fair play to you

I’m getting a good bit of email today, most of it saying, in cleaned-up language: How dare you accuse us on the left of not playing fair, you Trump-supporting jerk?? (Maybe try entering “Trump” in the search box on this site?) Here’s why I say what I said, courtesy of my colleague Frank Beckwith

For the political liberal, the government should not only restrain its hand on matters of moral controversy, it should in some cases go out of its way to offer exemptions to generally applicable laws to idiosyncratic sects for the sake of civic peace (e.g. conscientious exemption statutes, Wisconsin v. Yoder, Sherbert v. Verner). But for the hegemonic liberal, the role of the state is to make men moral, as he understands morality. It is to scrupulously enforce “social justice” by direct coercion of the actions, speech, and private associations of those who remain unconvinced of the wisdom of the left side of the culture war. So, for example, the Little Sisters of the Poor must assist in providing contraception contrary to their Church’s teachings, a Christian baker must use her talents to help celebrate what she believes is a faux liturgical event or face crippling fines, and a religious college may have to set aside its moral theology or be singled out for special retribution by the government. 

(Go to the original to read the whole thing and get the links.) (Also read other posts on this site tagged “religious freedom.”) And that trend has continued. Conscience exemptions ain’t what they used to be — about that there is surely no disagreement. The dispute is simply whether that’s good or bad. For many on the secular left — for, as far as I can tell, the significant majority, though numbers on this are hard to come by —, the elimination of religious-conscience protections is a wholly good thing. But it’s indubitable that the goalposts have moved dramatically in the past decade — remember, in 2008 few Democratic voters were bothered that Barack Obama didn’t support same-sex marriage — so that religious commitments that were legally acceptable (if socially disapproved) from time out of mind have very quickly become altogether forbidden. For the (declining) “political liberal” fairness towards religious conscience was a virtue; for the (ascendent) “hegemonic liberal” it’s a vice. 

There’s a conversation on these matters that I’ve had a number of times, and it goes something like this:

Me: I’m concerned about the erosion of support on the left for religious liberty.

They: That’s a disgraceful calumny, we are passionately devoted to religious liberty.

Me: Only when you agree with, or at least are not offended by, the religious beliefs involved.

They: Another disgusting lie!

Me: So what do you think about that Masterpiece Cakeshop guy?

They: What a bigot! I hope the law comes down on him like a ton of bricks.

Me: But he says he’s acting out of his long-held religious convictions.

They: I despise it when people use religion to cover for their bigotry.

Me: So it’s like I said, you only support religious liberty when you agree with, or at least are not offended by, the beliefs involved — the ones you think are not bigoted.

They: Bigotry and religion are not the same thing! Religion is about a person’s relationship with whatever God they happen to believe in, it’s not about passing judgment on their neighbors.

Me: So having claimed the right to define what bigotry is, you’re now defining what religion is?

They: Look, you can go ahead and defend bigotry if you want to, but thank goodness there are laws against that in this country.

I’ve been trying to remember what these conversations remind me of and I finally figured it out. It’s this:

“And you can’t get away from it that, fundamentally, Jeeves’s idea is sound. In a striking costume like Mephistopheles, I might quite easily pull off something pretty impressive. Colour does make a difference. Look at newts. During the courting season the male newt is brilliantly coloured. It helps him a lot.”

“But you aren’t a male newt.”

“I wish I were. Do you know how a male newt proposes, Bertie? He just stands in front of the female newt vibrating his tail and bending his body in a semi-circle. I could do that on my head. No, you wouldn’t find me grousing if I were a male newt.”

“But if you were a male newt, Madeline Bassett wouldn’t look at you. Not with the eye of love, I mean.”

“She would, if she were a female newt.”

“But she isn’t a female newt.”

“No, but suppose she was.”

“Well, if she was, you wouldn’t be in love with her.”

“Yes, I would, if I were a male newt.”

A slight throbbing about the temples told me that this discussion had reached saturation point.