Fear and Loathing in New Orleans

On September 30th, I attended a conference called “Challenges to Religious Liberty”, hosted by the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The audience of about 100 was polite and receptive while three presenters discussed what they saw as challenges to religious liberty in psychological counseling, education, and in the pulpit. Of course, I did not share in the feelings of warm comfort that the speakers and audience seemed to exchange. The phrase “fear and loathing” comes closer to capturing my reaction.

Our first speaker was Mathew Staver, of the Liberty Counseland Liberty University, and a national figure of the Christian Right. A few days earlier he had been a speaker at the Values VoterSummit in D.C., where he shared the dais with such luminaries as Rick Santorum, Mike Huckabee, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Michel Bachmann, Ted Cruz and Tony Perkins. Of course, our own Louisianagovernor Bobby Jindal was there as well.



Here in New Orleans, Staver claimed that threats to the religious liberty of Christian believers are increasing in frequency and severity. A major example of this, he said, is an “unprecedented government intrusion into the counseling room.” Specifically, he decried laws in California and New Jersey that prohibit counselors from offering “reparative therapy” to homosexuals. He claims such policies were imposed by “a small group of homosexual activists” who have, by some unspecified means, held the entire American Psychological and Psychiatric associations hostage for decades. Other examples include good Christian wedding cake makers and photographers, who have had to give up their businesses in order to remain true to their religious principles by refusing to provide their services at same-sex weddings (apparently it says in Leviticus, “thou shalt not make unto any homosexual couple a cake”).

He’s also upset that Catholic Charities can no longer perform adoption services in some states merely because they refuse to place children with same-sex couples. He was especially concerned about the possibility of a Supreme Court decision in favor of same-sex marriage, an outcome he described as a “cataclysmic game-changer.” In his view, the restriction of legal marriage to opposite-sex couples is part of the “natural order” of things and can’t be changed. Doing so, he claimed, is nothing less than “an abolition of gender,” and may even result in churches being forced to perform same-sex weddings, two assertions designed to send a lightning bolt of fear through his audience.

