Mitt Romney was at his amiable, elder-statesman-like best as he was interviewed recently on Fox News Sunday. Romney’s characteristic moderation was in evidence in addressing recent controversies surrounding religious freedom laws in Indiana and Arkansas, both cases in which Republican governors felt the need to call for fixes to the work of Republican legislatures. Romney provided a nice capsule of the emerging moderate orthodoxy on this question: Religious freedom is fundamental for Americans, and so is nondiscrimination; therefore, wisdom consists in giving each of these fundamental principles its due.
This is an attractive formula, and it may indeed be the best that can be managed in the present political and social climate. But the terms of this settlement should give pause to anyone who examines them carefully. For is “nondiscrimination” really a fundamental principle on a par with religious freedom? And, for that matter, do we even know what “nondiscrimination” means, or what it implies and portends?
To be sure, “religious freedom” itself is a far from unambiguous term, but its status as our “first freedom,” both chronologically and logically, is clear enough. As I argued in a previous column (drawing upon a speech by Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia), the freedom of churches (and not merely of private, individual “consciences”) is essential to limiting the state, because they nourish our awareness of an authority higher than any human power.
If the imperative of “nondiscrimination” now seems also to have a sacred status, this is clearly owing to its association with the noble struggle against cruel racial prejudice, a stain on our nation's honor inherited from our original sin of slavery. This most worthy cause has decisively marked our contemporary political sensibilities and now provides the definitive template for the progressive understanding of moral and political action. It thus suffices to classify a political or social interest as a replay of the great movement for civil rights in order to guarantee its moral bona fides and to insulate it from critical examination.
The “logic” of this ideology is simple enough: It was wrong to discriminate against African-Americans — so wrong that it was right to use the force of the federal government to prevent such discrimination, and this includes not only on the part of government but also that committed by private parties; and so now it follows that it is right to use whatever social and governmental means may be necessary to suppress anything anyone succeeds in naming “discrimination.”
Once this logic of the high principle of “nondiscrimination” is unpacked, I trust it is obvious that this cannot be good news for our erstwhile First Freedom. We should first note that “discrimination” has not always been a bad word. In fact, to discriminate is to distinguish, or to discern relevant differences; discrimination is thus coeval with reasoning. Moral reasoning, in particular, requires judgment and therefore “discrimination”; notably, it requires judgment between good and evil, noble and base, right and wrong. Christianity’s genius lies in part in leaving final judgment to God, but it in no way eliminates the need for moral judgment; on the contrary, the Christian religion gives the weight of eternity to fundamental moral judgments or discriminations. Notable among these judgments are those that concern sexual morality and the constitution of the family. It follows that the emerging regime of “nondiscrimination” as the highest moral and political principle is ultimately incompatible with religious freedom for Christians.
Of course we live in a “pluralist” society, which is to say a society in which fundamental principles are contested, and in which consensus is hard to achieve. But this is to state the problem and not to provide a solution. For those progressives who embrace “nondiscrimination” as the highest moral-political principle (and their influence exceeds their considerable numbers), a live-and-let-live policy will never be enough. For them, the Christian owners of a small pizza shop preferring not to cater a same-sex “wedding” is the moral equivalent of a “white only” drinking fountain or a back-of-the-bus section for “negroes.”
No matter that to compare the circumstances of African-Americans in 1950, disadvantaged in a hundred ways and persecuted from all sides, to a gay couple being turned down by one pizza shop in 2015 is obviously a stretch; the question disappears as soon as one assents to the fundamental principle of “nondiscrimination.” That many today not only disagree with the pizza owners, but are eager to use the power of government to crush them, should remind us that all fervent religions, including that of “nondiscrimination,” will have their victims.
Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.