Commentary: Fundamental Freedom — A Different Angle

Commentary: Fundamental Freedom — A Different Angle

The June 15 editorial, “Fundamental Freedom to Marry,” which celebrated a legal parallel drawn in 2014 between interracial and same-sex marriage, highlighted the following quotation: “Government has no business imposing some people’s religious beliefs over others.” I have every confidence that this quotation, both in its original and editorial context, is well meant. Even so, it should raise hackles about the consistency of popular progressive ideology and the freedom of religion in the public square, with respect to marriage or any other issue. For democratic government functions precisely to adjudicate between interests, which are rooted in all sorts of beliefs, and to impose some over others in the positive administration of justice and the common good.

At best, this quotation’s editorial usage implies a gross misapprehension of what actually happens. Eighty-three percent of American adults — including about a quarter of the religiously unaffiliated — are “absolutely certain” or “fairly certain” that “God or a universal spirit” exists, according to Pew’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study. When asked what source they look to “most” for guidance on questions of morality, 33 percent said “religious teachings and beliefs.” That’s second only to “practical experience and common sense” (45 percent), but well ahead of “philosophy and reason” (11 percent) or “scientific information” (9 percent). And of course the influence of religion is not a binary question; religion inevitably informs even the less zealous in many indirect and subtle ways. It is implausible that all those people are totally compartmentalizing their religious beliefs, assumptions, family and cultural formations, etc., or could do so even if they wanted to. It is implausible that our government, being of and by the people, is not routinely and in various degrees imposing some religious beliefs or their ramifications over others.

In many cases progressives gladly approve. This is undoubtedly true with respect to the quotation in question. Mildred Loving originally spoke these words reflecting on Loving v. Virginia, the 1967 Supreme Court case that legalized her interracial marriage in Virginia and stuck down all state anti-miscegenation laws. On the other hand, the Virginia judge, whose 1958 decision put the case in motion, said that the global dispersion of the races indicates God’s intent that they not intermarry. On the other hand, several Catholic bishops submitted an amicus curiae brief on behalf of the Lovings. In it they reaffirmed that race discrimination is “contrary to God’s intent” and said that marriage is a constitutionally protected “exercise of religion.” The Fourteenth Amendment was the case’s deciding factor. It too issued from a political context — the Civil War and Reconstruction — deeply infused with contending religious claims. So, at least in some degree, favoring certain religious beliefs over others is exactly what the government did in Loving’s own situation.

This leads to a second implication: that religious beliefs today are not strictly welcome in the public realm, unless and until they pass a test of partisan orthodoxy. What liberal faults the Church for entering the public fray in favor of interracial marriage? That’s the “right” kind of religious belief; its assertion is permitted. But its opposition to same-sex marriage, which it sees as a different proposition entirely, is construed as conservative bigotry. That’s the “wrong” kind of religious belief; its assertion is not permitted. Even though the intent derives, not from bigotry, but from deep and honest religious convictions about the moral order that God laid down, not least for the ultimate good of the human person and of human civilization.

This brings me back to the fact that attaining to the “good” is government’s positive charge. This we have always understood in objective and transcendent terms. As the theologian John Courtney Murray noted, the corollary of the the opening lines of the Declaration of Independence is that “There are truths, and we hold them, and we here lay them down …”

That there are constraints on what government can impose in any case, that government has no business forcing individuals to believe or worship a certain way, and that societies have erred in their application of religion, are granted. But the great world religions have been in the truth business and the civilization business for millennia. Many of our highest cultural achievements — not least democracy — are inextricably rooted in them. That religious people should not assert their religiously formed consciences in society’s process of framing and codifying public truths is both unrealistic and undemocratic.

The author, an Alexandria resident, writes on faith issues for the Gazette Packet.