9 Tactics and 5 Mistaken Beliefs: The Christian Right's New 'Religious Liberty' Campaign Deconstructed

Roman Catholic elites and rightwing evangelicals are repackaging their old attacks on contraception, abortion, same-sex marriage and LGBTQ rights under a propagandistic umbrella of claiming new rights for “religious liberty,” according to an astute analysis that traces how this lobby is increasingly seeking legal protection to discriminate on religious grounds.

“The nerve center of the conservative ‘religious liberty’ campaign is a small group of conservative Roman Catholic intellectuals... and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops,” wrote Jay Michealson in his report, “Redefining Religious Liberty, for Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank. “The campaign to redefine ‘religious liberty’ aims not simply to win religious exemptions to the law, but to contest the authority of secular law itself.”

Michaelson's report describes a multi-facted campaign that includes dozens of lawsuits attacking the Affordable Care Act by claiming that businesses and religious institutions have First Amendment freedom to withhold reproductive health care, to other claims—such as by the Boy Scouts—that they are being victimized by civil rights laws when instead they want the legal right to discriminate.

“There should be no mistake: the Right’s ‘religious liberty’ campaign is a key front in the broader culture war designed to fight the same social battles on new-sounding terms, and is part of a movement with old roots in Christian Dominionism (a form of theocracy) and ties to conservative Catholics who launched the anti-choice movement,” he wrote. “Its deliberate inversion of victim-oppressor dynamic has led to limits on women’s and LGBTQ people’s real freedoms in the name of defending chimerical ones. Proponents may sincerely believe that they are defending religious freedom, but the campaign’s endgame is a ‘Christian nation’ defined in exclusively conservative terms.”

The report highlighted numerous legal fights and tactics with outsized claims about religious liberty, as well as identified underlying prejudices driving these beliefs. These lists are eye-opening checklists of the latest makeover in America’s culture war.

The latest tactics and fights include:

• An ongoing PR campaign to convince Americans that religious liberty is under attack and deploying misleading exaggerations to scare voters, for instance, by falsely claiming that churches will be required to sacralize same-sex weddings and employers forced to pay for abortions;

• Reframing questions of discrimination (e.g., in the Boy Scouts) as questions of the religious liberty of those who wish to discriminate;

• Filing lawsuits to limit LGBTQ rights on religious liberty grounds and exploiting ambiguities in the law to conduct a nationwide litigation campaign;

• Exploiting the structural ambiguity in civil rights law that emerges when fundamental rights clash, as that between religious expression and civil rights;

• Scaring the public by eliding the differences in legal standards between discrimination against LGBTQ people and discrimination against African-Americans and other racial minorities, and suggesting that protections for the latter will be extended to the former;

• Influencing legislation to obtain exemptions from antidiscrimination laws, and enabling Christian organizations to discriminate (e.g. student clubs in the Virginia university system);

• Limiting access to reproductive healthcare, first through a series of religious exemptions for abortion and now by attempting to limit insurance coverage for contraceptives under the federal Affordable Care Act;

• Attempting to expand existing religious exemptions beyond religious organizations to include private businesses (such as the retailer Hobby Lobby, the plaintiff in a prominent current case); and

• Marshaling the support of academics who successfully argued a key religious liberty case before the U.S. Supreme Court for the Becket Fund and others who lend intellectual leadership for the movement, within the Christian Right and more broadly.

The Political Research Associates report is most intruging when it delves into the self-serving prejudices that are driving these political and legal campaigns. Michaelson cites five themes, all which fuel propagandistic calls for obtaining additional legal rights—which coincide with oppressing Americans who don’t share their beliefs.

1. Blurring fact and fiction.

“There is a confusing mixture of fact and fiction in rightwing ‘religious liberty’ rhetoric,” he said. “For example, in North Carolina, equality opponents warned that religious leaders who preached against homosexuality could be arrested for hate crimes. This is absolutely not the case; the First Amendment’s existing ‘ministerial exemption’ would obviously protect this speech. In marriage equality battles, Christian Right advocates continue to claim that pastors will be required to officiate at same-sex weddings, which is also not the case.”

2. Declaring The “War on Religion”

Changes in American society and culture have always upset conservatives, especially people with rigid views, Michaelson points out. But a heightened sense of victimization and paranoia is at play in rightwing Christian circles, he said, which pushes believers to exaggerate their grievances and demand special legal treatment.

“The metaphors are appropriately biblical: soon there will be a flood of litigation, a firestorm of controversy,” he said. “Indeed, these apocalyptic pronouncements resonate closely with the millennialism that one finds in conservative evangelicalism generally and Christian Reconstructionism/pre-millennialism specifically. The ‘coming storm’ and the End Times are not distant from one another.”

Michaelson said the religious right cannot tolerants anyone who doesn’t share its beliefs.

“The ‘war on Christianity’ in part results from an improper circumscription of religious liberty to simply what one believes in private, or within the church walls on Sunday, rather than what one practices in all aspects of life,” he said. “It is this theory that allows conservative ‘religious liberty’ advocates to insist that their employment decisions and commercial life are also the ‘free exercise of religion,’ and to project a straw man secularist who believes that religion should only happen on Sundays. Of course, this ‘misconception’ is not actually present in progressive thought on this subject; rather, the claim is that one’s free exercise of religion is one of many civil rights, and that it may not necessarily trample on the rights of another.”

3. The Martyr Narrative

Needless to say, central to the ‘war on religion’ narrative is the Right’s martyr fixation, Michealson said, noting that this theme has the deepest roots in Christianity’s narrative.

“In describing the war on religious freedom, conservative ‘religious liberty’ discourse may seem paranoid, but to traditionalists, it resonates with significant moments in Christian history, such as the early Christian martyrs in the Roman period,” he said. “Indeed, while many progressives of all faiths see themselves as resisting an overbearing,

conservative Christian dominance in public life, many Christian conservatives see themselves as resisting a secular, anti-Christian hegemony, a perception that taps directly into narratives of Christian martyrdom, including that of Christ himself.”

4. Inverting The Victims and Oppressors

The question of whose rights are really threatened is central, Michaelson said, because it underscores the religious right’s brazen assumptions that they are persecuted and need additional legal protections—of the highest order.

“On the question of whether an employer must provide contraception coverage in health insurance plans, whose rights are at stake?” he wrote. “In the ‘religious liberty’ frame, the employer’s religious liberty rights are threatened. In the civil rights frame, the employee’s reproductive rights are threatened. Same facts, but different frames.”

5. Stages of Dominion

Where all this leads is to varying slices of Roman Catholic society demanding different legal treatment—if not immunity from American law, Michaelson said. Churches, clergy, religious institutions, religious organizations, religiously owned businesses, and religious individuals are all treated slightly differently under America’s legal system and case law.

“The law treats these tiers [various institutions and people] differently: churches are rarely required to obey antidiscrimination laws, for example, but religious organizations may be, and religious-owned businesses are,” he wrote. “This staged policy must be understood as an attempt to create not religious exemptions, but the evisceration of civil rights protections themselves. If any individual or business can refuse to recognize a person’s civil rights on the pretext of religious belief, those rights are functionally meaningless.”

Michaelson’s analysis is very timely, given that the U.S. Supreme Court next week will hear arguments in a same-sex marriage case. As we see the coverage in the media, and hear speeches by conservative politicians, you can be sure that they will be claiming that Roman Catholics—not LGBTQ people—are the victims; and that all people should not be protected under civil rights laws, and such is God’s will. Stay tuned.    

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