“Government Is Always a Rival, and Often an Enemy, of Religion”

On Friday, under leadership mostly associated with the Roman Catholic Church and the anti-abortion movement, protesters rallied in more than 150 cities against the HHS Obamacare mandate requiring church-affiliated universities, hospitals and other institutions to furnish access to “reproductive health services” that run counter to their church’s teachings. In today’s Washington Examiner, columnist Tim Carney writes, “What should have been obvious is becoming clearer to religious conservatives: Government is always a rival, and often an enemy, of religion.” An accompanying AP picture of a demonstration in Little Rock, Arkansas shows protesters waving crosses inscribed “Don’t Tread on Me.”

Carney goes on to discuss another controversy in the news, last week’s ruling by the New Mexico Supreme Court Court of Appeals that a photographer’s business counts as a “public accommodation,” which requires her to photograph a gay wedding for a prospective client despite her religious objections. (New Mexico does not legally recognize gay marriage; its courts instead ruled under a general anti-discrimination law covering sexual orientation.) Like Carney, and like most people I’ve talked to about the case, I find this result an appalling intrusion on the photographer’s wish to live her own life and run her own business as she pleases.

So I was taken aback when Carney goes on to assert that all this proves “Libertarians need to reassess their allegiances on social matters.” Who does he think has been on the front lines on these questions, during long stretches in which organized religion chose not to get involved, if not libertarians?

Take the photographer case. Google “Elane Photography” + “New Mexico” and the top entry you find is from libertarian-leaning law professor Eugene Volokh, who has spoken out strongly against the ruling as contrary to First Amendment values. Another of the top ten is from our friend Hans Bader at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, who calls the decision “wrong” and “the imposition of progressive orthodoxy by judicial fiat.” Notably, two among the other top ten results are from writers at gay websites who argue on generally classical-liberal grounds that it is wrong to coerce the photographer.

The story is similar on the ObamaCare contraception mandate: any number of libertarians and classical liberals who do not necessarily share the Catholic Church’s views on contraception or gays have nonetheless spoken up for the importance of letting it run its institutions under its own lights, an argument that extends to other social service areas such as adoption.

Meanwhile, as Carney rightly observes, many who share his own religious convictions “have too often embraced government, either in the name of social justice or traditional values.” It might be noted that modern discrimination law accords “protected group” status to religion itself, an inclusion that remains curiously uncontroversial among many religious conservatives even though it carries with it a rich potential for chipping away at private conscience rights and the autonomy of private institutions.

As I understand it, the libertarian position is to prize religious liberty, while also disapproving the use of government as an instrument of culture war. That’s no contradiction. It’s the American way.