The current climate of secular society has declared, aided and abetted by the U.S. Supreme Court, that traditional views of marriage are unacceptable. For those who protest, the cry of “religious liberty” has become a synonym for bigotry.
Individuals and groups that wish to uphold the view that marriage is between one man and one woman have turned to the First Amendment for help: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Yuval Levin, in the February issue of First Things. points out that efforts to defend religious liberty could go two ways: based on the establishment clause, or based on the free exercise clause, and that efforts in the courts have depended on the latter.
Free exercise arguments work like this: religious believers should be free to act out their convictions, even when public opinion is against them. In other words, the state should carve out exemptions for such individuals. But the argument does not work very well when the individuals in question are part of larger groups, which the judiciary is loathe to exempt. And yet it is membership in such groups that should give strength to the dissenters, because the groups have a positive message to convey.
“Free exercise” arguments assert a right to not be constrained by secular public opinion. But perhaps it’s time that we made an “establishment” argument, to be free from the civil religion called progressive liberalism. And the argument should be positive rather than negative, a right to advocate for a certain view of human flourishing, rather than just to be free from constraint. Yuval Levin puts it this way:
This means we need to see that we are defending more than religious liberty: We are defending the very idea that our government exists to protect the space in which various institutions of civil society do the work that enables Americans to thrive, and we are defending the proposition that this work involves moral formation and not just liberation from constraint. That is an entire conception of the meaning of a free society that goes well beyond toleration and freedom of religion. It is ultimately about the proper shape and structure of American life.
There is a reason that we hold the views we do: we believe, with good cause, that heterosexual marriage as a civil institution should be preserved, and that this is the best course for our republic. Even if we are called bigots, we have a message designed to make this world a better place.