Wednesday, September 9, 2015

It’s Privilege at Stake, Not "Religious Freedom”

People who have been dealt all the high cards for centuries react badly when they get dealt low cards. If they then begin howling that their “freedom” is being taken away, they’re referring to their power to control the game. It’s all about the loss of cultural and legal privilege.

That’s the drama being played out in Morehead, Kentucky, as the religious right uses County Clerk Kim Davis’ conservative Christian beliefs to claim an exemption for “religious liberty” with cries of “persecution” abounding. 

Historic Protestant Hegemony

America’s foundational freedom to practice religion without State interference is not at stake here. As we become more religiously diverse, the power of Christianity, especially one brand of the faith,  to dominate culture and legal systems inevitably wanes. White Protestants of northern European extraction ruled the roost from colonial days until the mid-20th century. Their morality and values were reflected in the law, especially with regard to sexual morality: contraception, orientation, divorce. 

Protestant privilege held sway with great power, with the approval of the majority. Religious minorities had little or no power to exercise their “religious liberty” except in private life and worship: Jewish businesses that closed on the Sabbath had to shut down on Sunday as well. Homosexual acts were against the law. Atheists had no cultural “liberty” to achieve elective office even if there was “no test of religion” in the law. 

Peak and Decline

This Protestant hegemony peaked in the post-War 1950s and talk of our “Christian” nation’s battle with “Atheistic Communism.” Then, in rapid succession, a Catholic was elected President, public school prayer was forbidden, Sunday blue laws unravelled, and abortion was declared legal. Disadvantaged minorities (Jewish business owners, non-believers, and women) gained more freedom of choice. 

The power of Christian privilege to shape culture and law was diminished significantly. But the constitutional guarantee of freedom to practice one’s religion was not touched—just the historic freedom to impose it on society at large. For many millions, especially those who took Christian privilege for granted, the nation-wide legalization of gay marriage seems the final straw.

No Easy Settlement?

As the philosopher Isaiah Berlin wisely observed, differing values really cannot be reconciled perfectly. While it seems abundantly clear that a representative of the State must obey the laws of the State or seek other employment, other clashes between the right to marriage for gays and other situations is probably not as black and white an issue as either side wants to acknowledge. 

The Founders, overwhelmingly, believed that a strong and diverse religious culture, free of government interference, would be a vitally important element in the Republic they were establishing, and supported religions of all kinds (at first mostly Protestant) by special exemptions. Settling this in specific cases will not be easy in the current brouhaha, and the far Right has opened a new battle in the culture war which it has waged ever since the school desegregation undermined the once-powerful white Protestant belief in the separation of the races. 

But the cry of “liberty lost” boils down to the loss of privilege, and shouts of “persecution” to outraged, politically ominous pouts.