I am no stranger to incendiary language. Organizations on the left and the right alike use loaded language: words designed, not to foster thoughtful discourse, but simply to whip the like-minded into a lather. Still, this was one of the more incendiary paragraphs that I had read in a while:

In states and court rooms across the country, conservative extremists have launched a new effort that threatens to undermine hard-fought civil and human rights victories for LGBT people, women, and others. Under the guise of religious liberty, conservatives are organizing to impose their theological doctrines on others while carving out broad exemptions from a wide variety of laws with which they disagree. Through law suits, grass roots organizing, messaging tactics and more, conservatives are attempting to roll back the progressive clock, all while claiming that they are being victimized for their beliefs.

This is how the Center for American Progress (CAP), a well-funded liberal think tank, was advertising its event, “Religious Liberty for Some or Religious Liberty for All?” It was an all progressive panel with representatives from the ACLU, the Interfaith Alliance, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and the Human Rights Campaign (HRC). Former Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson, now a CAP senior fellow, would also make an appearance. Together, they would inform you what was to be done to counter all this conservative nonsense.

It’s true that religious conservatives (and some not so conservative religious types too) have been apoplectic for a while at the Affordable Care Act’s regulatory mandate to cover birth control and abortifacient drugs. The promised but very limited religious exemption, with its delayed roll-out and its reliance on a dubious financial shell game, only added to the consternation. Equally upsetting has been the decision from the New Mexico Supreme Court to uphold the state’s decision to fine a photographer for politely refusing, on religious grounds, to photograph a same-sex union ceremony. This was found to be illegal discrimination based on sexual orientation. One state Supreme Court justice directly acknowledged the imposition on the photographer’s deeply held beliefs, but chalked this up as the “price of citizenship.” So religious conservatives are pretty angry—but rightly so, as I see it.

Until now, most major liberal politicians (such as President Obama and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi) have argued that they indeed seek to accommodate and respect religious dissenters. While the end results have often been disappointing, the rhetoric still indicated some general agreement with the notion that institutions and people of faith should not be forced by the government to go against their core convictions.

CAP, though, was clearly tossing any accommodationist language out the window, and that’s what concerned me most. At least for this liberal organization, the issue of religious liberty has already moved away from being one worthy of dialogue with the other side to just a “guise” to be exposed and counter-attacked. That’s not a good development.

The panel itself lived up to the promotion. Lip service was given to the value of religious liberty, but exactly what the term was supposed to mean was never spelled out. There seemed to be agreement that one could mentally believe what one wanted and that churches could decide their own standards for membership and maybe even be exempt from onerous zoning. But, it was strongly implied that should one’s faith compel action outside the brain or pew, then “liberty” did not apply. The motives of religious conservatives were also questioned. Interfaith Alliance head Rev. Dr. C. Welton Gaddy, a man clearly still nursing some wounds from the Southern Baptist Convention’s shift to the right decades ago, said that some conservatives use the term “religious liberty” but “really mean my liberty, your slavery.” With no one to question this inflammatory rhetoric, there was simply a nodding of heads.

Moderator Sally Steenland of CAP did “play Devil’s advocate” and noted with some seeming sympathy the plight of the religious photographers, bakers, and florists who of late have tried to opt out of same-sex ceremonies, only to be fined or drug back in by authorities. The panel response went no further than guilt by association. These small business owners were comparable to those in the past who opposed interracial or interfaith marriages.

“No one should be humiliated at the dry cleaners,” was HRC’s Sarah Warbelow’s rule of thumb for how the law should play out. As she explained, the ability of two lesbians to have their wedding dress and tuxedo cleaned should trump a religious business owner’s interest in not associating with what is to his eyes was an immoral service. Thus, she might more fully have said, “No one should be humiliated at the dry cleaners, except the dry cleaner.”

Overall, the attempts at reasoning were often circular. “The Constitution trumps the Bible,” said Rev. Dr. Gaddy. That, of course, tells us little when the Constitution itself protects the free exercise of religion. “We all like religious freedom, but this is about discrimination,” offered Eunice Rho of the ACLU in a pithy but vacuous summation. Nobody was there to note that religious freedom would be hollow indeed if one could not make choices (i.e. discriminate) based upon the content of one’s creed.

Gaddy, sounding a lot like the “price of citizenship” Supreme Court justice in New Mexico, often returned to the theme that sacrifice is part of living in a democracy. Would he extend that to requiring Quakers and other pacifist believers to take up arms if drafted, or mandating the Amish to prioritize book learning over farm work? On the other hand, would conservatives extend their logic to a photographer who, based on the bad theology of a white supremacist cult, refused service to a black Christian couple? These are all real dilemmas that society has faced, and may well face anew. In short, just how “free” will we let people be in the name of religion? That’s the real, and difficult, question that should be the subject of thoughtful dialogue right now.

But that thoughtful dialogue isn’t happening—not at CAP, and not anywhere else as far as I can tell. Though I have attended several panels at more conservative venues, and heard much decrying of the Obamacare mandates and the Elane Photography case, I cannot remember a discussion focused on identifying the point on the spectrum where communal standards should trump individual religious expressions. Christians in religiously dominated communities have sometimes cited the wishes of the many to uphold things like nativity scenes and public prayers against the complaints of the few. How, then, ought the faithful respond when the many cease to be on their side?

Assertions of religious freedom would be strengthened if we could better express its limits. What response do we have to slippery slope arguments like those claiming religious husbands would be able to legally beat their twelve-year-old wives? If we don’t have a response, we should: Such scare tactics were used to defeat religious liberty referendums in North Dakota and Kentucky.

Some Christians experience these cultural shifts as a slap in the face; perhaps the Christian response is to turn and offer the other cheek. Or should we continue to argue our case, like Paul the Roman citizen appealing to Caesar? These are not easy questions to answer. If there is a discussion to have with only Christians at the table, such issues of discernment may be the ones for the agenda. Otherwise, when the topic is religious liberty, perhaps we should be the ones extending a hand and inviting participants from the other side to explain their perspectives, making sure that our own events do not fall into the same “us” versus a faceless “them” trap evident at CAP. Having been cursed, can we bless?

John Murdock, after a decade spent as an attorney in the DC Beltway, is now writing a book on Christian environmental stewardship from an ancestral farmhouse in Texas. He blogs at republicantreehugger.blogspot.com.

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