Ryan Anderson, Simon Senior Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation, talks about his new book Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination, as well as, the intersection between religious liberty and discrimination.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. Today, we will be discussing one of our culture’s most intense debates: the intersection between religious liberty and discrimination. Considering the current state of discourse in our nation, many wonder how we, as people of faith, can be persuasive and effective voices for truth in this arena. Our guest today is Dr. Ryan Anderson, the William E. Simon Senior Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation. One of our nation’s leading voices in the debates around marriage and religious liberty, Dr. Anderson has published three important books on marriage and his research has been cited by many, including U.S. Supreme Court Justices Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas. Ryan is here today to discuss the topic of his newest book, Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination. This new book is a point-counterpoint that brings together leading opposing voices in the culture war. Dr. Ryan Anderson, welcome to Family Policy Matters! It’s great to have you back on the show.
RYAN ANDERSON: Thanks for having me. Happy to be back with you.
JOHN RUSTIN: Ryan, you are quite an accomplished author. As we begin, tell us about your new book. Who are your coauthors and why did you tackle this topic as a group, especially considering that one of the other authors, as I understand it, tends to have a completely different perspective than you, when it comes to issues like marriage?
RYAN ANDERSON: Yep. That’s exactly why we tackled this project as a group. One of the next major debates that’s going to take place in the United States, especially for people of faith, is what is the status of religious believers who are pro-life, who are pro-traditional marriage, who are hesitant about some of the new gender ideology and transgender identities that are being promoted. What will be their status in American public life? Will Catholic hospitals have to do sex-reassignment surgeries? Will Evangelical bakers have to bake for same-sex wedding cakes? Will Mormon schools lose their nonprofit tax status or their accreditation because they teach about marriage in accordance with Mormon understanding? Those are the sorts of disagreements that are coming to the fore right now. We just saw the Supreme Court is going to be reviewing the case of one of the bakers who’s been told he has to bake same-sex wedding cakes. So, the book is a point-counterpoint book. John Corvino: he’s a philosophy professor in Detroit; he’s a person that would identify on the political left side of the spectrum (progressive or liberal); he’s pro-choice on abortion; he’s pro-gay marriage; he himself is married to a man. So, we disagree about all those underlying issues. We also disagree about many of the religious liberty issues. And so, what we do in the book is we try to present the best argument on both sides of the debates about religious liberty. What we want for readers is to come away better understanding their own position and the other position and possibly modifying their position. You might come in and read this book and say, “Wow, I was wrong about something, and I was right about some other thing. By hearing the best arguments on both sides of this debate, it’s better informed me on what I should believe, where I should come down on the debate.”
JOHN RUSTIN: When it comes to balancing what may be considered by some to be competing interests like protecting religious liberty and avoiding unjust discrimination, how do the values of tolerance, respect, and acceptance come into play in this whole discussion?
RYAN ANDERSON: It’s always important, in terms of tolerance and respect, that we’re respectful of other people. But that doesn’t mean that we should be respectful of all decisions or that we should agree with all opinions.There are some opinions that we’re going to disagree with even as we respect the person who holds that opinion. And that, I would say, is the most challenging thing in American public life, is being able to make that distinction between respecting individuals while not always agreeing with actions and not always agreeing with opinions. And too often in America, it’s construed that if you disagree with someone, you must therefore be disrespecting someone. If you disagree with someone’s actions, therefore you must not have respect for the dignity of the individual who made that action. And that’s just fundamentally flawed. What we’re seeing, especially as we have moral disagreements, is that I can think abortion is a bad choice while still having respect for the dignity of the person that chose to have an abortion. That, I would say, is one of the biggest rhetorical challenges for American culture right now. How to disagree without being disagreeable. How can we voice these arguments while still being respectful?
JOHN RUSTIN: Absolutely. That kind of poses the question: How did we get to where we are? Why do you think the discourse on these topics of marriage, religious liberty, discrimination, and faith, have degraded so much in our culture?
RYAN ANDERSON: I think there are a couple of different answers. I think part of this is a self-inflicted wound. You think about faith communities, churches in the United States over the past 50 years, there’s been, within the protestant side of the aisle, kind of a liberalization of mainline Protestant churches. As that took place, you then saw the rise of Evangelicals. But Evangelicals never had the respect of the mainstream culture in the way that the mainline churches did. They weren’t kind of a culture-shaping institution. They were a counter-culture institution. Something similar happened in the Catholic side of the aisle after the Second Vatican Council. You see Catholics, who are the spirit of Vatican II Catholics, going along more and more with the culture. And then you see the JPII generation of Catholics, which I would count myself in that category. So, part of it there is you just see a splintering of religion in the United States between Evangelicals and JPII Catholics on the one side—more orthodox and vibrant—and then mainline churches in the spirit of Vatican II Catholics. You also see a challenge from secularism: the understanding that religion is personal and because it’s personal it has to be private. That wasn’t the Founders’ understanding. Religion was important. It was personally important, but it also had a public role. [The book] “The Naked Public Square” says religion is constrained to your church and your bedroom, but it’s not relevant to main street or Wall Street. And then, I would say beyond this, the sexual revolution. You can’t discount what took place in the 60s and the 70s to change how we think about our bodies, how we think about marriage and the family. When you then put these things together, it’s not surprising the challenges we have to religious liberty, especially when you couple them with the rise of the modern nation state. The government has grown significantly in the past 50 years. So, if you put big government, splintered religion, religion not being relevant in the public square, and then new sexual values are gaining prominence, that creates all of the conditions for our current religious liberty disagreement.
JOHN RUSTIN: So, how do we restore respectful and fruitful dialogue in our personal and political discussions on these important topics, while at the same time not surrendering our fundamental beliefs?
