08 April 2007

At the BAT: ...and they have a plan

It's been awhile now since I originally wrote about the dangerous misunderstanding of "democracy" that persists among some elements of the Christian Right; specifically the gradeschool-civics simplification of democracy as mere "majority rule." "Christians are the majority," they whine, "why do we have to yield to the nitpicking of extreme minorities?" I hope I helped to illuminate some of the fallacy involved there, but I also want to talk about an extension of this which makes it difficult for them to be functioning members of a democratic society.

If anyone has been to a workshop of "Christian apologetics" taught by a good evangelical, and has managed to stay awake for more than five minutes, he's heard some variation of the following argument. Evangelicals, like lawyers and yours truly, know just enough logic to be a yapping pain in the ass, and most of their training is geared not so much toward making their own coherent statements, but in laying out rhetorical banana peels and helping you to trip over on your own, thus claiming a victory by technical knockout. It isn't designed to sustain rigorous examination; it's designed to be easily committed to memory so the trap can be easily sprung on innocent passers-by.

A basic version of the argument goes like this:

Ordinary campus bystander: Everyone should respect the right of everyone else's religious beliefs, sexual orientation, etc.

On-fire Evangelical: My belief is everyone must convert to my religion or burn in hell forever. Especially gay folks.

OCB: That's an unacceptable belief which doesn't respect the freedom of others.
OFE: Tsk tsk, o budding pluralist! Your argument is self-defeating, because you claim to respect the beliefs of all, yet you do not respect my views!

OCB: *Whoof!*

I purposefully avoided using the word "tolerance" because that particular buzzword draws the CCs like flies to honey, and I'm not interested in parsing definitions right now. The important point is that they use some form of this argument in a wide variety of circumstances.

When applied to the political, the term involved becomes "religious freedom." This term is to the more explicitly political factions of the Christian Right what "tolerance" is to the campus evangelical set. There are numerous organizations out there, like Jay Sekulow's American Center for Law and Justice, dedicated to defending Christians from violations of their "religious freedom." If you're ever been to visit me here in Jesusland, you know that the idea of Christians being denied free religious expression seems ludicrous. So what does that mean, exactly?

Like the campus proselytizer, they have constructed an idea of religious freedom that is purposefully incongruent with the world around them. You say "religious freedom," they say "in order for me to have religious freedom, I must be able to restrict the freedom of others."* Religious icons must be erected in public buildings (at the exclusion of comparative icons from other religions), public officials must be allowed to lead others in sectarian prayers. etc. etc. They have set up the barricade and you, oh pluralist society, must decide what to do with it. Your answer will be important, because these are people with a good deal of political power who believe fundamental principles of democracy are inapplicable to them, and indeed logically contradictory.

A good answer might be found in an old cliche; "Your freedom ends at the point where your fist meets my nose." It's a principle that works, and cloaking oppressive tendencies behind religion doesn't make you exempt. Religious freedom isn't any more absolute than other freedoms, which is to say it's not absolute at all. I can't demand possession of every Olive Garden franchise in the name of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and claim their refusal to consent is a denial of my religious freedom. The CCs can jump and down and scream all they want about logical contradictions, but, while I think a good argument can be made against them from reason, politically this is a matter of creating a world where people don't kill each other for vacuous religious reasons. That's old hat.

*Not coincidentally, a belief the CCs share with their theocratic Muslim brethren.