Candidates Make Mishmash of Religious Liberty

Perhaps a modern presidential primary debate, full of political one-upmanship, is not the best place to look for thoughtful answers to serious questions – but, still, it was infuriating to see the way every Republican on stage Thursday night made a complete hash of the issue of religious liberty.

The only candidate who actually tried directly to answer moderator Hugh Hewitt’s questions on the subject was Ohio Governor John Kasich, but he got the answer so wrong that it he seemed to barely appreciate the actual premise of the issue. (More on Kasich in a moment.) Alleged billionaire Donald Trump, meanwhile, was utterly incoherent, as if the very words “religious liberty” were from a foreign language, half Chinese and one-third Swahili, with a little Star Wars Wookiee dialect thrown in.

Asked twice, quite directly, about religious liberty, Trump first talked about judges refusing to rule Obamacare unconstitutional and then spoke about how important it is for “somebody to make deals.” Asked a third time, he segued into yet another discussion of Planned Parenthood, which he was for funding via federal taxpayers before he was against funding before he was for funding before he was critical of it for providing abortions but still for funding all the mammograms (that it doesn’t actually do). Not a word of what he said, of course, had a single thing to do with religious liberty.

And even Senators Cruz and Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson, who at least appear to understand what the issue is, addressed it only obliquely before changing the subject.

In the civic realm, especially in the United States, religious liberty is both the first freedom (or even the “founding freedom’’) and also, counterintuitively, one of the most fragile. From its original meaning as the freedom to express and act upon one’s faith, it now has been wrongly reinterpreted by elites to mean a freedom from being inconvenienced by another person’s faith-based expressions or actions. Moreover, religious liberty these days seems to be conflated with the moral worthiness of opinions about hot-button issues related to sexuality, when in fact the freedom itself is deeper, broader, and also more basic and simpler.

The imperative to respect religious liberty depends not on the specific content of the dispute at hand. It matters not whether the faith being practiced is Christian or Hindu or Zoroastrian. It matters not whether those involved are homosexual or one-legged or burdened with abnormally Julia-Roberts-like good looks. What matters – absent acts of invidious discrimination based on immutable characteristics (rather than on behavior) – is whether faith is left free to be acted upon without stricture or mandate from government.

A Christian club on a public-college campus should not be forced to open its club-officer ranks to atheists. A pastor has a right to preach from the pulpit without being monitored by the IRS. A social worker has a right (indeed, a moral and perhaps professional duty) to ask a colleague to treat a patient if her own religious beliefs would interfere with objective assessment of the patient’s moral choices. And, surely, a Catholic hospital has the right not to perform abortions.

Yet some of the same media types who shriek when a photographer refuses to take pictures at a same-sex wedding would man the ramparts on behalf of a Muslim businessman who refuses to provide a service for a bar mitzvah. In other words, they choose positions based on whose ox is gored, rather than on the underlying principle involved. That principle is simple but profound: Individuals as well as faith-based institutions are supposed to be free from government’s grip when exercising – not just professing inside the walls of a church, but exercising in their lives – their faith.

This leads back to what Kasich, who did (admirably) try to answer Hewitt’s question on its own terms, said both during the debate and earlier in the week. Referring apparently to food for same-sex ceremonies, Kasich had said that “if you’re a cupcake maker and someone wants a cupcake, make them a cupcake. Let’s not have a big lawsuit or argument over all this stuff.”