Acton Institute Powerblog

Why It’s Time to Defend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act

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hobby_lobby_protest_bible_ap_ftrBefore I try to convince you that Katha Pollitt is dangerously wrong, let me attempt to explain why her opinion is significant. Pollitt was educated at Harvard and the Columbia School of the Arts and has taught at Princeton. She has won a National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary, an NEA grant, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a National Book Critics Circle Award.

She is, in other words, the kind of politically progressive pundit whose opinions, when originally expressed, are considered outré — and then within a few months or years, are considered mainstream in progressive circles.

However, in her latest column, “Why It’s Time to Repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” Pollitt is but a few minutes ahead of the liberal curve.

She begins with the stunningly obtuse claim that, “In the not-too-distant future, it’s entirely possible that religious freedom will be the only freedom we have left—a condition for which we can blame the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.”

Pollitt is smart enough to know that claim is nonsense. She’s also smart enough to know that there are plenty of people who are gullible enough to believe it could be true.

She notes that she was ahead of the curve in hating on the the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). To her it never made much sense: “Why should I have to obey a law and my religious neighbor not?” Yet in the next paragraph she says that RFRA is “overkill” and unnecessary to protect religion since other option are available. “The church could have asked the State Legislature for an exemption,” says Pollitt, “after all, during Prohibition, the Catholic Church was allowed to use wine in the Mass.”

Didn’t she just question why she should have to obey a law that her religious neighbor did not? Then why would she find an exemption for her religious neighbor acceptable? On what basis would she be willing to grant exemptions to her religious neighbors? The answer, of course, is that she wouldn’t. She has no regard at all for silly religious beliefs. Indeed, she readily admits her true concern is pragmatically partisan:

What were progressives thinking? Maybe in 1993, religion looked like a stronger progressive force than it turned out to be, or maybe freedom of religion looked like a politically neutral good thing. Two decades later, it’s clear that the main beneficiaries of RFRA are the Christian right and other religious conservatives.

Pollitt’s policy is one shared by many on the left: When it looks like religion will benefit progressives, support religious freedom; when it looks like religion will support conservatives, oppose religious freedom. But aside from it’s potential political usefulness, why else would we protect religious beliefs? Why should anyone have religious freedom at all?

Religious freedom functions like a giant get-out-of-reality-free card: your belief cannot be judged, because it’s a belief. There are still states where parents can legally let their children die of curable diseases—as long as they have a religious reason to shun medical care. The difference between criminal child neglect and tragedy? Jesus.

The Religious Freedom Restoration Act needs to be repealed, but it is hard to see where the political will is going to come from. Somehow the separation of church and state has come to mean blocking the state from protecting the civil rights of citizens and forcing it to support—and pay for—sectarianism, bigotry, superstition and bullying. I really doubt this is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind.

That last sentence, of course, reveals a stunningly ignorant view of how Jefferson viewed freedom of conscience. Jefferson would have found Pollitt’s disdain for religious liberty and freedom of conscious to be repugnant. For instance, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, Jefferson wrote, “It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own.”

It would be tempting to dismiss Pollitt’s views because her opinion is being expressed in The Nation, a magazine so reflexively leftist that it used to defend Stalin and the atrocities of the Soviet-era communism. But that would be a mistake on our part. Pollitt is merely saying what many on the left already believe (or soon will): since religion isn’t likely to advance the progressive agenda, religious belief is no longer worthy of protection.

This is the viewpoint that will soon be mainstream. That’s why it’s important to begin defending RFRA now. If we wait too long, we will find there are fewer of our fellow Americans (especially those on the left) who value liberty of conscience enough to “resist invasions of it in the case of others.”

Religion: Foundation of the Free Society

Religion: Foundation of the Free Society

A convincing argument linking religious roots to economic law by examining individuals in society and their role in establishing economic freedom.

Joe Carter Joe Carter is a Senior Editor at the Acton Institute. Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, a communications specialist for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College. He is the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible and co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator (Crossway).


  • Why? Because Scientism’s mission to undermine other “organized religions” prohibits it from realizing that (1) it lacks a metaphysics sufficient to acknowledge that it too is a religion, (2) it too accumulates its power and exercises its alleged authority via organizations, and (3) theology is actually the highest science, the one that is capable of understanding the limits and proper roles of the lessor sciences, be they physical, psychological, social, political, etc.

