Making arguments for religious freedom, ctd.

A commenter on Rod Dreher’s blog once noted:

While intellectually I’m all for protecting religious freedom, I can’t really discern what exactly is meant by it. Surely a ‘religious freedom’ law wouldn’t just target religious views on gays but would be neutral and apply to other things. I assume it would allow bakers to refuse to service cakes for mixed-race couples (or is that a straw man?), or hoteliers to refuse to rent a room to unmarried couples, or party stores to refuse to design Hanuka banners, or what… give examples of how such a theoretical law would impact a group other than gays.

I mean, I could be for religious liberty laws so long as it is applied equally to everyone, and not just targeting gays and lesbians. But over and over, any example of how such a law could be abused is derided as being a straw man (or simply labeled ridiculous). Okay, so what are the examples of who else would benefit from such a religious liberty protection other than those who don’t believe in gay marriage? (I suppose there’s abortion and contraception but even there it’s hard to imagine examples of why a religious liberty protection law is needed.)

It is excruciatingly difficult to understand what ‘religious liberty’ means outside of protecting those whose religions find same sex marriage anathema. If you could show examples other than same sex marriage that would impact other Christian or Muslim or Unitarian or Buddhist or Hindi religions, I think you’d get more traction. Can we come up with examples of religious liberty protections that progressive faiths may find attractive? But if religious liberty always boils down to same sex marriage, then that’s what it’s going to be associated with. And thus many will start declaring ‘religious liberty’ as code for ‘anti-SSM’ (which by the laws of the slippery slope become ‘anti-gay’). [Emphasis added – PK]

As I’ve argued before, persuading those who don’t already agree with you should be a central goal in these discussions. You have to consider how people like Rod’s commenter would respond to your arguments. I strongly agree with religious freedom (RF), but even I only have a vague notion of what I would say here. How should Hindus, Buddhists and even atheists think about RF?

Let me offer two ways we can start making the case. One I’ll call the Alan Jacobs approach. In his RF posts, I see Jacobs arguing that RF is important in and of itself as a core human right. And especially because RF has been so beneficial in our past, we should be wary of undermining it today. The other approach is the Robert Tracinski approach: there is no such thing as RF because it’s actually just freedom of thought and conscience. RF is a subset of these deeper freedoms. I think John Inazu’s ‘Confident Pluralism’ belongs with Trancisnki but it might be its own category.

A couple final points. I’ll reiterate that effective persuasion is a discussion we must have on its own terms. It’s not enough to argue for RF if you’re not also considering whether it would convince others. And second, it’s important to recognize that these are empirical questions. While I personally think Tracinski has the stronger case, we can test which argument resonates more strongly and universally. We shouldn’t have to guess.


  1. I’m not sure actually. I meant to say that even I wouldn’t have a *quick* answer. I do have a longer answer (I think). But it’s not at all obvious. I think the sad fact is that SSM issues are how religious freedom debates are playing out. I don’t think it should be. But it is what it is.

    Your thoughts?

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