Monday, February 7, 2011

Elder Oaks and Preserving Religious Freedom

There is considerable discussion out there about Elder Oak's talk given at Chapman University about religious freedom.  It is the sort of message that leaves me torn and restless.  As a deeply religious person I agree completely with the general sentiment expressed in his conclusion:
We must never see the day when the public square is not open to religious ideas and religious persons. The religious community must unite to be sure we are not coerced or deterred into silence by the kinds of intimidation or threatening rhetoric that are being experienced. Whether or not such actions are anti-religious, they are surely anti-democratic and should be condemned by all who are interested in democratic government. There should be room for all good-faith views in the public square, be they secular, religious, or a mixture of the two. When expressed sincerely and without sanctimoniousness, the religious voice adds much to the text and tenor of public debate.
No one should ever feel embarrassed or intimidated for expressing strong religious beliefs in the public square, and I agree that religions have much good to offer public policy on a more abstract level.  But at the same time, I disagree with Elder Oaks that religious expression should be given a special, elevated status in such discussions:

Another important current debate over religious freedom concerns whether the guarantee of free exercise of religion gives one who acts on religious grounds greater protection against government prohibitions than are already guaranteed to everyone by other provisions of the constitution, like freedom of speech. I, of course, maintain that unless religious freedom has a unique position we erase the significance of this separate provision in the First Amendment. Treating actions based on religious belief the same as actions based on other systems of belief is not enough to satisfy the special guarantee of religious freedom in the United States Constitution. Religion must preserve its preferred status in our pluralistic society in order to make its unique contribution—its recognition and commitment to values that transcend the secular world.
This seems to me to go a step too far.  In a democracy all voices and viewpoints should be weighted equally, with none given a preferred status, just as each person's vote is given equal weight and none are given special status (unless you are on the Supreme Court, of course).  Giving preference to religious expression seems to contain a couple major problems.

First, religions simply do not agree with one another on most important issues.  There is not a monolithic religious point of view.  Some religions support gay marriage, some don't.  Some religions are overtly political, some aren't.  Some religions are incredibly strict and didactic about public laws and discourse, others are more lenient and hands-off.  To say that religious expression should be preferred is to throw open the doors to a cacophonous mess.

Which leads to the second point, which is that religions are notoriously antagonistic towards one another and I don't think Mormons, in particular, would be too pleased with where that might end up.  For doctrinal and evangelical reasons (meaning we are both idiosyncratic in our beliefs and aggressive in proselytizing them), we aren't exactly the most highly-regarded amongst the Protestant religions that dominate the country.  Giving preferred status to these may lead to more stringent restrictions to our religious freedom than any perceived restrictions some may feel now.

Finally, unless our government is established based on facts and reason, the wanton baseless emotions of a few could easily overrun the system.  Public officials have to be accountable and grounded to objective standards.  Religion can be beautiful and a force for good, but it is based on belief and faith and other deeply personal spiritual experiences that cannot be extrapolated to the many for purposes of establishing public policy.  Furthermore, as noted above, there are so many different flavors of religion that seeking to find some universal kernel on which to base public policy would be near impossible.

Now, I agree with Elder Oaks that our society is becoming more and more comfortable with moral relativism, and that this is a bad thing:
The preservation of religious freedom in our nation depends on the value we attach to the teachings of right and wrong in our churches, synagogues and mosques. It is faith in God—however defined—that translates these religious teachings into the moral behavior that benefits the nation. As fewer and fewer citizens believe in God and in the existence of the moral absolutes taught by religious leaders, the importance of religious freedom to the totality of our citizens is diminished.  We stand to lose that freedom if many believe that religious leaders, who preach right and wrong, make no unique contribution to society and therefore should have no special legal protection.
I disagree with the conclusion, however, that the remedy is found in a preferred position in the public square.  If religion is losing its influence in society, perhaps it is as much or more because we are doing a poor job defining what good we have to offer society than of being squeezed out by the forces of a some soft conspiracy.  We should focus more on humbly serving individuals and selling our message through personal testimony, than acting as a perceived victim on the public stage.

As to whether there really is a substantial erosion of our right to practice religion, as opposed to an erosion of our reputations as religious, I don't know.  Elder Oaks offers some examples that I plan on looking into, but I confess to having no reason to believe that my right to practice my religion is diminishing or will diminish in the near future.  I feel no threat to my First Amendment rights, and any threat to my standing in the public eye I will accept as my own failing and try to do better in the future.  To the extent that there is an erosion of my First Amendment rights, I stand with Elder Oaks in fighting against it.


JohnE said...

Good post! I think the Golden Rule sums up my feelings about the influence of religion in the public sphere. We don't want other religions making public policy that is not friendly to Mormonism in the name of God, without a rational secular explanation. So why should we publicly enforce our morality in the name of God if we cannot rationally justify it? I am not sure that as Mormons we really want to live in a country that gives special privilege religous morals that have weak or secular arguments. Religious America has not been our best of friends.

It seems like some people would like to have their cake and eat it too. They would like to say that it is unAmerican to not put religious morals on a pedestal, but as soon as the religious morals of the majority are different than yours, then it is unAmerican to force your religion on me.

JohnE said...

Sorry I meant to say "I am not sure that as Mormons we really want to live in a country that gives special privilege religous morals that have weak secular arguments. Religious America has not been our best of friends."

Jacob S. said...

JohnE, thanks, I agree completely. It seems like such a great idea when Elder Oaks says that religion should have a prominent place in our public policy. I would love for someone like Elder Oaks to have a more prominent role. It seems like a great idea, that is, until we realize that other religions will also have a prominent role as well and that, as you noted, that hasn't always gone so well for us.