    • S. Keegan

      Beautifully stated, well done!

  • Alecto

    The entire First Amendment to the Constitution and the rights named within (religious exercise, speech, assembly, petitions for redress, etc…) were intended to be interpreted broadly, more broadly in fact than rights protected under any other Amendment (read the Debates on the Constitution for context.) Years of idiot courts and bad precedent prompted Congress to remedy the situation by passing the RFRA. I do not know about Carter or Pollitt, but ask any ordinary person what “exercise” means and you’ll get a description of something far more interwoven into the fabric of society than faithful observance of the Sabbath or Sunday mass. The very choice of words religious “exercise” in the First Amendment means protection for any number of activities excited by belief: public prayers, public worship, public revivals, picnics, Amish quilting circles, etc…. What is most shocking is is the entire judicial analysis which has sprouted up pitting believers against those who claim to be “offended” by religious expressions of any kind.

    I don’t care whether the RFRA is repealed. To me the First Amendment guarantees every individual the right, the inherent right to exercise his religion and it prohibits the Congress and the federal government from abridging that right in any way. Call me a dreamer.

  • FA Miniter

    “Didn’t she just question why she should have to obey a law that her
    religious neighbor did not? Then why would she find an exemption for her
    religious neighbor acceptable?” [The example was the Catholic Church had an exemption from prohibition to use wine in the mass.]

    Joe Carter deliberately misses the point. The Catholic Church service itself commemorates the Last Supper, in which Jesus proclaimed of the wine on the table, “This is my blood.” The transubstantiation is not only at the very heart of the belief system of Catholics, it has been at the heart of the ritual for nearly 2,000 years. The claim was made by the Church itself, not by an individual who believes X or Y.

    That is very different from an individual making a claim – not about the ritual of his religion – but about his personal moral preferences. Preferences about abortions are not part of the ritual of any religion. They have not been enshrined in a traditional mass or weekly ceremony so as to have gained the authority of time. They are not part of the essence of any religion, even Catholicism.

    No one is telling the conservative woman from Mississippi that she must have an abortion or use contraceptives. No one is telling the commercial employer of hundreds of lay people that he must advocate for contraception and abortions. Even including abortion or contraception coverage in the insurance plan of the business does not mean that any employee will actually use it. Each is still left to make her own moral decision.

    What the RFRA wants to do is to force the employer’s moral preferences on all of his employees. AND THAT IS WRONG. What if the employer wanted all his employees to bow toward Mecca for 30 seconds at some specific hour? Would the conservatives still want RFRA to bear the same interpretation?

  • Paul Frantizek

    “It would be tempting to dismiss Pollitt’s views because her opinion is being expressed in The Nation,
    a magazine so reflexively leftist that it used to defend Stalin and the atrocities of the Soviet-era communism. But that would be a mistake on our part. Pollitt is merely saying what many on the left already believe (or soon will): since religion isn’t likely to advance the progressive
    agenda, religious belief is no longer worthy of protection.”

    Exactly. As another figure so well stated:

    Secularism is dangerous because it destroys human life. It destroys essential notions related to human life, such as the family. One can argue about the role of the church. One can even argue about the existence of God; we cannot prove that God exists to those who don’t want to believe that God exists. But when the difference in the world outlook touches very basic notions such as family, it
    no longer has to do with theological truths; it has to do with anthropological issues. And our debate with secularism is not about theology; it’s about anthropology. It’s about the present and the future of the human race. And here we disagree with atheist secularism in some areas very strongly, and we believe that it destroys something very essential about human life.

    Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations, Russian Orthodox Church

    In my opinion, the phrase ‘anthropological issues’ is very apt. Things like abortion and gay marriage transcend a narrow religious understanding and directly touch upon the capacity of human society to
    sustain itself.

  • Scott_PA

    The RFRA was meant to redress the SC decision in Smith v. Oregon, which Justice Scalia authored. Scalia found against peyote smokers and for the state in its “neutral” application of the law. Liberals had a fit.

    The decision was correctly decided and presumes a culture that is grounded in the western, Christian tradition, as America once was.

    Since Carter correctly predicts that the Left will not protect any religious belief that doesn’t advance the liberal agenda, neither will the Court, since the Court and the Left are (or soon will be) one.

    Only a traditional understanding of the First Amendment will protect Christianity (which was the object of that protection), as Justice Story interpreted:

    “The real object of the amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity, but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”