I had a long, intense twitter exchange with Ryan Anderson! I have to thank Michelangelo Signorile — he started the conversation and I jumped in. I used it as a chance to ask Ryan about his views on religious freedom, racial discrimination, and anti-gay discrimination — a contradictory mess that he and his colleagues have failed to sort into a coherent argument.
Let me recap their dilemma and the resulting incoherence. They oppose discrimination laws protecting gays, but they can’t appear anti-gay, because policy motivated by animus is vulnerable to a court challenge. Instead they speak of “religious freedom” and the principle that no one should have to serve a customer in violation of their beliefs. However, they don’t apply this principle when it comes to race; that would make them pariahs to the mainstream public. They explain this away by saying racism is wrong, but this leaves them open to the charge that they only want to protect the religious freedom of those they agree with, a position they fiercely reject.
It’s a logical swamp.
In our twitter exchange Ryan tried a different justification: that religious liberty is not an absolute right, but must be weighed against other measures of the common good. He directed me to his statement:
Legislators should enact commonsense religious liberty protections that would prevent the imposition of substantial burdens on sincere religious beliefs unless the government proves that imposing such a burden is necessary to advance a compelling government interest (and does so by the least intrusive or restrictive means).
Such religious liberty protections would not justify blanket discrimination, as some wrongly claim. For example, one does not hear of any sincere religious beliefs that would lead a pharmacist to refuse to dispense antibiotics to any patients. Furthermore, it has long been recognized that the government has a “compelling interest” in protecting public health by combating communicable diseases.
That’s reasonable. But it presents Ryan with a couple problems. First, it contradicts what he wrote elsewhere:
Indeed, a regime of free association, free contracts, free speech, and free exercise of religion should protect citizens’ rights to live according to their beliefs about marriage…
Private actors should be free to make reasonable judgments and distinctions — including reasonable moral judgments and distinctions — in their economic activities. Not every florist need provide wedding arrangements for every ceremony. Not every photographer need capture every first kiss.
There’s nothing in that piece about balancing religious freedom against the common good. I do understand that free exercise of religion should protect citizens’ rights to live according to their beliefs about marriage is more bumper-sticker-catchy than: free exercise of religion should protect citizens’ rights to live according to their beliefs about marriage, except for when it shouldn’t, and sometimes it shouldn’t, though sometimes it should, and it, well, it — it depends on a bunch of factors that I won’t go into now.
Except that Ryan isn’t writing for bumper stickers. He’s making a lengthy argument, one that doesn’t align with his other writings.
A second problem is that he merely begs the question, Why does the “common good” override religious liberty when it comes to discrimination based on race but not when based on sexual orientation?
That’s a tricky question. You can’t answer, Because gays are bad! — that lands you in the animus trap, with your law overturned in the court. Instead, Ryan sent me to this:
Today’s debates about religious liberty and marriage are profoundly different [from debates about interracial marriage]. First, as argued above, marriage as the union of man and woman is a reasonable position; bans on interracial marriage were not. Second, as also argued above, marriage as the union of man and woman is witnessed to repeatedly in the Bible; prohibitions on interracial marriage were not.
But these two points are irrelevant, of course, even according to Ryan’s own standards. As he wrote in this piece:
The right to religious freedom is for everyone, not just for those with the “right” beliefs.
So it doesn’t matter whether your racist religious views are reasonable or Biblically sound, because religious freedom is also for the wrong. It’s for everyone.
But things really go awry with his next point:
Third, to be argued below, while interracial marriage bans were clearly part of a wider system of oppression, beliefs about marriage as the union of male and female are not.
But it’s not “argued below.” Or rather, he does argue the point about interracial marriage bans, but never establishes the part about same-sex marriage. Probably because he can’t — probably because it isn’t true.
Our history of blacklisting, imprisonment, official exclusion from federal employment, and lobotomization obviously indicate a history of oppression. Granted, excluding same-sex couples from marriage was not originally a tool of that system; it was the result. Gays were seen as such sick and twisted perverts that few thought about giving us marriage rights. Still, it was part of that system, and it did indeed become a tool of oppression with DOMA and the various state constitutional amendments designed to “protect” marriage from those who don’t deserve it and to express moral disapproval of us deviants.
Frankly, it’s astonishing that Ryan attempts this argument — and that he doesn’t even make a token effort to justify it.
So now we’re back where we started. Ryan still hasn’t explained why religious liberty requires that bakers be free to turn away same-sex couples but not interracial couples, even if their religion condemns them. His reasoning is still an incoherent mess. All he’s done is add yet another layer of contradiction.
Update: Ryan’s only response to this has been to say, “Your criticisms arent persuasive if you cant admit that male & female is quite different than black & white.” That’s a strange non-critique, but here goes. I do declare that “male & female is quite different than black & white.” And of course my rebuttal still stands, because this rather obvious statement does nothing to fix Ryan’s own internal contradictions and false assumptions.