Religious right's new panic: How can we practice religion if we can't discriminate?

The "liberty" crowd, led by Ross Douthat of the Times, braces itself for persecution of its views

Published March 4, 2014 12:43PM (EST)

Ross Douthat               (HBO)
Ross Douthat (HBO)

When it became clear that conservatives were going to lose a fight in Arizona (and then elsewhere) to establish legal protections for anti-gay religious business owners and others, nobody on the left expected an immediate course correction.

But to a disappointing degree, conservative supporters of Arizona's SB 1062 have eschewed introspection of any kind, and have instead retreated into an ideologically insulated cocoon of self-pity. Within this cocoon it's an article of faith that the media botched its coverage of the bill's demise, or, worse, joined forces with liberals, gay rights advocates and others to intentionally mislead the public about the stakes of the fight. A surprising number of conservatives seem to believe that they alone possess the correct understanding of the bill's intent -- that everyone else got it catastrophically wrong, perhaps on purpose, and that the mismatch explains their defeat.

These protestations are incredibly unconvincing and a little bit sad. They prefigure a not-so-distant future in which LGBT equality is a social norm that goes unquestioned except in private, and by people who publicly insist they've always just been misunderstood. If you're interested, here's one thorough demolition.

Personally, I'm a bit less interested in what those who feel mowed over by recent events say within their virtual support groups than in the pronouncements of the handful of conservatives who have ventured out of them. And the common thread among them is the nagging notion that incompatibilities between civil law and certain religious beliefs don't just burden a small subset of entrepreneurs, but actually constitute persecution of religious affiliates in general.

Last week, after Jan Brewer vetoed SB 1062, Rod Dreher, a senior editor at the American Conservative, wrote this post, which is filled with interesting data points, but ends on a strangely beleaguered note.

"What I’m really interested in is what religious and social conservatives who find themselves on the losing side here think is the next step," he wrote. "A federal judge in Texas today did what federal judges these days do: found the state’s prohibition on SSM unconstitutional. We all know, or should know, where this is going as a legal matter, and soon. We also know, or should know, where this is going as a cultural matter. So, what next? What’s our plan for ourselves, our families, our churches, and our local communities? Do we even have one? What would it look like?"

My hunch is that almost none of the religious and social conservatives he's addressing are business owners who object to serving gay spouses, or congregants whose churches are suddenly performing gay marriages. Recent expansions of LGBT rights are very real, and reactionary efforts to offset them seem to be failing. But it's all happening in secular arenas. Gay partners can get married in several states, but not necessarily by churches of their choosing. States of recognition and the federal government treat these marriages the same way they treat heterosexual marriages, and in a growing number of ways are undertaking to protect LGBT people from discrimination, but only in public and commercial spaces. Dreher alludes to a widely-shared feeling of rudderlessness, and yet none of this is a threat to any doctrinal teaching.

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat acknowledges as much, but still mourns the ascendance of same-sex marriage as a kind of avoidable divine retribution for the outright bigotry of the recent past.

"The conjugal, male-female view of marriage is too theologically rooted to disappear, but its remaining adherents can be marginalized, set against one other, and encouraged to conform," he wrote this weekend. "I am being descriptive here, rather than self-pitying. Christians had plenty of opportunities — thousands of years’ worth — to treat gay people with real charity, and far too often chose intolerance. (And still do, in many instances and places.) So being marginalized, being sued, losing tax-exempt status — this will be uncomfortable, but we should keep perspective and remember our sins, and nobody should call it persecution."

I agree that nobody should call this persecution, because that's not what it is. Douthat seems to believe that it is persecution, but that religious conservatives can't complain because they brought it upon themselves. And yet every act of oppression he foresees -- diminished social acceptability, accountability for unlawful acts of discrimination -- are only oppressive if you believe social toleration of religiously motivated actions, in all realms of life, is a necessary condition for the free practice of religion.

But that's a simultaneously imperious and impoverished view of religious freedom. If your religious raison d'être grew murky when society became gay friendly, you should ask yourself why your faith is so vulnerable to changes in secular norms, and whether what you're really fighting for isn't something much more expansive than your personal religious liberty.

By Brian Beutler

Brian Beutler is Salon's political writer. Email him at and follow him on Twitter at @brianbeutler.

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