Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

The Conservative Brain Trust Takes On: Freedom of Religion!

(Cross-posted at The Blue Herald)

HTML Mencken at Sadly, No! has a great post from 3/10/07 called "Gaywads Want to Persecute Religious People!" While his post is pithier and funnier than this one will be, its substance directly relates to The Chart Project, most specifically The Social Tolerance Charts and The Religion-in-Society Charts, so I felt compelled to take another look.

Again, I’d read the Sadly, No! post first. But here are the key points of a little discussion over at the Corner at the National Review Online.

In a 3/9/07 post, ”Can Religious Freedom Survive Gay Liberation?” David Frum argues that:

There is a widespread view that gay liberation is a movement toward greater freedom. Up to a point, that was true. That point, however, is now receding in the background. The movement for gay equality has rapidly evolved into movement to restrict personal freedoms, including freedoms of religion and conscience. The British example is not a special case. What is being done there today will be demanded here tomorrow.

Andrew Stuttaford, who HTML Mencken describes as “a libertarian and frequently an adult voice in contrast to the Corner’s playground cacaphony,” replies (also on 3/9/07):

Can Religious Freedom Survive Gay Liberation

That's the question David Frum asks over on his blog. Sure it can.

The more interesting question however is the extent to which religious belief should be privileged above all others. You can, quite legitimately, question the range and definition of anti-discrimination laws, but once a democracy has put those laws in place, I can think of no particular reason why some people should be exempted from that law, simply on the grounds of religion. To do so is to say that religious belief is somehow more deserving of special protection than other (perhaps no less deeply held) ideologies, an idea that, however well-intentioned, is irrational at best, dangerous at worse.

Stuttaford is being fairly polite, but he’s really stating the obvious here. Frum updates his original post to note Stuttaford’s “excellent point” then exclaims:

And of course he is right! When general laws are passed, they must apply to all.

That is precisely why the gay rights movement is inherently an illiberal one. When you decide to extend your nondiscrimination principles to behavior condemned by your society's majority religion, you are embarking on a course that will sooner or later require the state to police, control, and punish adherents of that religion.

That was (or should have been obvious) from the start. And it's the reason for the question posed in the title of this post - a question Andrew dismisses with uncharacteristic glibness.

Umm, at this point I’d be tempted to ask, okay, kids, who can spot the glaring logical fallacy Frum just made? (I'm reminded of a student engaged in an oral defense of a paper on a novel. When a central passage of the book that directly contradicted his thesis was politely pointed out to him, his response was, "Exactly, that proves my point!") But let’s continue.

As HTML Mencken astutely notes, Frum’s “reasoning here is identical to that which he used to justify the teaching of ‘intelligent design’. Participating in a 2005 phone survey of conservatives and their views on evolution, Frum stated:

Whether he personally believes in evolution: “I do believe in evolution.”

What he thinks of intelligent design: “If intelligent design means that evolution occurs under some divine guidance, I believe that.”

How evolution should be taught in public schools: “I don’t believe that anything that offends nine-tenths of the American public should be taught in public schools. … Christianity is the faith of nine-tenths of the American public. … I don’t believe that public schools should embark on teaching anything that offends Christian principle.”

Wow! If Frum were arguing that teachers should show a social sensitivity toward their students, realizing that there may be a few who might be upset by the idea of evolution (age and maturity being factors), I’d say he had a point. However, most teachers do show such sensitivity. (The “offensive” standard would also preclude the Socratic method of teaching, which depends at stages on making students uncomfortable.)

Frum is instead arguing that the majority rules. He's further arguing, at best, that the majority is entitled to ignore empirical truth, and at worst arguing that they determine empirical truth (shades of the faith-based community). It’s rather alarming that he argues in this direction, and can’t see the obvious problems with it. Science is not a matter of a vote. It’s about fact. A science curriculum is based on accuracy, to the best of the scientific community’s knowledge at that time, and centers on a process for determining accuracy. Frum further ignores that not all Christians are Biblical literalists who refuse to believe in evolution. Granted, this was a phone interview, perhaps Frum was merely pandering, but his is a profoundly stupid, dangerous argument. Logically, then, considering the Frum pieces we’ve sampled, if the majority are anti-Semitic, racist, homophobic, sexist or otherwise bigoted, that would be fine with David Frum. (Of course, Frum doesn’t want this. As Stuttaford pointed out already, Frum is essentially arguing for a ‘homophobia exemption’... and, apparently, a ‘creationism exemption.’)

