As America’s culture war hits fever pitch, religious freedom is ever more precarious

Protestors gather outside the Senate Chamber during a hearing on a religious freedom bill at the Statehouse in Indianapolis (PA)

The effective national legalisation of same-sex marriage in America has unleashed a full-blown culture war across the individual states. As a response to last year’s Supreme Court decision, the states of Indiana, South Dakota, North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Virginia, Mississippi, and now Missouri, have all sought to enact particular laws offering protections to religious organisations and privately owned businesses which would permit them to deny service on the grounds of their religious beliefs. Muslim bakeries would not, for example, be obliged to make a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage; a retreat house run by Catholic nuns would not be obliged to host lesbian couples. 

These bills have met with extraordinary opposition in the national media, and state legislatures have been subjected to enormous pressure. Major companies like Delta Airlines, Citibank, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, and even the NFL, have threatened to pull jobs and business from states that enact such laws. Unsurprisingly, many of the bills have failed, usually being vetoed by a state governor, despite legislative and popular support among actual residents and voters. It is a chilling illustration of the power of businesses to subvert the will of legislatures, regardless of which side of the debate you favour; it is only the sympathy of the media with their cause which has prevented this becoming the real story – one can only imagine the outcry if a similar cast of companies prevented the passage of, say, tax legislation. 

Same-sex marriage is already, in America, a national legal fact and these various bills did not seek to outlaw gay marriage, or in anyway dispute the ruling of the Supreme Court. While the debate is usually framed to portray these laws as protections for homophobia under the guise of religious freedom, the issue is actually whether there is any freedom of conscience to dissent in modern America; same-sex marriage being legal, does anyone have the right not to participate in it?

I recently wrote here about how, in the battle to ensure equal rights for gay people, “You can” was rapidly becoming “Therefore I must”, and that what was at issue in these state-by-state battles is the right to conscientiously object from the common consensus. Is it acceptable, in a modern pluralistic society, to acknowledge a legal reality, and even accept it, but to decline to participate in it? It seems increasingly that it is not. 

This debate hits fever pitch, especially in the United States, because it pits the newest freedom, so-called “marriage equality”, in direct conflict with the oldest, the freedom of religion. And here is the rub: what is religion?

There are, effectively, two ways of viewing religion. There is the post-Enlightenment, secular, definition, as practiced in the French Republic, where religion is what you do in the privacy of your own mind and in certain designated buildings – it is a private act and does not, and cannot be allowed to, carry into any public space. If it does, it exists under sufferance and without protection; hence the hijab can be banned from public spaces. For the record, this was actually the preferred view of the deistic Thomas Jefferson.

The other definition of religion, the correct one, is as an entire understanding of the world, oneself, objective truth and God, and how they interrelate. It is not practically possible, or even theoretically coherent, to be a Catholic on Sunday morning alone, or a Jew only on the Sabbath. If your religion tells you, as Christianity certainly does, that marriage was instituted by God as the permanent union of one man and one woman, then to create a legal framework where a Christian is obliged to write “Support Gay Marriage”, even in icing sugar, is to compel them to violate those beliefs.

In a world where the inability of governments to “get religion” is at the root of so much geo-political unrest, it is alarming in the extreme to see that, in the supposed home of religious freedom, religious tolerance is operating in reverse, and inflaming the very divisions we are expending so much blood and treasure trying to mend elsewhere.