Right Wing Plays Victim Card With False 'Religious Liberty' Complaint

Religious liberty is one of the most cherished values of American society, and progressives believe in this principle as many conservatives do. But in recent years, political conservatives have found a strong argument in debates about LGBT equality and reproductive health, one that has cast them not as opponents of individual freedom. Instead, they have flipped the script around by claiming that their own religious freedom is threatened. They regularly claim that employers’ religious freedom is harmed when they are required to provide insurance that covers contraception, or that business owners who cannot legally discriminate against same-sex couples are the true victims. 


The power of this message comes not from the truth or validity of their claim, of which there is very little to be found, but from the fact that this puts progressives into a quandary. Yet when leaders on the right make that claim, progressives often tread too delicately, for fear that they will be forced to choose between falsely competing values of liberty and equality.

A new report, Redefining Religious Liberty, from Political Research Associates, provides a new perspective that goes a long way towards ending these internal tugs of war. With fairness and precision, author Jay Michaelson documents how the principle of religious liberty has been manipulated to play on the fears and values of both conservatives and progressives, as well as secularists and people of faith. His analysis clears a path through the contradictory reactions that people experience when the question of religious liberty is raised.

As a Catholic who works for LGBT equality, my own loyalties to faith and justice sometimes pull me in opposite directions when an argument for religious liberty is raised. As a practicing Catholic, I want to be sure that the government is not going to interfere with my church’s ability to govern itself. As an advocate for LGBT issues, I want to make sure that equality is served.  But my church’s bishops are often the ones sounding the alarm with cries of religious liberty threatened, and often in spurious ways. This report has given me an invaluable tool to understand and respond to these conflicts in every one of worlds.

The most refreshing and inspiring part of Redefining Religious Liberty is that Michaelson maintains a balance of respect for religious tradition and liberty, also deeply valuing the civil liberties tradition of American history and culture. His analysis is a reminder that the goal of this debate is not to have a victor and vanquished, but to build an American society where honesty, fairness, and equality reign.

If one throws out the traditional binaries in this debate -- religious vs. secular, conservative vs. progressive -- we see that the realities are much more complex. Framing the debate as a war between church and state not only is inaccurate, but also plays into the hands of proponents of the religious liberty argument who want to claim victim status. For many progressive people of faith, it is that faith thatcompels them to advocate on behalf of LGBT equality and reproductive rights. Not that you would ever get that from much of the media coverage or public discussion. 

Similarly, those who espouse spurious religious liberty arguments against progressive policies often fail to recognize that in doing so they are in fact trampling on the liberty of religious people who support such measures. Political conservatives are not the only ones whose religious liberty needs protection. No single religious leader speaks for all religious people. No single Christian leader speaks for all Christians. Not even in the Catholic church does any single Catholic leader speak for all Catholics. Religious liberties of various faiths can and do conflict.

We would all do well not to fall into the trap of demonizing religious people, many of whom, in fact, agree that religious liberty is not under attack by progressives. It serves no productive purpose and only feeds the opposition’s persecution complex when progressives disparage religion as a whole. The religious liberty debate must be won on its merits and on the value Americans place on the principle of fairness -- a majority belief born out in polls -- not on alarmist rhetoric about secret and manipulative enemies. 

One of the most important recommendations in this report is that a strong faith-based response to the religious liberty argument is needed. And long overdue. For example, while Catholic leaders have been among the most vociferous proponents of the religious liberty argument -- claiming, for instance, that secular law forbidding discrimination against LGBT people with government money somehow interferes with their right to freely exercise their faith -- there are many Catholic thinkers who oppose this strategy, favoring the Catholic principle that an individual must ultimately be ruled by one’s conscience, not by the dictates of doctrine or authorities. A faith-based response to religious liberty would help to unearth the hidden gems within faith traditions, which value conscience, equality, and justice.

The power and strength of deceptive conservative claims of a liberal threat to their religious liberty indicate that this debate will continue to be part of our national conversation for a long while to come. We all need to boldly make the case that the civil rights of individuals and our heritage of religious liberty do not have to live in opposition, but can live in harmony and mutual respect. 

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