The Great Secession

Faced with sweeping social change, conservative Christians are walling themselves off from secular society. But when religion isolates itself, both sides lose.

Johnny Selman

A few months ago, an odd news story out of St. Louis caught my eye. A Christian-owned dog-walking business had fired, so to speak, a customer who supported legalizing marijuana. “We simply said it was against the idea of being clean and sober-minded and treating your body as a temple to the Holy Spirit,” one of the service’s owners told The Huffington Post.

The service, Pack Leader, Plus (motto: “Faith. Family. Dogs.”), is not alone in its determination to shut its doors to un-Christian custom. Religious business owners have declined to provide services for gay weddings and commitment ceremonies and refused to offer insurance that covers certain kinds of contraception (as in the Hobby Lobby case that came through the Supreme Court this term). Mississippi passed legislation in April allowing businesses to claim a religious defense if sued for discrimination; Arizona almost passed such a law (after intense debate, the governor vetoed it); similar measures are in the offing elsewhere. The apparent aim of these bills is to let people like caterers, bakers, photographers, and florists decline to provide services for gay weddings or gay-pride events. But the laws are written broadly and could be used to defend discrimination of many sorts. “We’re trying to protect Missourians from attacks on their religious freedom,” the sponsor of one such bill told The Kansas City Star.

I am someone who believes that religious liberty is the country’s founding freedom, the idea that made America possible. I am also a homosexual atheist, so religious conservatives may not want my advice. I’ll give it to them anyway. Culturally conservative Christians are taking a pronounced turn toward social secession: asserting both the right and the intent to sequester themselves from secular culture and norms, including the norm of nondiscrimination. This is not a good idea. When religion isolates itself from secular society, both sides lose, but religion loses more.

Over the decades, religious traditionalists’ engagement with American secular life has waxed and waned. After the public-relations disaster of the Scopes evolution trial in the 1920s, many conservative Christians recoiled from politics, only to come out swinging in the 1970s, when the Moral Majority and other elements of what came to be called the religious right burst onto the scene. If you believe in cultural cycles, perhaps we’re due for another withdrawal. Certainly, the breakthrough of gay marriage has fed disillusionment and bewilderment. “I suspect the initial reaction among evangelicals is going to be retreat and hope to be left alone,” Maggie Gallagher, a prominent gay-marriage opponent, recently told The Huffington Post.

As far as I know, it never occurred to Catholic bakers to tell remarrying customers to take their business elsewhere.

Still, the desire to be left alone takes on a pretty aggressive cast when it involves slamming the door of a commercial enterprise on people you don’t approve of. The idea that serving as a vendor for, say, a gay commitment ceremony is tantamount to “endorsing” homosexuality, as the new religious-liberty advocates now assert, is a far-reaching proposition, one with few apparent outer boundaries in a densely interwoven mercantile society. It suggests a hair-trigger defensiveness about religious identity that would have seemed odd just a few years ago. As far as I know, during the divorce revolution it never occurred to, say, Catholic bakers to tell remarrying customers, “Your so-called second marriage is a lie, so take your business elsewhere.” That would have seemed not so much principled as bizarre.

Why the hunkering down? When I asked around recently, a few answers came back. One is the fear that traditional religious views, especially about marriage, will soon be condemned as no better than racism, and that religious dissenters will be driven from respectable society, denied government contracts, and passed over for jobs—a fear heightened by well-publicized stories like the recent one about the resignation of Mozilla’s CEO, who had donated to the campaign against gay marriage in California. After a talk I gave recently in Philadelphia on free speech, a woman approached me claiming that the school system where she works harasses and fires anyone who questions gay marriage. I wanted to point out that in most states it’s perfectly legal to fire people just for being gay, whereas Christians enjoy robust federal and state antidiscrimination protections, but the look in her eyes was too fearful for convincing. Perhaps it is natural for worried people to daydream about some kind of escape. One Christian acquaintance told me, “I say half jokingly to my wife, ‘Where do we move?’ ”

Gay-rights supporters kiss after learning that Arizona Governor Jan Brewer has vetoed a bill designed to protect businesses that refuse to serve gay customers. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

A second factor is the failed promise of what seemed, around the turn of the millennium, to be a grand new partnership between our elected and religious leaders. John DiIulio, a University of Pennsylvania political scientist, remembers that time vividly: He was the founding director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, under President George W. Bush. In 1999, he recalls, Vice President Al Gore and then–Texas Governor Bush had thrown their support behind a dramatic expansion of government’s collaboration with faith-based groups, in an effort to ameliorate social problems like poverty, hunger, and family breakdown; a new secular-religious entente seemed aborning. But trust eroded, DiIulio says, and then collapsed as factions on both sides, especially the right, drew red lines, set conditions, and lawyered up. Now it’s the “war on religion” versus the “war on women,” and court dockets are full of religious-liberty cases. (Hobby Lobby is just one in a series.) “The lines have hardened so much,” DiIulio says.

Finally, a new generation brought changed attitudes. Ed Whelan, the president of the culturally conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and a Catholic, told me, “Those of us growing up in the 1960s and 1970s grew up with an assimilationist ethic: there was assumed to be little or no tension in being a Catholic in the broader American culture. Today, those of us who are parents see conflict all over the place. And we strive to be Catholics throughout our lives. As the culture has become less hospitable to religious beliefs, there is a greater need to be more vigilant. We’ve got to figure out where to draw the lines.”

So a lot of line-drawing is going on. Even dog-walkers are drawing lines.

I must sadly acknowledge that there is an absolutist streak among some secular civil-rights advocates. They think, justifiably, that discrimination is wrong and should not be tolerated, but they are too quick to overlook the unique role religion plays in American life and the unique protections it enjoys under the First Amendment. As a matter of both political wisdom and constitutional doctrine, the faithful have every right to seek reasonable accommodations for religious conscience.

The problem is that what the social secessionists are asking for does not seem all that reasonable, especially to young Americans. When Christian businesses boycott gay weddings and pride celebrations, and when they lobby and sue for the right to do so, they may think they are sending the message “Just leave us alone.” But the message that mainstream Americans, especially young Americans, receive is very different. They hear: “What we, the faithful, really want is to discriminate. Against gays. Maybe against you or people you hold dear. Heck, against your dog.”

I wonder whether religious advocates of these opt-outs have thought through the implications. Associating Christianity with a desire—no, a determination—to discriminate puts the faithful in open conflict with the value that young Americans hold most sacred. They might as well write off the next two or three or 10 generations, among whom nondiscrimination is the 11th commandment.

There is, of course, a very different Christian tradition: a missionary tradition of engagement and education, of resolutely and even cheerfully going out into an often uncomprehending world, rather than staying home with the shutters closed. In this alternative tradition, a Christian photographer might see a same-sex wedding as an opportunity to engage and interact: a chance, perhaps, to explain why the service will be provided, but with a moral caveat or a prayer. Not every gay customer would welcome such a conversation, but it sure beats having the door slammed in your face.

This much I can guarantee: the First Church of Discrimination will find few adherents in 21st-century America. Polls find that, year by year, Americans are growing more secular. The trend is particularly pronounced among the young, many of whom have come to equate religion with intolerance. Social secession will only exacerbate that trend. It is a step toward precisely the future that brought such fear to the eyes of that woman in Philadelphia. For religious traditionalists, it is a step toward isolation and opprobrium—a step bad for society, but even worse for religion. So please, you people in St. Louis: walk those dogs, for God’s sake.