Hobby Lobby doesn’t have to provide objectionable forms of birth control (abortifacients) to its employees, because paying for that would violate sincere religious beliefs held by its owners.
That’s what most moderately-informed Americans are likely to take away from the most recent Supreme Court decision in favor of the family-owned company. Some conservatives have expressed disappointment that the decision, as written by Justice Samuel Alito, wasn’t broader, and the precedent it set was indeed deliberately narrow. But it’s still a win for religious liberty, and after the debacle last winter concerning Arizona’s Senate Bill 1062, it’s good to have another chance to present religious liberty, and in particular the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), in a more positive light.
We should seize that chance. Americans are in real danger of losing sight of the value of religious freedom. Coming off a victory like this, we need to redouble our efforts to explain to them why they should care.
First, They Came For The Christians
Defenders of religious liberty can sometimes find it difficult to infuse real pathos into their arguments, especially because the cases around which our legislation is often shaped tend to be unsympathetic. People ask themselves: am I personally bothered if religious universities or hospitals or businesses give contraceptives to their employees? Do I find it offensive if Christian bakers service same-sex weddings? It’s never easy to be in the position of defending people’s right to be (as much of the public will see it) in error. It can be hard to move ordinary past considerations of the rightness or wrongness of the belief itself.
Then there are the people who just don’t care. Violations of religious liberty don’t leave starving orphans or war-torn villages in their wake, so ordinary voters aren’t easily energized about them.
Everyone understands, of course, that religious freedom has limits. Our respect for religious faith must sometimes take a back seat to other serious public interests. No one is suggesting, for example, that we should ever permit honor killings or human sacrifice in the name of religious liberty. Still, a sincere belief shouldn’t have to be clearly right (or popular!) in order to be protected. This is the basic point that the public needs to understand, and often doesn’t.
We’ve all read multiple histrionic missives on the Health and Human Services mandate, in which angry women argue that it’s unreasonable for them to be denied contraceptives on the basis of someone else’s religious views. Many voters actually seem to think there’s a worry that women will be forcibly prevented from contracepting because their employers don’t want them to. Of course there has never been any question of that happening, but the fact that we constantly need to clarify the point only shows how far astray the discussion has wandered.
We need to refocus it, and quickly. Americans need to understand that religious liberty is good for the nation; it’s not just a form of right-wing special pleading. Here are the three ways of promoting religious freedom that are specifically tailored for your liberally-inclined friends and relatives.
1) Personal Integrity Matters
We have always prided ourselves on being the kind of society in which earnest and hardworking people can live in the way they think is right. The Pilgrims came here looking for that kind of freedom, and we still want people to be able to pursue the good life in accord with their personal convictions.
Again, there are limits. Sometimes you have to make compromises for the sake of the larger society. In adjudicating conflicts of interest, however, reasonable people recognize that certain sorts of compulsion threaten personal integrity far more than others. It’s a drag if you can’t get the sort of dog you want, or can’t paint your house the color you want, or can’t buy a big drink when you’re really thirsty. We should acknowledge the real burdens that those sorts of laws create. Still, that kind of restriction doesn’t generally blight people’s whole lives. Curtailing the practice of their religion might.
If your liberal friends are enraged about the Hobby Lobby decision, ask them: Don’t we want to be the sort of society that respects personal integrity? I find that some people are more sympathetic to this point when I draw an analogy to close personal relationships (which might include same-sex relationships). In a million other contexts, liberals are fine with curtailing personal choice, but when it comes to romantic relationships, they view personal commitments as sacrosanct. Why? Presumably they think (and as far as it goes, I would agree) that a commitment to share a life with another person is defining in a way that most other decisions wouldn’t be. When a commitment of that seriousness is threatened, it represents more than just an attack on our lifestyle preferences. Personal integrity is at stake.
It’s appropriate for society to give a wider berth to those choices or commitments that stand closer to a person’s moral core, impinging on them only when the reasons are serious and compelling. That’s the sort of thinking that makes the left so eager to celebrate personal relationships and “sexual identities” of every variety. Sexuality is intensely personal, so our moral and psychological health depends in a particularly deep way on having our sexual choices respected. Here’s the thing, though. Religion is also intensely personal and defining.
Sometimes deep and serious commitments run up against each other, as, for example, when one person’s family commitments conflict with another’s religious beliefs. Those are the hard cases, and we have to sort them out as well as we can. But it’s very hard to argue that anyone’s personal integrity is deeply threatened by an employer’s refusal to pay for their contraceptives. Religious conviction is pretty obviously the more compelling concern in the Hobby Lobby case.
2) Government should exercise tolerance, particularly in matters it doesn’t understand.
Epistemic modesty gives us an additional reason to be wary of curtailing religious practice. Wise people recognize it’s bad to fool around with things you don’t understand.
Great religious faiths offer their followers a complex and comprehensive metaphysical and moral outlook. It’s extremely difficult to judge from the outside how a given belief or practice fits into that wider perspective. The best policy, therefore, is to respect religious groups’ claims of conscience so far as circumstances allow.
Non-believers can be somewhat obtuse about this, having been bred on a steady diet of “exposes” claiming to show that religious belief is arbitrary and shallow. To help correct that picture, I sometimes explain religion with an analogy to an ecosystem. Explorers are sometimes inclined to wander into a new ecosystems and say to themselves after a cursory examination, “There seem to be plenty of bison around, so we might as well use them for target practice.” Or, “Wouldn’t this scene be more charming if we introduced this other plant from another ecosystem?”
It doesn’t usually work out well. To the uninitiated it might appear that we can tweak a natural environment without major repercussions, but it turns out that ecosystems have a complicated logic that holds them together. They’re balanced and interconnected in ways that only become clear through intense observation and study. Religions are like that too. It takes considerable time and prudence to figure out what makes them work. So when governments try to tell religious people what is and isn’t important to them, they tend to make a mess of it. We don’t have to look to Nazi Germany for examples of that; Waco, Texas illustrates the point just as nicely.
It is possible to acknowledge this point without becoming a moral relativist. The trick is to recognize that even relatively serious errors can be embedded in a larger body of true beliefs, such that ripping them out forcibly would do more harm than good. Think about your own life. Have you ever been wrong about something in a way that, in retrospect, paved the way to a truer and better view of the world? If so, you should be able to appreciate why it’s so important to respect the complexity of belief and moral development.
3) Diversity can strengthen society.
Social trends can move every which way, as a quick review of history will show. If you think society moves ever forward (we call that “the progressive fallacy”), read a book about the modern history of Europe. Only fools suppose that modern people are so enlightened as to be impervious to the siren songs of bigotry, fascism, or even genocide.
So, let’s suppose that the majority of Americans hypothetically get something wrong. When the consequences of that error become evident, it will probably be better if we haven’t already obliterated the opposition by the time we realize the problem. Think of moral minorities as a kind of “error insurance”; they preserve, mostly at their own expense, the cultural and philosophical resources for getting society back on course when errors are exposed.
Aren’t liberals the ones who are always lecturing us on the value of a “diverse” society? Whatever arguments you might make for the benefits of having, say, an ethnically diverse workplace, can surely be cross applied to an argument for the benefit of a culturally and philosophically diverse society. If relatively minor accommodations (like slight modifications in employer insurance requirements) can help us to preserve that diversity, that’s a small price to pay.
The Hobby Lobby decision is a win for personal integrity, cultural diversity, and tolerance. Is that not what your liberal friends are saying? Then roll up your sleeves and convince them.