August 21, 2012
For the first time in American history, both candidates on a major ticket in presidential politics aren't Protestants. And for that matter, religiously speaking, none of the four candidates leading the Democratic and Republican tickets will be WASPs either - from a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant background.
We've come a long way from 1776 when North Carolina's Constitution, to take one example, provided "(t)hat no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion ... shall be capable of holding any office ... within this State." Over time, religious tests at the state level were eliminated in line with Article VI of the U.S. Constitution.
Today, Americans seem to consider specific religious affiliation less and less in elective politics. But we also see signs of an intolerant "new tolerance" toward the ways in which fellow citizens walk out their faith.
In a tolerant, diverse public square, it's easy enough to buy a car from a Muslim, a house from a Catholic, a television from a Mormon or a chicken sandwich from a Southern Baptist. The merchant's religious views usually aren't a consideration for customers - or for government.
If the merchant chooses to sell at a price the customer is willing to pay, both are better off for the transaction. No theological examination is necessary.
This cultural norm is a good thing and promotes harmony in a pluralistic society. Merchants and customers are free to engage in market transactions on their terms. Neither side is forced to agree with the other's theological perspective to participate. Both have to be willing, however - neither can be forced.
Business owners differ from one another not only in service and price but also how they operate based on their religious beliefs (or lack of same). So Chick-fil-A is famously closed on Sundays, a Jewish- or Muslim-owned deli may not offer a BLT, and a Calvinist painter may not depict Jesus Christ.
This form of tolerance works pretty well. The merchant or vendor doesn't have to violate his conscience. Most likely, the customer can find waffle fries, a BLT or a painting somewhere else.
True tolerance shrugs a shoulder and maybe engages in a civil conversation seeking understanding when encountering a religious reason for not providing a good or service.
Today, though, we see instances of a disturbing "tolerance" that is hostile and intolerant toward religious differences. States sometimes exhibit the same type of intolerance that states wrote into law early in America's founding period. Two examples:
In New Mexico, a Christian photographer was ordered to pay more than $6,000 by the state's Human Rights Commission because, based on her religious convictions, she didn't want to take pictures of a same-sex commitment ceremony. In Illinois, before a court intervened, pharmacists were required to dispense the "morning-after pill" even if they had a moral or religious objection.
In both cases, other vendors with different religious beliefs would have been glad for the business.
Worse is yet to come. As of Aug. 1, Obamacare now mandates that employers and insurance plans - with narrow, wholly inadequate exemptions - must provide employees with "free" coverage for abortion-inducing drugs, contraception and sterilization no matter their religious beliefs. Astonishingly, the Obama administration's Department of Health and Human Services essentially makes the argument that a private business owner loses his religious liberty once he enters the marketplace.
So why is government forcing men and women to violate their conscience just because they happen to be in the marketplace? It smacks of state-enforced purity: Agree with us or you're intolerant.
The trend turns religious liberty and tolerance on their heads. In the classical formulation, individuals participate in an open market; government isn't allowed to play favorites among sects. In this new scheme, government forces a photographer or pharmacist to violate her conscience - apparently so as to not offend or inconvenience customers.
This doesn't promote a healthy public square or promote true tolerance. Sadly, an FBI affidavit indicates that the man who shot a security guard Aug. 15 inside the Washington headquarters of the Family Research Council may have been intolerant of that faith-based policy organization's traditional view of marriage.
It's good that Americans seem to be less inclined to religious bigotry against particular sects. But we're in danger of trading real tolerance for the idea that we can't operate businesses or organizations according to our conscience - and that religious views are invalid or hateful.
Moving in that direction will trample liberty and increase strife. Ultimately, it will produce a less civil society.
Derrick Morgan is vice president for domestic and economic policy at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Kansas City Star.