Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. These articles are republished from The American Spectator. Paul Kengor is author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004), The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007), and The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan's Top Hand (Ignatius Press, 2007). His latest book is The Communist - Frank Marshall Davis: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mentor (Threshold Editions / Mercury Ink (2012).
The Left's Evolving Hierarchy of Rights
Unless you've been sleeping under a rock, you've noticed the growing clash between religious freedom and issues like same-sex marriage and forced funding of abortion. Last week, the Supreme Court heard a landmark case on whether the federal government can compel a business to fund abortion drugs in defiance of the religious beliefs of the business owner. It's merely one such case amid a flurry of lawsuits that even includes the Little Sisters of the Poor. Or, consider these situations involving gay marriage:
In Oregon, a couple that owns a bakery, the Kleins, are being sued and called before the state for not making a wedding cake for a same-sex ceremony. The Kleins note that being forced to make such a cake against their will would violate their Christian beliefs and freedom of conscience.
In Colorado, another bakery owner, Jack Phillips, awaits a possible jail sentence for refusing to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple.
In Washington State, a florist is being prosecuted by the state's attorney general for declining to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.
In Ocean Grove, New Jersey, a Methodist camp meeting association lost its tax-exempt status for declining its wedding pavilion to two lesbians for a same-sex ceremony.
In New Mexico, the state Supreme Court ruled against the owners of Elane Photography, judging that they violated the state's Human Rights Act by refusing to take pictures for a same-sex ceremony. The ACLU opposed Elane Photography, as did one of the justices, who recognized that the ruling violated Elane's religious freedom but argued that such is the price of "citizenship" in America today.
In Massachusetts and Illinois, Catholic Charities, one of the oldest and most established private adoption agencies in America, has been forced to cease services because it will not provide adoptive children to gay couples.
And then there's any number of figures demonized, boycotted, picketed, pressured, or fired for expressing their opposition to gay marriage: the president of Chick-fil-A, the owner of Barilla pasta, Craig James of Fox Sports, or Arizona's governor.
These are merely a few of many examples. All involve religious believers invoking their sacred First Amendment rights, only to have those rights rejected by those describing themselves as "liberal" and professing "diversity" and "tolerance." In truth, you are not free to disagree with liberals on this issue. They won't let you. They will compel you. They will see you in court, in bankruptcy, maybe even in jail.
Liberals tolerate only what they agree with.
But what's really going on here? What's the bigger picture? Well, these actions of liberals/progressives aren't a surprise when you delve deeper into the logic of their ideology. Consider:
Liberals/progressives have a hierarchy of rights. They don't look at competing rights in a pluralist system in the typical way that we've long been accustomed to in America. For instance, Americans typically - through the political and judicial process - have carefully sought to balance competing rights: property rights, civil rights, religious liberty, freedom of conscience, speech, press, federal rights, state rights, the right to life, and so forth. Picture all of these rights laid out in a line, with each prudently considered among the others, and with respect to the others.
Unfortunately, that is not how liberals/progressives operate. They act according to a hierarchy of rights that - consistent with progressivism - is always progressing, or changing, or evolving. Right now, for liberals/progressives, sitting atop the totem pole in this hierarchy are so-called "marriage rights" and "abortion rights." In the past, they called these things not rights but "gay marriage" or "freedom of choice." Quite shrewdly, however, they've framed these "freedoms" as "rights," along the lines of "civil rights." Equally shrewd, they push them forward under the mantra of "tolerance." It's a brilliant move that's working extremely effectively with millions of Americans.
But here's the main point: for today's liberals/progressives, the likes of "marriage rights" and "abortion rights" rise superior to other rights, certainly above religious rights and property rights. We see this in the gay marriage examples listed above. It also applies to the Obama HHS mandate requiring religious believers to fund abortion drugs. In all these cases, there's one commonality: liberals/progressives disregard the religious rights and property rights that they are steamrolling in the name of gay marriage and abortion. Religious rights and property rights are subjugated to a kind of liberal/progressive gulag. They are deemed bottom-of-the-barrel, and in no way nearly as important or worthy of consideration.
Again, the startling irony is that these same people fancy themselves champions of tolerance, diversity, and "equal rights." That has never been accurate, and they are proving it now with special uncompromising rigidity. They are pursuing what they've always pursued: selective tolerance, selective diversity, and selective equal rights. Religious rights are not among their select.
A quotation that sums up this thinking comes from gay activist, law professor, and EEOC Commissioner Chai Feldblum. When asked about the conflict between gay rights and religious rights, Feldblum said, "I'm having a hard time coming up with any case in which religious liberty should win."
