Though the legal debate over same-sex marriage has been resoundingly settled in this country, questions over how to treat dissenters show no signs of abating. Every month brings new culture-war flash points as florists, bakers, and even some public officials invoke a right of conscience not to support or participate in a same-sex wedding. These refusals, in turn, have triggered a redoubled commitment to the primacy of nondiscrimination laws among those committed to LGBT rights.
Last year, for example, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights declared that the civil rights guaranteed through nondiscrimination laws “are of preeminent importance in American jurisprudence,” and that religious exemptions “significantly infringe upon these civil rights.” The commission’s chairman accused “religious liberty” of standing for “hypocrisy” when it is invoked to defend “homophobia,” among other social ills, and warned that “religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality.” On the other side of the divide, GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee suggested that the embrace of same-sex marriage has the country on the path toward “the criminalization of Christianity.”
If the leaders tasked with helping guide the citizenry through this clash of values resort to such simplistic characterizations, what hope is there for the rest of us? Though today’s battles over religious liberty and nondiscrimination norms are centered on LGBT rights, common ground also appears to be shrinking in related debates about access to abortion and contraception, the rights of corporations, and the legal status of conscience more generally. And citizens more often encounter the issues not through nuanced analysis but through a barrage of 140-character tweets from people with whom they are already likely to agree. Reasoned discourse across the cultural divide is hardly the hallmark of our age.
Enter three philosophers and unlikely coauthors: John Corvino, a longtime same-sex-marriage advocate, and Ryan Anderson and Sherif Girgis, two outspoken opponents of same-sex marriage. Their new book, Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, is a direct challenge to our cultural moment, opting for careful analysis over clickbait, mutual understanding over demonization, and clearly demarcated disagreement over sweeping dismissal. The authors take the time to lay out their best arguments, then respond to the best arguments of their opponents. Whether or not the book ultimately causes readers to change their views is not the measure of its success. The authors provide a desperately needed model for engagement: they argue with, not at their opponent; they argue together. Several lessons emerge.
First, even steadfast opponents can share the same underlying fears. In this book, the bogeyman is “the Puritan mistake”—the historical tendency to win liberty for oneself and then deny it to others. Corvino claims that, while “we are all potentially Puritans,” the “the rhetoric of ‘religious liberty’ today is more often invoked by those who seek to exclude than by those who favor a big tent.” Anderson and Girgis, by contrast, argue that “a progressive Puritanism has arisen on these issues—an effort to coerce conscientious dissenters to live by the majority’s views; to punish the heretic.” By articulating the fear—that we are repeating our past liberty-denying mistakes—a common framework for the debate comes into focus.
Second, discourse is strengthened when we recognize the limitations of our own positions. We have become accustomed to a cable-news culture in which guests battle for every inch and concessions are taken as a sign of weakness. Corvino, Anderson, and Girgis are upfront about where their arguments do not and should not lead. Corvino does not reject religious exemptions categorically; he concedes, for example, that providers of a service should not be legally compelled to provide custom services that violate the dictates of their consciences; it is only when they refuse to sell the very same item to other customers on the basis of the customers’ sexual orientation (or race, religion, etc.) that the law should intervene. For their part, Anderson and Girgis admit that “coercive policies would be needed…if discrimination were rife, so that LGBT people were locked out of the market or out of the public square or into second-class status.”