Kirsten Powers, noted journalist and author of the new book, The Silencing: How the Left is Killing Free Speech, discussed her book and the threat posed to religious freedom and freedom of speech with two other panel members, Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Phil Zuckerman, Professor of Sociology at Pitzer College in Claremont, California, at a presentation sponsored by the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University on October 27. Timothy Shah, Associate Director of the Center, moderated the session.
Shah began the discussion by offering the maxim that “everybody should be free from coercion in matters of ultimate truth.” He reminded the audience that Dignitatis Humanae, the decree of the Second Vatican Council articulating the Catholic doctrine of religious freedom, is soon to be 50 years old (on December 7, 2015). The decree says that “truth enters the mind gently and with power” and that truth “imposes itself in no other way than that of the strength of truth itself.” Conscience thus must not be coerced. And yet Western countries, which historically have been in the vanguard of religious freedom, “are not immune from the denial of religious freedom.” The Pew Research Center’s study on governmental and social restrictions on religion found levels of such restrictions were low in the U.S. in 2009, but “moderate” six years later. The “U.S. ranks somewhere in the middle range” of some 200 countries with respect to religious freedom, Shah said. Abortion, the HHS mandate, and same-sex marriage are all issues which inflame debate, and have led to a decline of religious freedom in the United States, resulting in increasing intolerance. “Animus, bigotry, and irrationality” are increasingly held to be the basis of religious viewpoints.
The panel discussion began with Kirsten Powers considering what in fact is happening to threaten religious freedom and freedom of speech. There is, she said, “a national silencing every week,” and the real situation is “so much worse than I thought it was.” Students in America’s educational system are being taught that “certain people cannot be offended.” Criticism of same-sex marriage and/or abortion is often treated as if it was a personal attack. As an example, Powers refered to a video clip orienting college students to the academic environment in which two students criticizing homosexuality are reported to school authorities, with the admonition that this is the correct thing to do. Thus students are being turned into informants. In response, Shah asked “what happened to the great liberal tradition?” Powers said that the reality is that “we’ve come a long way” from American liberalism. She seemed to eschew explanations of conspiracy or deep ideology to explain why this is happening. Liberals doing this “because they can,” she contended; there are “no checks and balances … no ideological diversity.”
Phil Zuckerman, himself non-religious and a pioneer in the new field of secular studies, said that “I strongly agree with you that this is happening.” While regarding it as a blot on secularism, he said by way of explanation that the “liberal folks that I know are very much fighting a moral fight.” A lot of professors and students are “still feeling they are fighting the good fight” of the 1960s, he observed. Widespread disinvitation of conservative or moderate or even liberal speakers who disagree with liberal orthodoxy on even one issue is “real.” But in criticism of Powers’ book, he said that “the worst kind of data” is anecdotal.
Russell Moore asked “what are the implications for religious freedom?” He believes that much of the struggle has to do with maintaining a sense of group identity, or as he put it, the “micro integrity of tribes.” Argument is mostly a means of “tribal identification.” Fund raising efforts also bear heavily on the rhetoric of the culture war. The result of this is that “persuasion is replaced by power.” Moore noted that “on most secular campuses, the Left has the power.” In contrast, he gave credit to both Liberty University and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for the civility of their engagement on Sanders’ recent visit to the university. This is to be encouraged. With the nation now somewhat more secular and also more diverse than in the last century, Evangelicals must now participate in politics as part of larger coalitions, although they never had the majority that they thought they did, Moore indicated. What intolerance there is on the right is “ameliorated” by the fact that the Right is not in power.
Powers claimed that part of liberal intolerance is a result of a lack of religious diversity in influential segments of the population. She said that she was unfamiliar with Evangelicals and religious people when she was an atheist. Christians have failed in politics by acting badly in the public square. Liberals, she claimed, would be more tolerant if they knew Christians on a personal basis. Referring to Liberty University, she said that academic community shamed secular schools with their gracious treatment of Bernie Sanders.