That's very clear. An attorney colleague of mine says of Feldblum: "Supposedly a Constitutional Law scholar, she holds that view despite the fact that religious freedom is actually in the Constitution!"
Yes, but to liberals/progressives it doesn't matter. They have a hierarchy of rights, one that's always changing. And right now, religious rights are their bottom-dwellers. For religious believers who disagree with them, too bad. They'll see them in court.
Ronald Reagan on Religious Tolerance
February is the month that we recognize our presidents. It has also become the month that Republicans remember Ronald Reagan. Reagan's birthday is February 6, the forerunner to Lincoln's birthday (February 12), Washington's birthday (February 22), and President's Day (February 17). Throughout the nation, county and statewide Republican groups have been changing their longtime annual Lincoln Day dinners into Reagan Day dinners. On February 25, we at the Center for Vision & Values will host our superb Ronald Reagan Lecture.
Thus, this is also a time when conservatives reach back for various nuggets of wisdom from the Gipper that are badly needed as our current president fundamentally transforms the nation. Among those nuggets, one that you likely will not hear is a gem of a Reagan speech delivered in Dallas 30 years ago. It offers a desperately needed message on religious tolerance - the subject of our April Center for Vision & Values conference.
Today's liberals/progressives, who incessantly preach diversity and tolerance, have been unrelenting in their current campaign of religious intolerance. They mandate that everyone, including religious believers, pay for contraception and abortion drugs; those who disagree are framed as favoring a "war on women." They vigorously demonize and sue anyone who disagrees with them on gay marriage.
It's a good time for a lesson on genuine religious freedom. So, here it goes - a poignant speech and healthy reminder of religious tolerance that not even Reagan aficionados remember.
On August 23, 1984, Reagan was in Dallas to address an ecumenical prayer breakfast. He spoke at 9:30 a.m. in the Reunion Arena. He was introduced by Martha Weisend, the co-chair of the Texas Reagan-Bush campaign. A choir had just regaled the crowd. Reagan called the performance "magnificent."
The president began by saying that he was speaking not as a theologian or scholar but as someone who had "lived a little" as an American and had been active in the political life of the nation for about four decades. During that time, Reagan had experienced much. He had been a self-described "hemophiliac liberal" (a bleeding-heart liberal), a Democrat, an FDR Democrat, a Harry Truman Democrat, a progressive Democrat, a Democrat for Eisenhower, a Democrat for Nixon (1960), and finally a conservative Democrat, a Republican, and a conservative Republican. "I speak," he told the crowd, "I think I can say, as one who has seen much, who has loved his country, and who's seen it change in many ways."
He himself had changed in many ways, but not one way: He had always believed
. . . that faith and religion play a critical role in the political life of our nation - and always has - and that the church - and by that I mean all churches, all denominations - has had a strong influence on the state. And this has worked to our benefit as a nation.
Reagan then followed with a brief history lesson on religion and the republic:
Those who created our country - the Founding Fathers and Mothers - understood that there is a divine order which transcends the human order. They saw the state, in fact, as a form of moral order and felt that the bedrock of moral order is religion.
The Mayflower Compact began with the words, "In the name of God, amen." The Declaration of Independence appeals to "Nature's God" and the "Creator" and "the Supreme Judge of the world." Congress was given a chaplain, and the oaths of office are oaths before God.
James Madison in the Federalist Papers admitted that in the creation of our Republic he perceived the hand of the Almighty. John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, warned that we must never forget the God from whom our blessings flowed.
George Washington referred to religion's profound and unsurpassed place in the heart of our nation quite directly in his Farewell Address in 1796. Seven years earlier, France had erected a government that was intended to be purely secular. This new government would be grounded on reason rather than the law of God. By 1796 the French Revolution had known the Reign of Terror.
And Washington voiced reservations about the idea that there could be a wise policy without a firm moral and religious foundation. He said, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports."
That Washington quote was one of Reagan's favorites, as was the image of America's first president (while he was still a military general) kneeling to pray in the snow of Valley Forge, which Reagan called the "most sublime image" in American history. Why? Because it showed that from the outset this nation's leaders humbled themselves and looked beyond themselves - to God - for guidance in the goodness of their actions. "I believe that George Washington knew the City of Man cannot survive without the City of God," Reagan told his audience in Dallas, "that the Visible City will perish without the Invisible City."
Reagan also invoked his other favorite prayer line from a president. He loved the line in which Lincoln said that he was often driven to his knees by the "overwhelming conviction" that he had "nowhere else to go."
