by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr.
In a recent presidential debate, John Kasich dismissed concerns about religious liberty by saying, “I mean, if you’re in the business of commerce, conduct commerce.” This is a common attitude, and one that sounds nice, but it totally misses the point of current debate. While a few people can always be found that will hold to virtually any position, Kasich’s response is hardly representative of the concern that many have when it comes to religious liberty, which is not a concern about selling to people you disagree with, but rather about having to participate in something your religious beliefs say is wrong.
For example, the Washington florist Barronelle Stutzman had no problem selling flowers to homosexuals, and had even hired homosexuals. But she did not believe that her religious beliefs permitted her to participate in same sex marriages. If they had just wanted her to deliver some flowers to their wedding that would be one thing. But to her, using her creative ability to select flowers and arranging them for a wedding is far more than just simple commerce; it is participating in the event. As a result she was forced to make a choice to either violate her religious beliefs, or lose her business.
As she put it, “A government that can force you to say something and express a message that is so deeply contrary to your core beliefs is terrifying. We are entering a whole new realm when we force people to express themselves and use their heart, their head and their hands to create something that violates who they are.”
Yet that is where we are, as many florists, photographers, and wedding planners have discovered. Nor is this the only front on which religious liberty is threatened. While Hobby Lobby won before the Supreme Court, many seek to overturn the ruling, and with the death of Antonin Scalia that, and many other decisions, hang in the balance. In the medical field there is increasing pressure to force people participate in things that violate their religious views. Where once it was sufficient to simply refer someone to a colleague, that is increasingly seen as an act of intolerance not only to be condemned but prohibited. In short, those holding the banner of tolerance the highest, are becoming increasingly intolerant.
The bigger government becomes and the more it controls, the less freedom people will have to make choices for themselves, and this is of particular importance when it comes to religious freedom. Many share Kasich’s view that if you’re in the business of commerce, conduct commerce. But I see two problems with this. First, it puts government, not you, in control of what does and does not violate your conscience.
Sure, it has always done this to some extent, but it has been primarily in the role of restricting certain actions. For example, I believe that the British were correct to ban the practice of Sati (the wife being burned on the funeral pyre of her husband). It is something else to compel someone to do something contrary to their religious beliefs. Thus, we have for example allowed for conscientious objection to military service.
The other problem is that it is impossible simply to not conduct commerce. In earlier times, this may have been possible, but given the modern economy, just how does one do that? Sure, as a photographer or florist, one could as a matter of policy say that you do not do weddings. However that option is not open to wedding planners. Sure, you could just say, don’t be a wedding planner, but what about those who already are and who have worked hard to establish and build a business? Are the concepts of liberty and tolerance really consistent with the government forcing people to abandon a life’s work? It is a very strange notion of freedom and tolerance that only “tolerates” what government agrees with.
Then there are the issues raised by the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Hobby Lobby cases. If the left had their way these organizations would be forced to choose between violating their conscience and ceasing to operate. Hobby Lobby, for example, is often mischaracterized as not wanting to pay for birth control. In reality they have no problem with paying for most types of birth control, they only objected to those few that abort a pregnancy after conception. But either way, shouldn’t this be their choice? That someone wants an abortion is one thing, but on what basis can they demand that a 3rd party pay for it, particularly a third party that objects to it on religious grounds?
True, the current threat is mild when compared to the very real persecution that is common in some parts of the world. Some complain that the threat is overblown and that such things could never happen here. But then for decades, I have heard the “it could never happen” argument many times on many issues only to have it happen. After all, when the defense of marriage act was passed in 1996, it was attacked as an overreaction. We were repeatedly told that same-sex marriage could never happen and no one was even asking for it. Thus the act was simply pandering to unrealistic fears, or even a thinly veiled homophobia. Less than 20 years later it was obvious that it was imposed by the courts.
So count me as skeptical when it comes to claims that it could never happen here. If history teaches us anything, it teaches us that tyranny and oppression are much more the norm. Liberty is hard to win, and difficult to hold. Nor can we trust to the good intentions of those behind the current threat.
As C. S. Lewis wrote, and the 20th century so clearly demonstrated, “Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.”