Saturday, November 2, 2013

Religious Liberty or Religious License?

A speech I heard on religious freedom is an excellent example of how the promotion of religious liberty can go wrong.  The speaker, who shall remain unnamed for prudential reasons, declared that we must fervently defend the religious freedom of everyone, including people we don't like.  He employed as examples the historic persecution of the Mormons and the current issue of the Westboro Baptist Church protesting at military funerals. 

Much of the violence against Mormons in the 19th Century was senseless and shameful, such as the Mormon Extermination order, which the speaker highlighted.  However, not all actions against the sect were unjustified, and our speaker did not seem to make this distinction.  For example, the sanctions against Mormon polygamy were certainly just.  19th Century Mormons complained that the prohibition on polygamy violated their religious freedom, but if absolute religious freedom means the right to commit bigamy, then perhaps it is not such a great thing.  The Mormons were an armed, polygamous, state within a state, and though a victim of unjust violence, they committed their own atrocities such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  I would obviously oppose the murder of 19th Century Mormons and not only because I number them among my ancestors.  However, to plead religious liberty as an absolute defense of their actions is a mistake.

Our speaker disagrees strongly with the Westboro Baptist Church, as does anyone with even a rudimentary grasp of Christian theology.  However, he seemed far too enthusiastic in his defense of their supposed freedom to harass military funerals.  Though the framers of the constitution would probably have had the WBC flogged, a reasonable man might apply First Amendment protections to their disgusting displays, which is exactly what the Supreme Court did in Snyder v. Phelps.  Though I am not entirely sure of my opinion on the legal issue, I think that a good argument can be made to consider funeral protests obscenity, and thus outside of free speech protections. 

However, even if one considers the protests to be protected by civil rights, it would be the height of folly to believe them to be protected by natural right.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what the speaker implied, saying that he could not try to sanction the protests just because he disagreed with them, and he seemed to hold this position as a matter of fundamental principle rather than as a prudential application of the civil law.  It would be obvious to previous generations that there is no natural God given right to protest a funeral.  If the WBC showed up at the funeral of one of your ancestors in Medieval Europe and started calling people fags, the bereaved would hack them to death and the local bishop would advise the faithful on the best place to dump the bodies.  Though we are presently constrained by the civil law from such actions, we must not confuse the civil rights of those in error for natural rights, which sanction only that which is good, true, and just.


  1. So following this guy's logic, the human sacrifices done by Mayans was OK.
    & while I will allow Westboro their free speech rights, at certain points they regularly cross over into becoming the equivalent of someone falsely calling out fire in a crowded theatre. & often what they say is slander & what they have on their posters is libel. "God hates fags" is probably 1 of their most egrigious. As we both know, God hates sin but desires the sinner to be saved because He loves every human being, including those in Hell.
    But my main point is, there are limits on free speech when they cross over into the the ungood, untrue, & unjust.

    (OK I know ungood is actually from 1984, but I felt its use justified so it would let all 3 start with un-.)

    1. To be fair, I doubt he would approve of human sacrifice, but you're right that his reasoning might lead in that direction.