law of the land, too!
Does this make any sense? To your average person I would reckon it makes no sense at all. What kind of court says X is the law, but disobeying X is also the law?
Work with me a little bit to follow this logic. If the government says gay marriage is legal, then it is required for all private citizens to approve of and cooperate with it. That which is not forbidden is mandatory.
Now, when we say that gay marriage is legal, what we actually mean is that the government is required to offer and recognize these marriages. But Tomasky assumes that what the state must do, private citizens must do also. If a law binds the actions of the state, it is also binding on Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public. There is no distinction, in Tomasky’s mind, between government action and private action.
It’s that old principle of tolerance: “Everything within the state, nothing outside the state, nothing against the state.”
E.J. Dionne adds to this symposium on freedom by expressing a solicitous concern that conservatives are going to “weaken religious-liberty arguments overall” by insisting upon that liberty in cases that fly in the face of “the country’s increasing openness to gay rights.”
[T]urning religious liberty into a sweeping slogan that can be invoked to resist any social change that some group of Americans doesn’t like will create a backlash against all efforts at accommodating religion. Forgive me, but this is bad for the brand of religious liberty.
God forbid that the concept of freedom should allow you, as an individual, to resist social changes you don’t like. Clearly, the best way to protect religious liberty is to never invoke it in defense of anything that is really, really unpopular. Or at least, anything that is really unpopular among New York and DC elites.
Charles Blow echoes this when he defines the problem as: “What to do when people want to retain their right to hate and to discriminate—even if they choose to couch it in fuzzy, nonconfrontational wording or wrap it in the flimsy cloak of piety—after most of the country has lost the appetite for it?” Yes, what do we do when a small minority wants to cling to nonconformist religious practices that elite opinion has decided are heretical? If only we had some principle, codified in our basic documents of government, that was intended to cover a situation like this.
Blow also echoes Tomasky when he thunders, “Anything that even hints at state-sponsored discrimination—blatant and codified—is not only discordant with current cultural norms but also anathema to universal ideals of fairness and human dignity.” Did you catch that phrase? “State-sponsored discrimination.” Anything that is allowed by the government is therefore sponsored by the government. To not arrest you for doing or saying something is to adopt that action or idea as the official policy of the state.
That which is not forbidden is mandatory. Everything within the state, nothing outside the state.
See what I mean when I say that the left has no concept of freedom? It may have some concept of a range of disagreement that is socially acceptable and on which the state chooses to remain neutral—though with the revival of old-fashioned Political Correctness, that range is getting increasingly narrow, even for the true believers. But they have no concept of a right to do something or think something or say something simply because it is what you think and want, regardless of whether society as a whole approves of it. And without that, there is no concept of freedom.
To be sure, the concept of freedom was damaged long ago. The whole reason the new religious freedom laws are necessary is because the ever-expanding power of the state has built up so many controls that already interfere with every little aspect of life. (The original, federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed in response to a court case involving drug laws.) So the laws inevitably clash with citizens’ private judgment and personal convictions in myriad ways. And these new laws are not even an absolute protection against that interference. They simply specify that the state has to have what a judge thinks is a really, really good reason to push private citizens around, and it has to avoid pushing them around any more than the judge feels it really needs to. This is still just trying to carve out a wider range of approved dissent within the context of total state control of human life.
Quoting Justice Scalia somewhat out of context (though not entirely out of context, since it was a wrong argument in the first place), Tomasky hyperventilates that if we allow people to act on “the professed doctrines of religious belief,” this will “permit every citizen to become a law unto himself.” Well, isn’t every individual a law unto himself, in a very real sense, when it comes to how he disposes of his own person, his own property, and his own mind? Has the law of the state expanded so much that it leaves the individual no space in which he may determine his own private principles of action?
Judging from what little is left of the concept of freedom after our three stooges are done with it, it would seem so. Which is a problem much bigger than anything having to do with gay marriage.
All three of these articles, by the way, were published on April 1. I wish I could say they were jokes. Or that any of it is funny.