How fitting that this month of February marks these three presidential birthdays: Lincoln, Washington, and Reagan. The three were linked not just in birthdays but in prayer.
Religion played not only a strong role in our national life; it played a positive role. The abolitionist movement was at heart a moral and religious movement; so was the modern civil rights struggle. And throughout this time, the state was tolerant of religious belief, expression, and practice. Society, too, was tolerant.
Here, Reagan had arrived at the religious tolerance portion of his remarks. He said that this tolerance had begun to slip in the 1960s, when "great steps" were taken by those seeking to secularize the nation and remove religion from its "honored place." He gave examples, beginning with the removal of prayer in schools and words like "Under God" from the pledge of allegiance. Reagan believed that the simple acknowledgement of God in the pledge taught children that their inalienable rights come not from government but from God. If they come from government - from men - then government can take them anyway. If they come from God, however, government cannot dare taken them away.
As I read Reagan's words now, I'm floored by the thought that the ACLU, which purports to champion civil liberties, would be leading some of these lawsuits suing Christian bakers and wedding photographers who invoke their sacred religious freedom in the First Amendment of the Constitution. These people of faith, citing their faith, beg not to be compelled to make a cake for or photograph a same-sex ceremony. The liberals tell them they must, by force of their trembling hands, or they will be forced out of business.
Ronald Reagan would not be shocked. He understood liberals. He had been one himself. He knew their claims of open-mindedness were self-serving. He saw how extreme the left could become when equipped with power. Such realizations drove him out of the increasingly left-drifting Democratic Party.
Along those lines, Reagan told the crowd in Dallas:
And the frustrating thing for the great majority of Americans who support and understand the special importance of religion in the national life - the frustrating thing is that those who are attacking religion claim they are doing it in the name of tolerance, freedom, and open-mindedness. Question: Isn't the real truth that they are intolerant of religion? They refuse to tolerate its importance in our lives. . . . So, I submit to you that those who claim to be fighting for tolerance on this issue may not be tolerant at all.
Reagan sensed that religion's "special place" in the American polity was already disappearing, and he knew what a tremendous loss that would be.
There are, these days, many questions on which religious leaders are obliged to offer their moral and theological guidance, and such guidance is a good and necessary thing. . . .To know how a church and its members feel on a public issue expands the parameters of debate. It does not narrow the debate; it expands it.
Again harkening back to George Washington's understanding, Reagan said:
The truth is, politics and morality are inseparable. And as morality's foundation is religion, religion and politics are necessarily related. We need religion as a guide. We need it because we are imperfect, and our government needs the church, because only those humble enough to admit they're sinners can bring to democracy the tolerance it requires in order to survive.
Again, tolerance. Reagan kept returning to the need for religious tolerance. And here, nearing his closing, he expressed some powerful lines that every self-proclaiming liberal/progressive in America needs to read and heed:
A state is nothing more than a reflection of its citizens; the more decent the citizens, the more decent the state. If you practice a religion, whether you're Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, or guided by some other faith, then your private life will be influenced by a sense of moral obligation, and so, too, will your public life. One affects the other. . . . We establish no religion in this country, nor will we ever. We command no worship. We mandate no belief. But we poison our society when we remove its theological underpinnings. We court corruption when we leave it bereft of belief. All are free to believe or not believe; all are free to practice a faith or not. But those who believe must be free to speak of and act on their belief, to apply moral teaching to public questions.
Note the words "decent," "command," "mandate," "poison," "corruption," "free." The refusal by liberals/progressives to tolerate the religious beliefs of Americans who disagree with them on matters from marriage to abortion poisons and corrupts discourse and disagreement in this nation.
Reagan reiterated along those lines:
I submit to you that the tolerant society is open to and encouraging of all religions. And this does not weaken us; it strengthens us, it makes us strong. You know, if we look back through history to all those great civilizations, those great nations that rose up to even world dominance and then deteriorated, declined, and fell, we find they all had one thing in common. One of the significant forerunners of their fall was their turning away from their God or gods. Without God, there is no virtue, because there's no prompting of the conscience. Without God, we're mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God, there is a coarsening of the society.
This is also, said Reagan, a danger to a word that progressives invoke incessantly: democracy. Reagan understood that as well:
And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we're one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.
With that, Reagan concluded:
I thank you, thank you for inviting us here today. Thank you for your kindness and your patience. May God keep you, and may we, all of us, keep God.
That was Ronald Reagan in Dallas 30 years ago. He would be horrified at what liberals are doing today, though not surprised.
The coarsening that America is undergoing in this current assault on our most basic First Amendment religious freedoms is undermining the Shining City on a Hill that Ronald Reagan cherished. *