What Does Religious Liberty Stand Upon?
Religion & Liberty Online

What Does Religious Liberty Stand Upon?

With everything from the HHS mandate to Duck Dynasty to Sister Wives, there is much in the news regarding religious liberty. What are we to make of it? Is religious liberty simply being tolerant of others’ religious choices?

Michael Therrien, at First Things, wants to clear up the discussion, from the Catholic point of view. He starts by looking at an article quoting Camille Paglia, atheist, lesbian and university professor. In it, Paglia rushes to the defense of Phil Robertson, Duck Dynasty star, and his rather crass defense of conjugal marriage. Paglia states that Robertson was wrongly treated by the press and A&E, which owns the rights to Duck Dynasty.

What has occasioned this brief note on religious liberty is Paglia’s denunciation that some gay activists in this country have fallen into “fanaticism.” She also states, “that this intolerance … toward the full spectrum of human beliefs is a sign of immaturity, juvenility.” Her reason for these indictments is striking: “in a democratic country, people have the right to be homophobic as well as they have the right to support homosexuality [emphasis mine].” In other words, a democracy should tolerate every moral conviction, even if it is wrong, as she evidently condemns homophobia to be. Such a claim goes well beyond the issue of free speech, touching more upon the rights of religiously informed moral beliefs within the public square, which is actually a question of religious liberty.

And isn’t this a good thing? Shouldn’t we, like Paglia, hold up the right of a moral conviction? Therrien says not so fast: we are in danger of moral relativism. And, while freedom of speech is clearly important, it is not first in the moral order. What Therrien cautions against is this: we cannot defend someone’s opinion simply because they have the right to an opinion.

[H]ere’s the problem with the language of religious liberty in our cultural context: if defended on the basis of moral relativism, it is easy to conclude that individual predilection becomes the rule and measure of law. This is what Benedict XVI meant when he spoke about the “dictatorship of relativism.” To return to Paglia’s approach, we ought to advocate tolerance for “homophobes” on the grounds that we are all entitled to our own moral perspective, and thus all ought to be treated equally before the law, even if a given stance is felt to be wrong by other parties.  Would Paglia support the Neo-Nazis’ right to publicly express their views? I’m doubtful. Libertarians of her ilk tend to defend consensual forms of behavior more than those inclined toward violence, which in the end only shows that relativism is ultimately a weak foundation for defending any form of human liberty.

Therrien notes that our tolerance (which is often acceptable) must be rooted in prudence, and that being tolerant of evil is, in itself, an evil. Religious liberty does not stand upon opinion, relativism or even free speech. Religious liberty stands upon truth, and we are obligated to seek truth and defend it.

Read “The Philosophical Basis for Religious Liberty” at First Things.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.