It has been a few weeks since Denmark banned Jewish and Muslim butchers from obeying the dictates of their religions in conducting their business. There was a bit of controversy at the time, mostly arising from a Danish government minister’s comment that “animal rights come before religion.” As with most moves against religious freedom, however, outrage abated quickly, and was generally ignored by the press, while the new regulation is permanent, and likely to spread.
I hope readers will pardon the descriptions to follow which, while I hope not excessively graphic, are needed to make clear the hypocrisy and prejudice involved. Last month the Danish government banned all animal slaughter conducted without first stunning the animal, forcing anyone seeking to obey dietary restrictions by eating kosher or halal meat to import it from other countries. Jewish and Muslim rituals require, in addition to greater sanitation than is found in a typical slaughterhouse, that the animal be conscious. Despite the lack of evidence that stunning, then killing the animal in the usual manner (e.g. a nail gun to the head) causes less pain than Jewish and Muslim rituals, animal rights activists applauded the move. PETA (“People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals”) made clear where they want all this to end up. They sandwiched limited praise for the new regulation between statements that “No religion needs to slaughter animals for food” and that they want to move restrictions toward making us all vegans. What is more, at around the same time it enacted the new regulations, the Danish government blithely shot dead a healthy giraffe at the Copenhagen zoo, then autopsied it and fed it to the lions in front of zoo visitors.
What is most worrisome about this latest development is the breezy manner in which it is deemed a run-of-the-mill regulatory change. Apparently, all the Danish government did was eliminate a special dispensation from European Union rules that would ban Jewish and Muslim practices throughout Europe. To be clear: the European Union, a semi-sovereign government for most of Europe, specifically makes kosher and halal slaughter illegal, but allows member countries (like Denmark) to provide a special “dispensation” for religious reasons, if it so chooses. Denmark no longer so chooses—as is becoming more the case in more countries, regarding more religious issues.
As religious people in the United States face an increasing number of programs that by their terms require us to violate our religious convictions (e.g. supporting health plans providing coverage for contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs) we should look closely at the logic of toleration. Toleration is a gift, of sorts. A government may “tolerate” all kinds of things—from Jewish and Muslim dietary practices, to Catholic insistence on an all-male priesthood, to prostitution and drug use. But, should that government decide that other values, such as animal rights or the “right to choose” abortion, are being undermined, they can take away that toleration, and make the religious practice illegal. As Europeans (and all too many Americans) come to see less and less value in the traditions and normative understandings of religious believers, it is becoming easier and easier for them to decide that other goals outweigh (or “come before”) religion.
None of this should be surprising. Traditions and normative understandings are outgrowths of our conceptions of the order of being. People of faith have reasons for their forms of worship, their beliefs, and a variety of practices that shape their lives. But those reasons may not be “rational” to people who reject God, or deify nature, or refuse to believe that a people’s conception of God and creation should have anything to do with everyday life. So atheists, agnostics, and those who have simply chosen ignorance of their own religious faiths and traditions, come to see practices like kosher or halal slaughter, or rejection of sex outside of marriage (including by both heterosexuals and homosexuals) or reservation of priestly offices to males as barbaric, intolerant, or oppressive. Should it be any wonder, then, that practices that are deemed barbaric, intolerant, or oppressive should seem less and less worthy of toleration? That the special dispensations accorded to these practices should be narrowed and eventually eliminated altogether?
Those who see it as their job to move society ever further from tradition and religion constantly dismiss the fears of conservatives as false, “slippery slope” alarmism. Not too long ago this meant dismissing the fear that no-fault divorce would lead to massive numbers of divorces. Now, of course, Americans have accepted divorce (and simple cohabitation) as normal. “Progress” continues and it seems clear that we will quickly move through and beyond same-sex marriage to a regularization of polygamy. This already is the talk among many faculty members at several institutions I have visited. What is more, faculty “experts” at numerous prestigious institutions (I am thinking in particular of Catharine MacKinnon at the University of Michigan law school) have argued for, in essence, criminalizing what they deem discrimination against women by the Catholic Church. Already, state ethics boards in a number of fields, including law, threaten to penalize Catholics on the grounds that their church membership indicates discriminatory beliefs and intent.
It is a well-entrenched tenet of American law—endorsed by, among others, Antonin Scalia—that generally applicable criminal laws apply to religious people just like anybody else. So, if one’s religion prescribes ingesting peyote, or engaging in specific dietary practices, or employing only men or women for certain official duties, the government may decide to punish that person for following that rule. And that person (perhaps you or I) will not be able to claim any special, constitutional protections.
As we allow the call for toleration to morph into a demand for absolute equality and moral sanction for all individual choices, we would do well to remember that no society is truly neutral in its moral judgments. If religion does not “come before” the latest progressive trend, be it the rights of animals, the right to “choose” abortion, or the “right” to die (or be killed when others judge one’s life no longer worthwhile), it increasingly will be seen as an enemy to the new “spirituality” of secular individualism. Then people of faith will find themselves asking for some small area of freedom within which to exist—only to be denied that space because they no longer deserve toleration.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found at The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.