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When You Hear Conservatives Talking About Religious Liberty, Watch Out

“Religious liberty” might sound nice, but it conceals a hard-line agenda.
 
 
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At the dawn of the Tea Party revolution, many conservatives were optimistic. The prevailing attitude among reporters and insiders alike was that the Republican Party had shed its misguided moralism and embraced hard-nosed economic realism as its core platform. Political author Dick Morris wrote, “No longer do evangelical or social issues dominate the Republican ground troops….There is still a litmus test for admission to the Republican Party. But no longer is it dominated by abortion, guns and gays. Now, keeping the economy free of government regulation, reducing taxation, and curbing spending are the chemicals that turn the paper pink.”

New York Times reporter Kate Zernike, author of Boiling Mad: Inside Tea Party America, agreed. “For decades, faith and family have been at the center of the conservative movement. But as the Tea Party infuses conservatism with new energy, its leaders deliberately avoid discussion of issues like gay marriage or abortion.”

Yet despite its focus on libertarianism, this new Republican bloc has spent the last three years fighting with unprecedented aggressiveness on the very social issues it was supposedly unconcerned with. Between 2011 and 2013, Republicans enacted 205 anti-abortion laws, more than they had in the prior 10 years combined (189). The Kansas house passed a bill that would give any individual, even essential government employees and hospital workers, the right to deny service to gay people. Though the bill did not pass the senate, similar bills are being introduced in at least nine other states, according to Mother Jones.

So what had changed? More than anything, it was the way that opposition to abortion and gay rights was justified: in the words of BuzzFeed’s McKay Coppins, “in terms of protecting religious freedom instead of enforcing ‘family values.’” This change made Republicans appear more moderate, but actually signaled a rightward shift. Conservative ideas of religious liberty posited that the government’s eventual goal was the oppression of conservative Christians, and compromise on any religious liberty issues—which encompassed abortion, gay rights, and the Affordable Care Act—would be a violation of Christian faith. The notion of religious liberty thus gave small-government politics a cosmic imperative.

The Rhetoric of Religious Liberty

In the last few years, Republicans have become more and more focused on not “paying for abortions.” In February, Jeff Jimerson, one of the chief petitioners for a ballot measure in Oregon that would outlaw using state funds to pay for an abortion, summarized this view in the New York Times. Jimerson said, "We don't want to make this a pro-life thing. This is a pro-taxpayer thing. There are a lot of libertarians in Oregon, people who don't really care what you do, just don't make me pay for it."

Jimerson’s views happen to be in line with the official 2012 GOP platform, which opposed “using public revenues to promote or perform abortions or fund organizations which perform or advocate it” and said the party would not “fund or subsidize health care which includes abortion coverage.”

On the surface, this position may seem a softer stance, perhaps one that could offer a place for abortion rights with a conscience exemption. This makes it all the more strange that the last three years have seen renewed anti-abortion efforts at the state level. Stranger still, the laws passed during the last three years have done very little to block the government from funding abortions: the four most popular restrictions in 2013 were laws that limited insurance coverage, banned abortion pills, instituted 20-week bans, and restricted the function of abortion providers.

How did opposing paying for abortions lead to the largest anti-abortion rights push in memory? According to New York Times reporter Jeremy Peters, “by framing the abortion debate in terms of fiscal conservatism, [Republicans] can make a connection to the issue they believe will ultimately decide who controls Congress next year — the Affordable Care Act.”

 
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