Patrick Garry
The future political focus of religious conservatives?
By Patrick Garry
April 4, 2014

Religion continues to take a beating in the political arena. In the wake of Governor Brewer's recent veto of the Arizona law providing legal protections to business owners who, because of religious convictions, refuse to provide services for same-sex weddings, the political Left has intensified its depictions of traditional Christian believers as misguided and ignorant at best, and mean-spirited and segregationist at worst. But in its derogatory portrayal of traditional religious believers, the Left ignored the broader picture.

It ignored the way in which it has pushed religious believers to a point of justified fear and suspicion, where believers feel they are being besieged by secular society. The Obama administration has repeatedly demonstrated its hostility to religion. In the Hosanna-Tabor case, for instance, the administration took all the way to the Supreme Court its attempt to deny religious institutions the freedom to choose and govern their vital ministerial personnel. This position so contradicted existing religious liberty law that it was rejected by a rare unanimous Court.

But perhaps nowhere has the administration demonstrated an indifference or hostility to religion more so than in the Obamacare debacle. At first, when the administration was formulating its unprecedented health care plan, it exploited the social justice concerns of religious leaders, so as to garner their support for the plan. Only later, after the plan was enacted into law, was it discovered how the contraceptive mandate would force religious institutions to violate their beliefs. This was not only a betrayal of those religious leaders who had supported Obamacare, but a direct government assault on deeply held and longstanding religious convictions.

This more general and longer-standing attack on traditional religion formed the backdrop for the law passed by the Arizona legislature – a law seeking to protect religious believers from what they perceive as further assaults on their beliefs. And yet, in opposing this law, the Left waged a further attack on traditional religious believers – an attack that involved both hypocrisy and misrepresentation in its portrayal of the Arizona law. Notice how quick the Left was to condemn the law as harmful to the business interests of American corporations. This is the only time in the Obama era that the Left has been concerned about the interests of business. Never before – not amidst all the demands for higher taxes, the imposition of more burdensome and unpredictable regulations, the escalation of an already unsustainable government deficit that threatens future economic prosperity, and an Obamacare that has already proven to be a depressant on employment – has the Left ever demonstrated one bit of concern for American business. And for the Left to liken the Arizona law to the Jim Crow laws of the segregationist south is to fail both History 101 and Logic 102. But this attempt does speak volumes about the modern Left – a political creed so devoid of ideas and solutions that its only strategy is to keep taking America back to a pre-civil rights America. (Moreover, in its assault on the supporters of the proposed Arizona law, the Left failed to point out that the law simply would have amended the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act in such a way as to apply the Act to businesses in the same way it currently applies to government. Indeed, Arizona's RFRA was modeled on the federal law signed by President Clinton and with widespread and bipartisan support.)

Yet despite these hypocrisies and misrepresentations, there is a sobering realization that both religious and political conservatives must accept. American society and culture has changed greatly over the past several decades. It is a culture thoroughly infused with a secular identity, and increasingly resistant to public expression of strong religious views. It is a society that is and will be increasingly directed by secular concerns and interests, even when those concerns and interests contradict generalized religious values. For the first time in history, in terms of how and whether political society will reflect their beliefs, religious believers are the minority.

In a previous essay posted on this site, I argued that religious and social conservatives would have to narrow their political strategy, focusing on a cause that would lessen the legal restraints being placed on them, while at the same time allowing them as much room as possible to pursue their values within private society. That cause is limited government. It is a cause that can unite all conservatives and libertarians. But it can also help facilitate the conditions in which social and religious conservatives are free to live their values in a society less controlled by an intolerantly secularist government.

In his letters, St. Paul urges his Christian communities to strengthen their communal bonds, to reinforce within each other their beliefs, to live as an example to those not of their faith, and to be cautious in their interactions with the outside world. This may still be prudent advice for social and religious conservatives in modern America.

Regardless of whether it was once a wise course of action for religious and social conservatives to attempt to encase some of their values within the nation's legal system, American society has now moved sharply away from many of those values. To continue to pursue such a course is to not only jeopardize realistic political goals, like limited government goals, but further strengthen a political Left whose only viable political strategy is to sow fear and suspicion about its opponents.

Christ spoke of the distinction between the secular and religious worlds, between the realm of Ceasar and the realm of God. When acting within the realm of Ceasar, one has to follow the laws of Ceasar. And when asserting one's religious freedoms in legal and political America, one has to live by the freedoms as they have been defined by the nation's highest legal arbiters. If one chooses to participate in the American commercial marketplace, one has to obey the rules of that marketplace.

In the modern secular and pluralistic America, traditional religious believers need to realize that as the political minority they cannot currently expect majoritarian laws to reflect their values. Furthermore, they need to pursue in politics only those goals that can unite a majority of citizens, meanwhile hoping to pursue within private society a set of beliefs that may, one day, convince a majority to follow.

Social and religious conservatives need to reconcile themselves to building back up the "unwritten law" that has historically prevailed at the social and cultural level, and not directly at the political and legal level – the kind of "unwritten law" implicit in St. Paul's epistles. Indeed, only through a political system of limited government can the "unwritten law" of social customs and cultural norms exert the type of influence that, up until recent decades, it has historically exerted in America.

© Patrick Garry


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Patrick Garry

Patrick Garry is a professor of law at the University of South Dakota, and Director of the Hagemann Center for Legal & Public Policy Research... (more)


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