Americans cannot tell the difference between ethics and politics.
The Indiana religious freedom law—now being amended, it appears—has exposed the American version of sharia: Americans want to require people to be moral.
Indiana recently passed a law that mimics the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Arkansas is considering something similar. All these laws allow people to exempt themselves from laws or regulations on the basis of their religious beliefs.
These laws are a sop to the religious right. They attempt to assure the cultural conservatives that their liberty to follow their own beliefs will be protected. It is the essence of liberty that it protect one's ability to act on one's judgment. But since these laws endorse only irrational judgments—religious beliefs—and say nothing of the freedom to act on one's rational judgment, they are, at best, weak blows for freedom.
But all liberty, while it frees us to do what is best for us, also includes the freedom to do wrong. The Indiana law is supported by corporations like Hobby Lobby, whose owners want to tailor their hiring and benefits to their Christian beliefs (e.g. not covering certain contraceptiives in their health plans). And some Christians who would like to refuse to support gay marriage also back the law (they hope it would let halls refuse to host gay ceremonies, for example, though the courts haven't tended to rule that way).
I think both of the policies I mentioned are wrong-headed, and a chorus of left-leaning celebrities, politicians, and business leaders agrees, accusing Indiana of endorsing sexual discrimination and hatred of gays.
But in a free society, there would be no question that wrong-headed people have the right to discriminate or express hatred, so long as they didn't initiate the use of force against others. There is a difference between politics and morality: politics concerns how to arrange the use of force in society; ethics concerns how individuals should act—and how their actions should be judged—generally.
The Indiana boycotters have their hearts in the right place—they see what appears to be an endorsement of immorality, and they have organized a protest to shame the Indiana right-wing into approving of gays and contraception. That's how we should respond to promotions of immorality in a free society. You have the right to be a jerk. And we have the right to tell you that you are being a jerk.
But in fact, what the boycotters are attacking is the Indiana law. The action step they demand is not a change in Hobby Lobby's or other Christians' actions. Instead, they want Indiana to affirm that discrimination is illegal. And Gov. Mike Pence has declared his desire to do just that. That is a matter of politics, though, not of morality.
Isn't it obvious that Americans are now just arguing over which morality will be required by law—and which will be banned? It is to morality what the bad old days of the religious wars were to religion. As long as people insist on making the state the enforcer of what is thought good (in morality) or true (in religion), they are destroying the freedom we need to make authentic, reality-based choices.
In America, religious toleration has given birth to a flourishing and constructive conversation about what the truth is in religious issues. It's central to our tradition of freedom of speech, too. We need to have the same freedom over our moral principles. People should be free to live as they deem best—and to take the consequences. We need a flourishing, constructive conversation about morality and right action—one based in a fundamental freedom to live as we choose.
If we require people to be good, on pain of jail time, we will leach out any understanding of what makes the good good and what makes the bad bad. We should reject hatred of gays because we understand that being gay doesn't determine someone's moral status—and not just because we fear being fined or imprisoned.
The left is fighting religious conservatism by making America into a dull, rainbow-flagged, kumbaya-singing, politically correct, secular-sharia state. The cure to immorality is more freedom and more moral debates that focus on reality, not smothering us with law.
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