In a recent Crisis magazine column, Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse—a valued leader in the pro-marriage and family movement—contends that “religious liberty arguments aren’t working” in the effort to retain marriage as the union of one man and one woman. In fact, she says the religious liberty argument in the marriage arena “weakens our case.” Instead, Dr. Morse argues, we should “argue against the Sexual Revolution because it has hurt people.”
Her points are not without merit. To be sure, religious liberty arguments are hardly the only ones to be raised in the marriage battle, and the sexual revolution has indeed hurt people far and wide. But, taken together, these realities don’t add up to a good case for abandoning religious liberty advocacy. Freedom is a message that can and does resonate with audiences, but most importantly, freedom is a reality without which opponents of the sexual revolution simply won’t be allowed to exist.
American Audiences Identify with Freedom
Dr. Morse makes a point worth noting: some ways of arguing about religious liberty are perceived as appealing to “our” interests at the expense of the audience.
This is correct and profound, but it’s a reason to argue about freedom in a different way—a way that actually explains the heart of religious freedom better than we have done.
If you ask Americans, “Should the government force people to…” on nearly any issue, you will get high rates of opposition. This is increasingly true with the rise of libertarian ideas, including among non-religious people. And it is demonstrated by same-sex marriage and abortion advocates themselves, who emphasize freedom and choice in their own messages.
Religious freedom needs to be explained in this context. All the recent disputes about religious freedom laws involve two sides: One side wants more freedom to live and let live; the other side wants to use the government to coerce and punish people simply because they don’t want to assist someone else’s sex-related decisions. That agenda must be opposed, and that involves educating people on the good of religious freedom and how necessary it is to a free society.
Freedom Protects Our Audience, Not Just Our Constituents
Coercion takes away the freedom to choose. That’s a key point in helping religious freedom laws to resonate with audiences. Is it really necessary to allow the government to punish people simply because they choose to abide by their religious beliefs?
In the pro-life context, I have urged the same point about going beyond self-serving arguments. The reason that health care conscience rights—including the right not to assist with abortions—are important is not primarily to benefit doctors. Conscience laws give patients the freedom to choose doctors who share their values.
When Planned Parenthood and the ACLU want to force doctors to perform abortions, they are really calling for all pregnant women to have their babies delivered by abortionists of one sort or another, and denying women their choice to deliver in a religious hospital.
The group Compassion and Choices is similarly the enemy of patient choice when it pressures doctors and pharmacists to assist suicides. This would force all cancer patients to receive care from people they believe are “death doctors,” who just as gladly offer killing instead of healing.
This is also true in the marriage debate. In Indiana, if social workers are deemed to be “discriminating” because they cannot help a couple who intend to raise a child without a mom or a dad, that isn’t just an offense to the social worker. Indiana’s coercive definition of “discrimination” could deprive many people, 20 percent of whom experience mental health issues, of the ability to choose a counselor that shares their Christian values.
Even the so-called “separation of church and state” backfires on advocates of coercion. Opponents of religious freedom laws literally want the government to force Americans to participate in religious wedding ceremonies against their beliefs. If that’s not a violation of the Establishment Clause, I don’t know what is.
There is ample reason to believe that the “freedom vs. coercion” message is catching on. A large number of voices in the wake of the Indiana debate have declared that, even though they favor redefining marriage to include same-sex relationships, their side has overreached. They are shocked at the demands to utterly ruin Memories Pizza or the florist Baronnelle Stutzman, who are happy and generous in serving and hiring same-sex attracted people, but simply don’t want to help celebrate a wedding with which they disagree.
Who Will be Left to Oppose the Sexual Revolution?
Dr. Morse urges that the pro-family movement rally to the defense of the victims of the sexual revolution. She is absolutely right. But, although it may sound cliché, we don’t have to choose that argument instead of religious freedom—we must do both.
The ultimate reason we can’t choose between substantive advocacy for the family and the defense of religious freedom is that, without the latter, the former will become prohibited, too.
Without religious freedom, what non-profit groups will be permitted to defend marriage? What Christian professionals will be left to fund them?
What social scientist will be able to publish data highlighting these victims we are to defend? What individual will be able to avoid punishment for turning those facts into a persuasive message?
What cultural enclaves will even be allowed to exist where children can be raised to believe the truth about the family, marriage and the sanctity of life?
The same people and institutions who tolerate the sexual revolution’s victims will gladly punish anyone who speaks up for those victims.
The pro-life movement has indeed seen success in changing cultural attitudes about abortion. But that’s due in no small part to the fact that, in the months after Roe v. Wade, states and the federal government created a broad structure of laws that essentially created a new protected class: pro-life doctors, nurses, and hospitals.
That legal breathing room prevented the extinction of “do no harm” medicine, letting it exist and even thrive. From this baseline, a still vastly outnumbered band of cultural advocates have been able speak persuasive, reliable truth about the preborn child and her mother to the American culture.
Without freedom, especially religious freedom, we won’t be able to oppose the sexual revolution and defend children deprived of moms or dads “instead” of promoting religious liberty. That culture simply will not allow it.