Why It’s Time to Defend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act
Religion & Liberty Online

Why It’s Time to Defend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

Before I try to convince you that Katha Pollitt is dangerously wrong, let me attempt to explain why her opinion is significant. Pollitt was educated at Harvard and the Columbia School of the Arts and has taught at Princeton. She has won a National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary, an NEA grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

She is, in other words, the kind of politically progressive pundit whose opinions, when originally expressed, are considered outré — and then within a few months or years, are considered mainstream in progressive circles.

However, in her latest column, “Why It’s Time to Repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Pollitt is but a few minutes ahead of the liberal curve.

She begins with the stunningly obtuse claim that, “In the not-too-distant future, it’s entirely possible that religious freedom will be the only freedom we have left—a condition for which we can blame the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.”

Pollitt is smart enough to know that claim is nonsense. She’s also smart enough to know that there are plenty of people who are gullible enough to believe it could be true.

She notes that she was ahead of the curve in hating on the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). To her it never made much sense: “Why should I have to obey a law and my religious neighbor not?” Yet in the next paragraph she says that RFRA is “overkill” and unnecessary to protect religion since other option are available. “The church could have asked the State Legislature for an exemption,” says Pollitt, “after all, during Prohibition, the Catholic Church was allowed to use wine in the Mass.”

Didn’t she just question why she should have to obey a law that her religious neighbor did not? Then why would she find an exemption for her religious neighbor acceptable? On what basis would she be willing to grant exemptions to her religious neighbors? The answer, of course, is that she wouldn’t. She has no regard at all for silly religious beliefs. Indeed, she readily admits her true concern is pragmatically partisan:

What were progressives thinking? Maybe in 1993, religion looked like a stronger progressive force than it turned out to be, or maybe freedom of religion looked like a politically neutral good thing. Two decades later, it’s clear that the main beneficiaries of RFRA are the Christian right and other religious conservatives.

Pollitt’s policy is one shared by many on the left: When it looks like religion will benefit progressives, support religious freedom; when it looks like religion will support conservatives, oppose religious freedom. But aside from it’s potential political usefulness, why else would we protect religious beliefs? Why should anyone have religious freedom at all?

Religious freedom functions like a giant get-out-of-reality-free card: your belief cannot be judged, because it’s a belief. There are still states where parents can legally let their children die of curable diseases—as long as they have a religious reason to shun medical care. The difference between criminal child neglect and tragedy? Jesus.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act needs to be repealed, but it is hard to see where the political will is going to come from. Somehow the separation of church and state has come to mean blocking the state from protecting the civil rights of citizens and forcing it to support—and pay for—sectarianism, bigotry, superstition and bullying. I really doubt this is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind.

That last sentence, of course, reveals a stunningly ignorant view of how Jefferson viewed freedom of conscience. Jefferson would have found Pollitt’s disdain for religious liberty and freedom of conscious to be repugnant. For instance, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, Jefferson wrote, “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own.”

It would be tempting to dismiss Pollitt’s views because her opinion is being expressed in The Nation, a magazine so reflexively leftist that it used to defend Stalin and the atrocities of the Soviet-era communism. But that would be a mistake on our part. Pollitt is merely saying what many on the left already believe (or soon will): since religion isn’t likely to advance the progressive agenda, religious belief is no longer worthy of protection.

This is the viewpoint that will soon be mainstream. That’s why it’s important to begin defending RFRA now. If we wait too long, we will find there are fewer of our fellow Americans (especially those on the left) who value liberty of conscience enough to “resist invasions of it in the case of others.”

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).