Tonight’s law school topic was the intersection of the U.S. Constitution and religion. On tap were SCOTUS cases about displays of the Ten Commandments and public prayers. Aside from the brilliance of Justice Thomas* and the snark of Justice Scalia, it was an otherwise uninspiring discussion.
And then one of my colleagues offered her summary of the situation, which seemed to satisfy the majority view of our peers:
- No one can change one’s skin color.
- No one can change one’s place on the LGBQT+ spectrum.
- One can change one’s religious beliefs, and perhaps ought to change – or at least contain – those beliefs for the good of society.
The third point is absolutely stunning. On an individual level it may, at best, reveal a lack of self-awareness on the part of the speaker; it may also reveal a seriously bigoted view of the world. Given the approval it was met with by our peers, I fear it is broadly indicative of both societal ignorance and bigotry.
First Amendment rights, namely religion and speech, are based upon the liberal – and Protestant Christian – ideal that the individual should be ruled by conscience rather than force. The Constitution is nothing without respect for individual personhood, individual pursuit of truth, individual conscience (where the person and truth meet), and individual will (where conscience is embodied).*
It was easy tonight for a member of the religiously-ascendant class to write off religious beliefs as easily mutable, because it is others who must change and conform to the ascendant orthodoxy. The ascendant class lacks the most rudimentary understanding of its own system of belief; it is unable to recognize that it has a set of assumptions about reality (i.e. a belief system). Further, this ignorance of self – this lack of context – makes it incapable of understanding the beliefs of others, much less capable of respecting them.
And let’s be clear about something. The religious target anticipated by point 3 is any form of Christianity that resists the ascendant orthodoxy. No other religions were mentioned in this week’s conversation, except as tools to challenge the practice of traditional Christianity.
The juxtaposition of points 2 and 3 is still more telling, that sexual autonomy is superior to freedom of conscience. I do not fear point 2; unsustainable ideas can be left to deal with themselves. I do fear the damage done to individuals in that process, but the best way to care for the injured is within the context which point 3 tries to shut down.
Point 3 is not offering a pluralistic society based upon tolerance, respect, or the exchange of ideas. It is offering tyranny over the mind – and ultimately the body – governed by an ascendant class that is wholly unaware of its own ratio credendi.
*I happen to agree with J. Thomas’ constitutional theory most of the time, but on this topic I find his approach especially thoughtful and compelling. In short, the First Amendment – and particularly the Establishment Clause – was intended only to constrain the federal government, and federalism leaves the States greater power to settle societal differences. See Van Orden v. Perry, 545 U.S. 677 (2005) and Town of Greece v. Galloway, 134 S. Ct. 1811 (2014).
**I don’t pretend to understand psychology or Enlightenment theory on personhood.