Dr. Carol Swain, who teaches law and political science at Vanderbilt University, spent much of her time talking about her personal life. An African-American woman who grew up in poverty, she completed five degrees and achieved academic honors, all of which she credits to divine intervention. She then launched into a harsh critique of Vanderbilt’s stance against religious freedom. This infringement, as she sees it, is embodied in a policy requiring that all student groups officially recognized by the university be fully non-discriminatory. That is, their membership must be open to all, which implies that such groups cannot require any statement of faith for membership, nor insist that officers be members of any particular religion. She has tried and failed to get religious groups on campus to unify in protest, but hopes – probably unrealistically – that pending faculty reviews might change the policy. Near the end of her presentation she made it clear that non-discrimination policies have gone too far, penalizing the many for the misdeeds of a few. Incomprehensibly, she reduced the issue to absurdity by claiming that “it’s all about homosexuality,” invoking the favorite bogeyman of the Religious Right.
Dr. Russell Moore, of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Commission on Ethics and Religious Liberty, started out seeming to be the most rational of the three presenters. He acknowledged that Christians who are strong in their faith are a minority, that religious liberty must apply to people of other religions, and even to people with no religion. He hoped for some kind of alliance between disparate groups, including non-believers, in favor of religious liberty for all. But as he described what he meant by religious liberty, it became clear that he was no closer to living in the real world than either of the other speakers. A church, he asserted, “is an embassy of the Kingdom of God,” and “a faith that can be handed down by a bureaucrat is not a faith at all.” He wants Christians to stop fearing the phrase “separation of church and state,” and to reclaim it as their own. Of course, what he means by “separation of church and state” is far afield from any established jurisprudence. Religious individuals and institutions, not just churches but also charities and universities and hospitals with religious affiliations, should be able to exempt themselves from any government regulation they view as running counter to their beliefs. Anything less, in Moore’s mind, is an infringement upon the First Amendment.
This was so bad it was almost a parody, and at times quite difficult to take seriously. But it wasn’t a parody, and we need to take it seriously. This was a sad example of the worst that non-believers have learned from experience to expect from the more vocal of Christian organizations, a mélange of slippery slopes, fear-mongering, and obfuscation of facts paraded as Biblical truth. Worse, it revealed the plainly theocratic intent of many Christian organizations.
Staver never acknowledged the complete lack of credible evidence in favor of reparative therapy. Insufficiently studied, there simply is no evidence that reparative therapy works, is ever necessary, or is ever even advisable. Yes, government, together with professional organizations, can and do regulate therapeutic practices and practitioners, in part to assure that what they dispense actually is therapy, and not any kind of pseudo-scientific hokum. No, you can’t become a licensed family counselor by studying how to use crystals to tune a patient’s chakras, nor can you claim that the state should license you as a therapist when you pray over your patients, read them scripture, or guide them to “give their life to Jesus.”
Dr. Swain, too, wholly ignored a vast array of inconvenient and incontrovertible facts. Let’s be clear: no university, public or private, is required to grant official status to any student group, and certainly not to student groups with religious affiliations. Vanderbilt is well within its rights to require that all student groups, in order to have formal relationships with the university, must be fully open. This has nothing to do with religion at all, and certainly has nothing to do with religious freedom. If religious groups with their own membership requirements want to serve university students without official university approval, they certainly can; they just have to operate off campus. Yes, Vanderbilt’s policy means that some religiously affiliated student groups, as well as some groups focusing along gender, ethnic, or other exclusive criteria, might lose their official status. So what?
Dr. Moore’s talk should serve as a caution to all non-believers and to any other kinds of religious minorities: beware of Christians bearing gifts! This is especially true if the gift is a supposed alliance in the name of religious liberty. It is incumbent on us to vet such offers very carefully, to ensure that the believers fully disclose what they’re really working for, and to pin down exactly what they mean when they say “religious liberty.” More realistically, we don’t have to do much work along these lines. It is already quite clear that what Christian believers mean by “religious liberty” is not rationally supportable.
I favor religious freedom for all. What that means is that I assert my own right, as well as the rights of others, to believe or disbelieve as they choose, for whatever reasons or lack of reasons they see fit. If I want to worship Zeus or Godzilla, or don’t want to worship any deity, that choice is mine to make. And if I find like-minded others and we want to form a church and have our holy writ and call one a bishop and one a priest, so be it. And if I decide to vote for one candidate for public office over another because the holy book (that I conveniently wrote) says so, that’s my right too, and anybody else’s, even if it is entirely irrational. But no sane person should allow my Church of Godzilla the Redeemer to tell the state what to put in the public school science books, or what kind of psychotherapy should be allowed, or specify who can adopt a child, or decide who is or is not legally married.
The common theme espoused by the speakers is that religion trumps any and all state power, regulation, or legal precedent, merely because religious believers wish it to be so. I should be able to be a therapist if my religion says I can, and the state should have to accept my religious definition of therapy without regard to science or evidence, and grant me a license to practice as I see fit. If a religious group wants to set up a student organization with membership limited only to persons of a certain denomination, the university should be forced to permit it, even to officially approve it, because that’s what the religious groups want. A corporation should not have to include reproductive healthcare in its insurance coverage if the corporation’s officers object, even if employees are of different religions. The state should continue to pay Catholic Charities to provide adoption services, even if the group flatly refuses to provide that service to some of the citizens who are legally entitled to it. A pharmacy should have the right to refuse to sell the morning-after pill, and the state should still be required to grant a license and call it a pharmacy. None of these are examples of infringement upon religious liberty, but all of them are real examples of religious individuals and organizations attempting to overrule legitimate, even compelling, state interests.
Do these speakers represent all Christians in today’s America?Clearly they do not. But they do represent a large and increasing group that is seeking to subordinate the state to outright theocracy, and to destroy the secularism on which modernity itself is based. This is exactly the provocation that has goaded many quiet non-believers into becoming atheist activists. I don’t think any of these believers realize the extent to which they make it necessary for secular people and the secular state to confront religiosity at all levels and in all its forms.
~Jim Dugan, NOSHA, Board Vice-President