Then the mighty Jonah Goldberg weighs in with ”Religious Freedom.” He first tries to advance a version of the “secular humanist” argument we’ve already covered, but after a few digressions, eventually states:

I should also note that our constitution actually gives very wide berth to religious freedom. So while your discussion with David Frum about England is an exception, when you write that "once a democracy has put those laws in place, I can think of no particular reason why some people should be exempted from that law," you run into the problem of the US Constitution which guarantees the free-exercise of religion in the Bill of Rights. And, as you surely know, the whole reason we have a bill of rights is to protect us from democratic laws which are unjust and illiberal despite being supported by the majority.

Yes, you read that right. Jonah Goldberg just invoked the Constitution, and protection for the minority from the tyranny of the majority (incidentally, the exact opposite of what Frum was arguing in relation to teaching evolution) — to justify discrimination. Huh?

Oh, but it gets better. Then Jack Fowler weighs in, writing:

Andrew Stuttaford writes earlier here (“Can Religious Freedom Survive Gay Liberation?”) that he …

can think of no particular reason why some people should be exempted from that law, simply on the grounds of religion. To do so is to say that religious belief is somehow more deserving of special protection than other (perhaps no less deeply held) ideologies, an idea that, however well-intentioned, is irrational at best, dangerous at worse.

Err, there is indeed a “particular reason,” sorry to mention it: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” (it’s located in a thing called the Bill of Rights). Damn that “free exercise thereof” – now there’s a well-intentioned notion that, when you think about it, is irrational at best, and maybe even dangerous.

It’s really breathtaking. Fowler’s so completely, astoundingly wrong here, yet he’s so very smug. (Shades of Bill Kristol back in 2003 dismissively talking about there being no sectarian conflict between Iraqi Sunnis and Shiites.)

Not covered by HTML Mencken was Stuttaford’s response the next day (3/10/07):

Jonah, Jack, two quick points.

I wasn't looking to address the question as to whether such laws are right or wrong (on small-l libertarian grounds, I'm often fairly skeptical, at least about the reach and scope of many of them), but, rather, how they are drawn up. Laws should be imposed on all citizens equally, regardless of their religious affiliation. If you like, I'm generally in favor of 'religion-blind' legislation (there are some exceptions to this in a country with a state church, but you get my drift).

US/UK: Yes, I agree with you about the distinction between the US and the UK. I was, of course, writing about the UK.

As far as I could tell, the discussion ended there. I can only imagine Stuttaford was astounded by his cohorts’ arguments, and was trying to be polite. Still, “religion-blind” is a useful phrase.

I understand the basic, social interaction level of saying, “you’ve got your opinion, and I’ve got mine,” but not all ideas are created equal. Not all arguments are based on facts, let alone sound reasoning. I understand these are quick blog posts. But when Right Wing News announced 2006’s favorite columnists of right-of-center bloggers, Goldberg came in a strong fourth and David Frum was one of several pundits who tied at sixteenth. Plus, this is the National Review, for goodness’ sake. Supposedly, Goldberg and Frum are leading luminaries of the right, part of the conservative brain trust! How the hell can they not understand the fundamental issues here?

We covered the core relevant issues in The Social Tolerance Charts and The Religion-in-Society Charts. But let’s tackle the conservative brain trust’s misunderstandings graphically:

(Click for a larger image.)

Basic anti-discrimination laws and civil rights apply to everybody. That includes both homosexuals and homophobes. (Obviously there are anti gay marriage laws on the books in some states, some of which are being challenged. Frum's post began by discussing anti-discrimination laws in Britain. Regardless, certainly no one in America has seriously argued that gays can’t vote, or don’t possess First Amendment rights, for example.)