RYAN ANDERSON: Partly, this is why I wrote my half of this book. We do this by making good arguments that are accessible to the people we are speaking to. So, I don’t make a theological argument. I make philosophical and physiological [arguments], using social science, using philosophy, using reason and evidence that a secularist could grasp, could understand. If I make a biblical argument to somebody who doesn’t accept the authority of the Bible, it will not go very far. If I try to make arguments that other people can access and do it in a way that is friendly, that’s civil. So I think, part of this is how do we restore civility while also defending our views. It’s simply by doing it, don’t roll over, don’t back down, don’t mute yourself, don’t censor yourself. But when you do speak, do it in a way that’s intelligent and civil. And so I hope that the book actually provides resources to your listeners on how to do that.
JOHN RUSTIN: Ryan, I know you include in the book a very interesting discussion of the double-standard that is applied to speech vs. action that results in concrete vs. dignitary harms. Talk about that a little bit more.
RYAN ANDERSON: Sure! So, if you think about classical liberalism—the liberalism of someone like J.S. Mill, so not modern liberalism but classical liberalism—this was the idea that people had rights and consenting adults had rights to do things providing they didn’t cause harms to other people. And the types of harms, when J.S. Mill talks about his “Harm Principle,” he’s talking about material, physical, tangible harms. So as a result, free speech doctrine was: you can say in the United States—provided it’s not direct defamation or fighting words—things that would cause physical, tangible or material harms. You could say whatever you want, even hate speech. There’s no hate speech exception to the First Amendment protections for free speech. But then people realized: “Wait! This leaves too much room for freedom.” People who don’t like this much freedom said, “If we just limit it to material/physical harm, there’ll be too much freedom. So, we’re gonna come up with a new category called, “Dignitary Harm.” The idea here is that there are certain things that you can do that, while not causing material/physical harms, they harm the dignity of the individual. And the double standard here is that this is being applied to religious liberty but it’s not being applied to speech. We’re now seeing legal scholars say: “No, but if you’re a religious person and you engage in religious action—whether it’s the baker, the florist, the photographer—those acts cause dignitary harm and that harm can override the religious liberty protection.That can be the reason why we don’t grant a religious liberty exemption. And so, they’re kind of loading the dice. And they create this double standard in that they don’t create dignitary harm against the liberties that they like but they do count dignitary harm against the liberties they dislike.
JOHN RUSTIN: We’re seeing that in lots of different venues around the country. The U.S. Supreme Court has issued some important decisions on religious liberty recently. What sort of legal trends do you see in the decisions that the Court has issued thus far? And what direction can you expect these things to go? Is there cause for hope for those of us who hold religious liberty as one of our most important fundamental rights?
RYAN ANDERSON: Obviously, the appointment of Neil Gorsuch and the confirmation by the Senate was very good. But obviously, that just keeps the status quo because he was replacing Scalia. And so we, more or less, have kept the balance where it is. So, the big question will be: Will there be a retirement or otherwise a vacancy in the next three years? And who will the president nominate and will the Senate confirm that person? Because, that’s when you can see a change in power. What was very nice to see was that we had a 7-2 decision on theTrinity Lutheran case. It didn’t split down to 5-4. It was 7-2. And so, we have seven Supreme Court Justices saying, a state cannot deny a religious institution a public benefit that they otherwise are qualified for simply because they’re religious. So, that’s very encouraging that that one was 7-2, not 5-4.
They announced they’re going to review the baker case. I imagine this will be a 5-4 decision, but who knows. I think a lot will depend on where Justice Kennedy comes down. I think what we need to do for the lawyers helping litigating this case—but also people in the broader culture—is explain what took place here: The baker didn’t discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. He has no problems serving gay or lesbian customers, doing Happy Birthday cakes, doing Get Well Soon cakes, or sending flowers is more typical. He has no problem doing any sort of a cake product for a gay or lesbian customer, with the one exception of a wedding cake. He can’t do a wedding cake for something that he thinks isn’t actually gonna be a marriage. And that’s not discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. That’s simply a disagreement over the nature of what marriage is. And we shouldn’t be penalized for every disagreement as if it’s unjust and unlawful discrimination. We’ll see what happens. That’s gonna be the big case to watch.
JOHN RUSTIN: We can all participate by praying for the attorneys, for the individuals involved in these cases, and especially for those Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court. I want to encourage all of our listeners to continue to do that. I also want to encourage our listeners, Ryan, to get a copy of your new book, “Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination,”so they can avail themselves of the incredibly helpful information included in that. Where can they go to get a copy of that book and your other writings?
RYAN ANDERSON: The easiest place is going to Amazon. You go to Amazon and you type in the title of the book, “Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination,” or you type in my name, Ryan Anderson, it’ll pop out. You’ll see a couple of other books there. There’s a book that I wrote two years ago entitled, “Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom,” which was a response to the Obergefell decision. That’s still very relevant, especially as this baker case goes to the Supreme Court. I discuss his case in that book. And then you can pre-order a book that’ll be out in the winter, entitled, “When Harry Became Sally.” The subtitle to that is, “Responding to The Transgender Movement.” And that’s what the book is about. That book—it’s in the editing process right now—it’ll be out in the winter, specifically about how should we respond to the transgender movement that we find ourselves in.
JOHN RUSTIN: Thank you for that. Let me mention the name of your book again, “Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination,” by Dr. Ryan Anderson. And with that Dr. Anderson, I want to thank you so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters, and for your incredibly important work in researching and writing about these fundamentally important matters for the benefit of so many across our country. We’re extremely grateful for you.
RYAN ANDERSON: Thank you.
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