News about American religious freedom has not been good in recent years. Religious Americans have watched in amazement as courts have ignored it, liberal sectors in the country disowned it after years of accepting and advancing it as a core commitment, and opinion against it has solidified even as religious liberty advocates articulated at length that religious commitments must be ultimate. Religious freedom has been placed in quotation marks to indicate that it is not real if used against the liberal/left agenda, and we are told instead that ultimate commitment must be to the state.
This writer has maintained for several years that as Christians we must always bear first an unchanging commitment to God, regardless of devastating penalties or any prospect of the return of religious freedom. It seems that many Christians do have such a commitment, while a large part of the public is now unalterably opposed – including most importantly the news media and the American establishment generally.
The key to the overall struggle lies with the uncommitted and indifferent, people who would understand as most people do the need and the right to decline actions believed to be wrong, but can be swayed when the question is presented using such words as “gay rights” or “discrimination.”
But the reality of an unbending sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) regime, denying liberty of conscience against homosexual or transgender behavior as well as persons, and the polite but firm refusal of committed Christians not to be complicit in activities that they believe to be sinful or immoral, may be leading to a new public perception.
There is some indication of this both in the progress and result of recent SOGI cases and the available evidence of public opinion. The first case to show any different outcome than the uniform denial of conscience seen in the 2010-2015 period concerned the printer Blaine Adamson of Hands on Originals, in Lexington, Kentucky who declined to print shirts supportive of homosexuality for the Lexington Pride Festival. Originally penalized in 2014 by the local human rights commission, he won his case in 2015 in regular court on free speech grounds. Remarkably, this was sustained on appeal in 2017, even with the support of two local lesbian printers. The Alliance Defending Freedom, which defended Adamson, summarized the case as of the second half of 2017.
A second case which had a mixed result is that of former Atlanta fire chief Kevin Cochran, Fire Chief of the Year in 2012, but fired in 2014 for writing a book as a private citizen which included the claim that homosexuality is sinful. This was a particularly egregious case, because the book was not focused on homosexuality, which was referred to one on just one page, and was published entirely apart from his work as a firefighter professional or government employee. Although the court ruled that the firing of the excellent public servant was proper because of the ensuing controversy, it did order the city to give up its pre-approval requirement for material published by employees, and at least stated that Cochran was entitled to advocate against homosexuality apart from work.
A more astonishing (for today) and hopeful case is that a Christian baker in Bakersfield, California, Cathy Miller, who was asked to make a custom cake for a lesbian wedding ceremony. In a heartening decision, which drew the correct distinction between sexual orientation and sexual behavior, a California Superior Court cited the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and its guarantee of freedom of expression. As Christian News Network reported, Miller was asked more than forty questions about her professional and personal life as part of the investigation by the California Department of Fair Housing and Employment, with which the case was filed. While the judge only denied a preliminary injunction requiring the baker to make the custom cake before the conclusion of the investigation, the reasoning followed is a hopeful sign for the future and a very surprising result for a California court.
Much of the future will of course depend on the outcome of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case now being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court. A favorable decision in that case on free speech and hopefully (and most properly) on the grounds of freedom of religion, would make results like those of the above cases much firmer and more common, even in liberal jurisdictions. But also important will be the future direction of public opinion, which has trended in the direction of acceptance of homosexuality over the course of the last two decades of repeated court rulings essentially claiming it as a moral imperative.
But recently a flagging of support for mandatory acceptance has been noticed by several sources. As reported by the Christian Post, the LGBT advocacy organization GLAAD recently claimed evidence of a decline in public support for the LGBT agenda. Both that source and Focus on the Family Director of Global Family Formation Studies Glenn T. Stanton, writing for the Witherspoon Institute’s forum Public Discourse, believe that this is due to the radicalism shown by the LGBT movement in very recent years. Homosexual liberation was sold to the public with the claim that it merely freed homosexuals from restrictions and stigma and would affect no one else, yet Stanton pointed out typical examples of people in business and the professions being required to be complicit in homosexual behavior. In effect, the meaning of tolerance “has been unilaterally renegotiated.” Similarly, the Christian Post article identified the demand that everyone accept sexual self-definition – with the consequence that real men and boys have the right to enter women’s rest rooms – as a shock factor leading to public hesitation.
What the flurry of stories in recent days also really shows is that GLAAD and the rest of the LGBT movement are ultra-nervous and panicky at the slightest downturn. Their fear is probably partly irrational, based on memory of the past, but also rational, to the extent that they are trying to accomplish a total change in belief and practice, which can only be realistically attempted if they coerce the private as well as public worlds.
But the future situation for religious freedom also depends on the future general moral climate. This is of course really unknowable, but prevailing opinion seems to be that it is growing progressively more socially liberal – not just on morality, but also in theology. LifeWay’s 2016 report showed Evangelicals far from having solid orthodox majorities on a variety of questions concerning faith and morals. The following year LifeSiteNews.com noted substantial majorities of the public disagree with traditional morality on such issues as divorce and contraception, and Millennials are trending away from religious freedom and free speech. Only on the topic of abortion is there optimism for positive change with young people.
On the other hand, eventual victory on this issue of abortion (which of course requires a change of at least one of five justices on the Supreme Court and a Republican President and Senate with the will, courage, and skill to make it happen), reasonably would – very slowly, it could be expected at first – turn the nation back to at least respect for social conservatism and religious freedom. It would above all establish considerations of protecting life and bounding life by considerations of reality rather than self-will and personal happiness, both in law, and as a public principle of our society. R.R. Reno recently proposed in First Things that people are losing patience with the effects of rapid economic and social liberalization, while The American Conservative found evidence that Generation Z, below the Millennials, are trending to the right. Included in the article was a linked 2016 Los Angeles Times article noting that people tend to become more conservative with age, and also a that a higher percentage high school seniors identified as conservative in 2014 (29 percent) than in 1976 (21 percent), when the last of the Baby Boomers were high school seniors. It also noted predictably greater polarization among the Millennials than the previous two generations.
It seems to this writer that polarization is now so great, and really becoming greater, to the point that there is no longer an American mainstream, but really two mainstreams, that of the right and that of the left. This was essentially the point recently made by David French, referring to what is known as the “Overton window” (the range of acceptable political opinion) identified by twentieth century researcher James Overton. In linked Pew Research Center data, the formation and dramatic shift of the range of opinion acceptable to the right (Republicans) and the left (Democrats) diverged dramatically between 1994 and 2017.
Whoever holds majorities in Congress (and they reasonably will be small in our day) and the White House in the next several years will make a decisive impact on the future. A liability for the Left is that it is really advancing social collapse, and thus instability and unpopularity, but its advantage is that its program is coercion, and thus can reasonably hope to destroy much of the opposing Overton window, while the Right at this point is only aiming at toleration (via the First Amendment) and cannot reasonably expect to destroy the opposing window of opinion except as freedoms are preserved and passions – years later – cool. That seemingly irreversible changes can be reversed was illustrated by the collapse of communism, and earlier this month by Bermuda which became the first jurisdiction in the world to repeal same-sex marriage.
While we cannot say we are really witnessing a return to sanity over the resentments and self-will of the Left, it remains the duty of all faithful Christians to place our whole lives under the lordship of Christ, refusing to comply with sinful requirements, and pressing for truth and freedom while we have life on earth.