Shah asked how we disagree about same-sex marriage “without hostilities and anathemas?” Zuckerman responded that we should try to hear each other and come to agreement where we can. “Respectful disagreement is so key and crucial,” he said. Powers asked why can liberals can respectfully disagree with Muslims about same-sex marriage but not with Christians? Zuckerman agreed that this was wrong. “Fear keeps him [the liberal] from disagreeing with Islam,” he suggested. White liberal students also think of Islam as a victim of colonization and is identified with “oppressed people.” This is indeed hypocritical and conformist, he claimed, and Islam stands literally against all liberalism. Moore maintained that the “real psychological back issue” is that religion is seen as a “daddy” they are reacting against. Christians have overreacted to attacks on religion by not engaging with liberals at the level of civil debate. This may be at least part of the reason that liberals don’t understand that people are harmed if they are required to violate their consciences.
Zuckerman said with respect to conscience objection to same-sex marriage that people should listen to their consciences, and he respects anyone who goes to jail for conscience. Moore responded that America has a long history of conscience rights. There can be accommodation to the consciences of public officials with respect marriage licenses. Kentucky had difficulty in this area because it did not prepare for same-sex marriage. North Carolina addressed with issue with its law protecting consciences of public officials involved in civil marriage. Powers said that she is not particularly sympathetic with Kim Davis, but does agree with accommodation of conscience. She observed that cases of speech or action that people find offensive are the cases where the rights of conscience of the individual really count.
From considering public officials, discussion turned to the conscience rights of private businesses. Moore said that using “Jim Crow” analogies is false. Businessmen such as bakers and photographers instead are being required to use creative abilities for forced speech. By contrast, no one would require pacifists to assist in a military ceremony, for example. While sympathetic with people taking the penalty for moral stands, Zuckerman said of the issue of liberty of conscience against facilitating homosexual behavior that “it’s a tough one for me.” Powers maintained that baking wedding cakes is not participating in a same-sex wedding, and thus presumably should not be regarded as a violation of liberty of conscience, but photographing a wedding is participation in an activity the objector believes to be wrong, and thus is a violation of conscience. It seems to the present writer, however, that this is just a matter of degrees of separation, which historically has been taken by American law to still involve conscience violation. Moore noted that he and Powers disagreed as to whether accommodating homosexuality in goods and services is sinful. He holds that such action is sinful, while Powers holds that it is not.
Moore maintains that the crucial question in liberty of conscience with respect to private business is “what does the proprietor believe?” Should the state use coercive power against the proprietor’s conscience? He maintained that government power was acceptable to desegregate schools, but not acceptable if government is using coercive power against businesses, requiring them to use their creative power to violate their consciences.
Faith McDonnell of IRD asked how we get others to respect religious conservatives. We must know people to dialog with them, she said, but the problem is that most people prefer to be among friends and accept the applause of the choir they are preaching to. Powers responded that often people just don’t want to hear things they disagree with. As a result, people in the general public and especially those with a liberal viewpoint don’t understand, for instance, that Catholic Charities provides a different service than the government, addressing the person as well as the person’s needs. Powers seemed to imply that religious and social conservatives simply have the difficult task of reaching out to liberals and patiently pointing out the true positions conservatives take, and trying to correct prejudices.
Zuckerman countered the apparent consensus by saying that every study shows secular people are more tolerant of other viewpoints, and also noted that social research shows that atheists are the least favored group in America. But Powers observed that atheists are more likely than committed Christians to gain tenure at prestigious colleges. Such a literary testimony to old America as Huckleberry Finn, by atheist Mark Twain, is now not acceptable on college campuses. Similarly “trigger warnings” (labeling material people might find upsetting) make it problematic to study rape laws in some academic environments. Zuckerman did agree that all viewpoints, including racism, should be heard on college campuses.
An overall view of the panel seemed to be that the passion of the liberalism which emerged out of the 1960s to win the battles it has chosen is such that it overwhelms all other considerations, common sense, and the general freedom of thought and action which served as the inspiration of liberalism in its original struggle against the pre-modern world. Religious and social conservatives who accept the freedoms of classical Western liberalism must endeavor to point this out with patience and perseverance to preserve and recover lost freedom.