Religious Liberty Within the Bounds of State-Imposed Doctrine: Frank Bruni and the NY Times

I’ve been called many unpleasant things in my life, and I’ve deserved no small number of them. But I chafe at this latest label: A threat to your religious liberty….

Baking a cake, arranging roses, running an inn: These aren’t religious acts, certainly not if the establishments aren’t religious enclaves and are doing business with (and even dependent on) the general public….

I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish—in their pews, homes and hearts. But outside of those places? You must put up with me, just as I put up with you.”

(Frank Bruni, NY Times Sunday Review, Jan. 10, 2015)

Who, Me, A Threat To Religious Liberty?

Frank Bruni “chafes,” he says, when people label him a threat to religious liberty.

“I don’t mean me alone,” he adds. “I mean me and my evidently menacing kind: men who have romantic relationships with other men and maybe want to marry them, and women in analogous situations. According to many of the Americans who still cast judgment on us, our ‘I do’ somehow tramples you, not merely running counter to your creed but running roughshod over it. That’s absurd.”

He can chafe all he wants. His defense against this supposedly “absurd” charge stands upon a further violation of religious freedom, far more egregious than the one he’s trying to explain away. His position depends on the state arrogating to itself the right to define religious doctrine. Indeed despite what he says, it depends on the state running roughshod over religious creeds.

(The things I speak of here undoubtedly apply to many religions, but I will focus my remarks on Christianity, the faith I follow and know the best.)

Intolerant Insults Toward Religions’ “Intolerance”

Bruni insults religion freely enough, for example where he declares that we use religious beliefs “as a fig leaf for intolerance,” even though it’s clear he’s wrong about that: Christians’ beliefs pre-date homosexual activism by too many centuries to have been invented for the purpose of giving moral cover to “intolerance.”

He does so again where—expressing his own superior tolerance, I suppose—he describes “religious liberty” (the scare quotes are his) as sounding “disturbingly like a dog whistle” to those he disagrees with.

But these snipes aren’t where he commits his most blatant violation of religious liberty. Neither is it where he resorts to the language of “putting up with” each other, even though it’s clear that “putting up with” is really quite one-sided. Letting his policies prevail is “putting up with” each other, while advocating for views, he says, is “intolerance.” (I don’t think highly of the “put-up-with” ethic anyway.)

Religious Liberty Redefined

No, where Bruni really goes after religious liberty is where he tells us, “Baking a cake, arranging roses, running an inn: These aren’t religious acts;” and again, where he punctuates his message with, “I support the right of people to believe what they do and say what they wish—in their pews, homes and hearts.” This is where we see that Bruni’s idea of religious liberty is that there is liberty for Bruni’s idea of religion, but not for actual religious believers’ ideas of their religions.

Christians have always believed our religion is both private and public. A purely private Christianity isn’t Christianity at all. Christianity is an all-week religion, including believers’ lives in the workplace. Col. 3:23-24 (ESV) reads, “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.”

One standard reference work, the Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, speaks of “the significance of work in light of the nature of God. God is a personal being whose manifold activities and works not only bestow blessings upon His creatures, but even infuse the act of work with meaning and divine significance, enjoining upon humans an obligation to engage in work even as God works.”

Christians have always believed God rules all creation, and that therefore we can and should glorify God in all of our activities. This is core Christian doctrine. Even our failures to live that way provide pointers toward God’s intentions; for how many times have pastors exhorted church members to be more than Sunday-morning Christians?

“These aren’t religious acts”

For Bruni, though, there is nothing religious about baking a cake, arranging roses, or running an inn. Thus there is no threat to religious liberty when believers are forced by law to perform vocational services that run counter to their religiously informed moral beliefs.

Why is that? Because these on-the-job services have nothing to do with religion. And why is that? Because religion is only for private places. It’s unclear where Bruni gets the authority to say so, but there’s no doubt he expects readers to agree, and the state to set its policies accordingly.

Religious Liberty Within the Bounds of State-Imposed Doctrine

Thus if Christianity says religion isn’t only for private places, the state must disagree, on Bruni’s view. Christianity cannot be a publicly expressed religion, even if that’s what Christians have always understood it to be. If we believe our religion has implications extending beyond our pews, homes, and hearts, the state may disallow that belief—even in our pews, homes, and hearts.

Bruni says he’s no threat to religious liberty. He’s right—as long as religions adjust their core beliefs to accommodate state-imposed doctrine. But that doesn’t sound like religious liberty to me; in fact, it may be the grandest of all possible violations of religious liberty.

It’s one thing to require a Christian baker to bake a cake in violation of her beliefs. It’s another thing to tell her that’s not a violation of her religious liberty because the state says she’s wrong to believe what she believes.

Running Roughshod

If this isn’t running roughshod over religious creeds, I don’t know what is. First Amendment freedoms have been violated many times in the debates over same-sex marriage. Bruni tries to explain those violations away, but his attempt only compounds them. The violations remain, and will undoubtedly continue until Americans recognize them for the attacks on constitutional freedoms that they are.