Welcome to the Culture War, Religious Liberty

We live in a divided culture. There are dog people and cat people. There are Apple users and Android users. There are Justin Bieber fans and people with discernment and self-respect. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the culture can now be divided into two more categories: those fighting a “war on religion” and those fighting a “war on women.” Churchill said that, “War is the normal occupation of man.” The increasingly uncivil public square following the court’s decision has done nothing to discredit his observation.

Plenty of war rhetoric has been heard in reactions to the Hobby Lobby case, but now that the euphoria/despair over the ruling has abated a bit let’s take a closer look at the real winners and losers.

The Obvious Winner: The Green Family

The Supreme Court ruled that the owners of Hobby Lobby, the Green family, do not have to pay for some types of birth control for employees which violate their religious beliefs. Instead the government will make an “accommodation” for employees to access these four drugs/devices independent of Hobby Lobby. The same accommodation will apply to other “closely held” companies with similar religious objections to abortifacients. The ruling, however, did not create sweeping new religious liberty rights for all corporations as some (including me) had feared, nor can it be applied to anything other than the contraception mandated by Obamacare. (Read more details about the court’s decision.)

The Obvious Loser: The Obama Administration

The ruling was a defeat for the White House which argued against Hobby Lobby before the Supreme Court. While the decision did not represent a serious challenge to Obamacare, it did uncover the mess created by a hybrid health care system combining employer-funded insurance and government-issued mandates. Is anyone, conservative or liberal, happy with Obamacare anymore?

The Less Obvious Winner: Secular Progressives 

In the bizarro world of American politics losing is winning and victims are victors. Yes, the secular progressives are outraged by the court’s decision calling it “dangerous” and “a step backwards” for women’s rights, but they also know the Hobby Lobby ruling is a golden opportunity.

For example, an acquaintance of mine was a fundraiser for McCain’s 2008 campaign. When his candidate lost I sent him an email of condolence knowing he was now out of a job. “Are you kidding!” he wrote back. “Losing was the best thing that could have happened to me.” He explained that with Obama in the White House raising money from terrified conservatives would be a breeze. Fear, he reminded me, is the most effective motivator in politics.

By losing to Hobby Lobby, secular progressives have a potent campaign issue to mobilize voters in November, as well as a new specter to terrify liberal donors with. Just two hours after the court’s decision the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was already sending out fundraising emails calling the ruling “disgusting” and “shameful.” In today’s warped politics losers cry all the way to the bank.

The Less Obvious Loser: Conservative Christians

Over the last three decades a popular narrative about conservative Christians has taken root that says Christians will fight vigorously to protect their families,their institutions, their values, and their rights. The Hobby Lobby case has only reinforced this perception of self-interested Christians circling the wagons to protect themselves from a heathen attack. While I agree with the Green family’s desire to run their business as their conscience dictates, it’s unfortunate that the case was framed in the media as “Christian values versus secular values” for the soul of America.

This relatively recent narrative of Christians standing their ground has erased an earlier narrative of Christians in America using their influence to fight vigorously for the rights of others–slaves, women, prisoners, children, and immigrants. This older story was one driven by hope rather than fear. Of course there are many, many Christians still engaged in these selfless causes, including some funded by the generosity of the Green family, but the exuberant celebration and even gloating that occurred after the Hobby Lobby decision by some conservative Christians did nothing to shift the popular narrative that evangelicals are focused on pursing their own good rather than the common good.

The Real Winner: Culture Warriors

The overlooked significance of the Hobby Lobby ruling is that a new front has been opened in the Culture War. For decades opposing armies have been fighting over abortion, LGBT rights, and the unforgivable sin of wishing someone “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” In recent years, however, the theater of battle has shifted. Many conservatives have surrendered the territory of gay marriage and admitted defeat. Some viewed the Supreme Court’s rulings in 2013 on DOMA and Prop 8 in favor of gay marriage as a definitive turning point; a D-day invasion signaling the inevitable victory of liberals and the beginning of the end of the Culture War.

But fear not, culture warriors! You will not be denied the glories of cable news battles or the warm comfort of self-righteousness kindled in your soul as you listen to fellow Americans being demonized on talk radio. What the Supreme Court took from you in 2013 it has returned in 2014 by igniting a new front in the culture war–religious liberty.

The real winners of Burwell v. Hobby Lobby are the cable news pundits, talk radio hosts, partisan Ivy League activists, fear-mongering church leaders, social media malcontents, internet trolls, and annoying relatives at Thanksgiving who thrive on outrage like fire on oxygen. They can take solace knowing the war will go on and their purpose for existing has not been extinguished.

The Real Loser: Religious Liberty

As stated earlier, each camp is framing the battle as either a “war on religion” or a “war on women” in which the advance of one side is interpreted as a defeat for the other. This represents a dramatic shift in our culture’s understanding of religious freedom. Before Burwell v. Hobby Lobby religious freedom enjoyed the safety of universal affirmation and partisan neutrality.

Consider the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act upon which the Hobby Lobby case was argued. Twenty years ago RFRA was written to protect religion from the overreach of the government. It was supported by the liberal ACLU as well as the conservative Traditional Values Coalition. It passed the House of Representatives unanimously, received 97 votes in Senate, and was signed by President Clinton. Strengthening the “free exercise of religion” was not a win-lose issue, but a win-win issue for both Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives. In other words, religious liberty was safe.

After the 5-4 decision along party lines in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, such bipartisan support for religious liberty now appears impossible. Progressives have foolishly framed religious liberty as an enemy of women’s rights and LGBT equality. Conservatives have short-sightedly claimed it as their last and only defense against a wave of secularism. As a result the neutrality religious freedom enjoyed is over. It has been conscripted into the Culture War and given a conservative uniform. It is safe no longer.

Five justices may have given a victory to religious liberty in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, but there’s no going back to the comfort and neutrality of an earlier era. Now seen as an enemy combatant, religious liberty is likely to face more attacks than ever before and must endure them without the protection of bipartisan support in the courts or legislatures. Sadly, another foundational American value has become a pawn in an increasingly uncivil public square.

Welcome to the war, religious liberty.


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1 Comment

  • August 2, 2014

    Weary of Culture-Warring

    […] to sustain our culture-war industrial complexes than by principle. Recently, one such observer curiously described the Hobby Lobby decision as a win for the Green family, but a loss for religious […]