There was a time when this saying, often attributed to the French philosophe Voltaire, was taken as a kind of American credo. Free and open debate, most of us thought, was essential to our way of life. This always was an exaggeration, of course, and sometimes used to justify the rude antics of people committed to insult or bullying rather than debate. But until quite recently argument was okay in the United States.
It is becoming increasingly clear that free and open debates are no longer welcome in American public life—at least not where religious points of view are concerned. The latest case in point is provided by the city of Houston. Like a lot of big cities, Houston is the site of a great deal of disagreement over what it means to say that discrimination is unacceptable. Recently, the city council passed an ordinance that, among other things, orders business owners to allow men to use women’s bathrooms, and vice versa, if they identify as members of the opposite sex. Arguments in favor of this provision are worded in terms of protecting the dignity of transgender persons. But one would think that people who see potential problems with such an ordinance, for example the possibility for false identity claims and even sexual assault, would be able to have their voices heard in the democratic process. In fact, over 50,000 citizens of Houston were concerned enough to sign petitions calling for a repeal of the ordinance—far more than the 17,000-odd signatures required to secure a place on the ballot.
But Houston City Hall is choosing to see opposition as rooted in illegitimate prejudice and, more worrisome, religion. First the city threw out the petitions, claiming irregularities. Opponents of cross-gender bathrooms sued. Then the powers that be in Houston decided it was time to play hardball. The city issued subpoenas demanding a group of pastors turn over any sermons dealing with homosexuality, gender identity, or Annise Parker, the city’s openly gay mayor. Any minister who fails to comply could be held in contempt of court, which could mean jail.
These highly over-broad subpoenas, demanding that pastors hand over to the government the texts of remarks delivered in places of worship to their flocks, sparked outrage—though you could be forgiven for not noticing if you live outside of Houston and follow only America’s lamestream media. Politicians in Texas did notice, however, and the state’s Attorney General and one Senator (Ted Cruz) issued blistering condemnations of this attempt to stifle religious speech. Probably more to the point, the pastors found competent legal representation from the estimable Alliance Defending Freedom and filed a motion with the court to quash the subpoenas as “overbroad, unduly burdensome, harassing, and vexatious.”
No, apparently Annise Parker and her lawyers do not think so—not really, in any event. After some laughable attempts at a “not me” defense—blaming “pro bono” lawyers (read “ideological activists”) working with the City Attorney for the original subpoenas—they modified the subpoena language. But they altered neither the substance of their demand nor their clear intent to stifle dissent, and especially religious dissent, from their agenda. They now focus on requiring that the pastors hand over all speeches relating to the ordinance.
Of course, anyone who takes the trouble to consult common sense will tell you that a sermon is a speech, so no real change has taken place on that count. Perhaps more enlightening as to the real motives, here, is a “tweet” issued by Mayor Parker: “If the 5 pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game.”
“Fair game,” of course, refers to something (or someone) who can be attacked in accordance with the rules of some sport, like hunting. So it is no large step to say that Mayor Parker is declaring open season on pastors who “use pulpits for politics.” This is especially worrisome when we note that none of these pastors is a party to the lawsuit filed against the city regarding their ordinance. The charge, in effect, is that they influenced the gathering of petitions in some manner that would render the signatures illegitimate.
In other words, Parker is assuming a nefarious, religiously-grounded conspiracy to undo her policy. And she is determined to put a stop to it. The presumptions of power and arrogant bullying, here, are really rather breathtaking in their audacity. And the message is abundantly clear: priests, ministers, rabbis, and other religious leaders had better be careful not to “do politics” in their houses of worship, or the state will come in to scrutinize their conduct and punish any wrongdoing; and this threat clearly applies to expressing the “wrong” views on topics like cross-gender bathrooms. Far safer, then, to give up altogether on trying to gain a hearing for a religious voice in the public square.
For decades, now, academics have been preaching that none of us should use anything but “public reason” when arguing about public policy issues. “Public reason,” a phrase coined by the social democratic philosopher John Rawls, refers to a kind of liberal common sense, according to which we cannot put forward any arguments with which people with wholly different conceptions of what is good, moral, and true in any transcendent sense, might disagree. Rawls argued that this severely restricted form of public discourse was necessary to maintain an “overlapping consensus” on the basic structures of society without fomenting discord regarding deeper, moral issues. After much criticism of his claim that public reason is simple common sense—that we can talk about things like social welfare programs or marriage law without reference to very basic assumptions about human nature and the human good, Rawls admitted that public reason is less “common sense” liberal prejudices. In fact, public reason is nothing more than the “common sense” of the faculty lounge. And, given the prejudices of the faculty lounge, that means that views rooted in religion are to be treated as irrational and out-of-bounds in public debate.
Of course, liberal reason is at least as rooted in prejudice as any religious view. The liberal worldview says that each of us should be treated as an autonomous being whose free choice (e.g. where to live, where or whether to work, what sex to be, and what bathroom to use) must be respected, encouraged, and protected. The result is, in fact, a very restraining set of rules on what kind of life to lead and what kind of arguments to allow in public. Leave religion out of it, we are seeing, and defense of traditional marriage, for example, is mere “bigotry.” And bigotry will not be tolerated.
Historically, Americans have engaged in public debates concerning what kind of life we want to promote. Sometimes such debate has been acrimonious and even hurtful (one thinks, here, of the debate over segregation). But do we really want to short circuit public discussion of fundamental changes in our way of life? And do we now want to dismiss an entire cluster of viewpoints—those rooted in religious faith—as irrational and bigoted? To do so would, of course, mean de-legitimizing much of our own history, from abolitionism to the civil rights movement. On what, then, would future changes be legitimately based? It seems nothing would be left other than subjective preference (“it works for me”) and mere force, backed by assertion (“because it is fair—why fair? Because I say so, and anyone who disagrees with me is a crazy bigot”).
The drive to remove religious argument and, now, religious people from the public square can only undermine the foundations of a free society. Right now the ones on the business end of increasing governmental power and demands for “progress” are people of faith. But when decency and open discourse are trampled there is no telling who will be silenced next.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.