According to the First Amendment, which protects both freedom of speech and freedom of religion (with both the exercise and establishment clauses), David Frum is free to be a homophobe, a racist, a sexist, an Islamophobe and an anti-Semite. However, he is not similarly entitled to act on those beliefs in a manner that breaks the law. Let’s consider the most blatant counter-example to the conservative brain trust’s arguments:

(Click for a larger image.)

According to the logic of Frum, Goldberg and Fowler, if they were to join the Cult of Kali from the film Gunga Din, their religious belief in murdering others would make murder legal.

America is not a theocracy, and was expressly founded not to be one. Overall, America is legally a tolerant society, and was founded as one. A tolerant society allows for intolerant people with intolerant beliefs, but that is not the same thing as allowing intolerant people to act on all of those beliefs. Intolerant people cannot legally strip others of their civil rights, such as denying someone the right to vote based on their race, gender, religion or sexuality.

Since conservatives like hierarchies, let’s look at this another way as well:

(Click for a larger image.)

An individual belief is a far different matter than a legal and social system that allows for different beliefs. The two are not equivalent, and exist on different planes. Again, being a homophobe might carry a social penalty, but it’s not illegal. But believing that gays should be persecuted doesn't automatically make discriminatory or violent action legal (and it remains immoral). This really comes full circle to Frum's anti-evolution teaching argument of majority rule. Belief does not change reality. As we discussed in "The Social Tolerance Charts":

If we believe that society should benefit the majority of people, but also protect the rights of minorities (in any sense), there’s simply no question that a socially tolerant society is superior to an intolerant one. (Put another way, the American system of equality for all people is superior to an authoritarian hierarchy of superiority for a few.)

Authoritarian religious activists can argue that they want America to become a theocracy. Some have even attempted historical revisionism, claiming America was founded as a theocracy, when it explicitly was not. However, it's simply false to say that America is a theocracy. Freedom of Religion does not mean a religious person is entitled to break the law, and to argue otherwise is profoundly silly.

I'm not trying to be mean, and anyone can make a mistake, but I remain astounded that Frum, Goldberg and Fowler don't get this. They misunderstand (or misstate) core concepts of American democracy. Yet in the conservative movement, Goldberg and Frum in particular are supposed to be among the best and brightest, and certainly are among the most popular. As far as I know, all of these gents are college grads (I couldn't find Fowler's bio). Yet I can't imagine that some of the issues that HTML Mencken points out, or I've pointed out, wouldn't come up in the course of a decent high school classroom discussion about Freedom of Religion, social tolerance or anti-discrimination laws. I can't remember being shown charts about this sort of thing in high school, but certainly a little debate and discussion would have elucidated these issues. Even in elementary school, I remember all of us understanding the basic concept of fairness in the Constitution and the First Amendment, even though "establishment clause" might have been over our heads. In point of fact, the mistakes of the brain trust survive an extended discussion — despite one of participants pointing out the obvious! It's also not as if this sort of lapse is a rarity for this crew. (Actually, as I was completing this, I noticed the commenters on HTML Mencken's post made quick work of the conservative brain trust, and the very first commenter brought up the murder counter-example! This seems to be less a problem of ignorance than obstinacy and obliviousness.)

The bottom line is that Frum, more than the rest, is trying to justify homophobic bigotry. He's free to hold this belief (offensive though it may be), but his justification is laughable.

I've said several times before that I'd enjoy finding some thoughtful, honest conservatives. A handful of conservative-leaning libertarians and socially moderate, fiscal conservatives are out there. Yet sadly, almost every major conservative pundit I've seen offers disingenuous arguments.

Perhaps Frum, Goldberg and Fowler are simply so used to tossing out shoddy, disingenuous arguments that, from force of habit, they can't switch gears and discuss the matter honestly with Stuttaford. They grab for something that sounds good, even if doesn't pass serious muster (a classic bullshitter's move). Perhaps they just don't understand the Constitution and the Bill of Rights very well. Perhaps they simply don't think things through thoroughly, think before they write, or consider counter-examples. Or perhaps they're simply dumb.

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