On May 15, 2016, the “Erasmus” column in the online version of The Economist has a story with the odd title “Europe names a Slovak to tell the world about liberty of thought”. The story deals with a debate within Western democracies whether religious freedom merits special attention in the advocacy of “Western values” or whether they should be simply included in the general list of human and civil rights. Leave aside the rather interesting question whether such advocacy, if carried on at all by ambassadors or other government envoys, has any real effects. But as “Erasmus” himself notes, the manner that freedom of religion should be advocated as part of foreign policy seems less than urgent “in an age of blasphemy laws, floggings and arbitrary executions”, rampant especially in the Muslim world. Somewhat less genocidal forms of religious persecution occur widely in China, India and Russia. Recently President Vladimir Putin, who in close alliance with the Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow has lustily persecuted religious minorities, has had the chutzpah of presenting himself as the defender of religious freedom rightly understood.
But triviality raised to the level of inanity characterizes the way in which religious freedom has now entered the American culture war in the controversy over transgender bathrooms for high school students. Sensible persons, I suppose, would first ask how many high school students are actually “transgender”. The estimates that have been bandied about (mostly by the “LGBT” propaganda machines) must be very disappointing to those who do the bandying—all below 1 percent of the total population. But what sensible people would have assumed until recently is that the estimate refers to people with ambivalent genitalia or hormonal levels. One can readily stipulate that this condition would create real suffering, and a humane society would seek to alleviate the suffering, even if it affects a very small number of people. But now this turns out to be irrelevant: Society is supposed to accept whatever “gender identity” an individual claims to have. It follows that a boy who says that he is really a girl, with no physical evidence to support this “identity”, must be allowed to use toilets and change rooms allocated to females. If one knows anything about teenage boys, one cannot dismiss as paranoid the fear by parents that some lecherous lad will use his/her gender ID to watch their daughters taking a shower. But the other side does its part in contributing to the madness: States (such as North Carolina and Texas) in the vanguard of resistance against the ukase of the Obama administration, which threatens the loss of millions of education funding by the federal government, insist that students use facilities allocated to the sex listed on their birth certificates. I have seen no serious discussion of how such laws are to be enforced, but I have a vision of police stationed in front of every school toilet or shower room, asking students to raise skirts or lower pants before being allowed to enter .
There is general agreement that Dignitatis humanae, the 1965 declaration on religious freedom by the Second Vatican Council, was a significant event in the development of international and interfaith thinking about this topic. Not only was it a big step away from the idea, still dominant a century earlier in the First Vatican Council, that “error has no rights”. It defined religious freedom as based on human dignity, the very essence of being human, strongly suggesting that this right should have precedence over all other rights. Yet, contrary to the fears of Catholic conservatives ever since, there is no suggestion here of theological relativism. The text of the declaration contained the telling phrase “as it happens, the true religion is Catholicism”. Still, there must be no coercion in the defense of this truth.
I reread Dignitatis humanae when making notes for this blog-text. The Roman Catholic Church, with its central belief in the authority of the faith entrusted to it, must always insist (if you prefer, must pretend) that nothing has essentially changed despite the far-reaching changes being enacted. Yet those who are skeptical of Roman authority may agree with the, as it were, anthropological grounding of religious freedom in Dignitatis. I will take the liberty of putting this anthropology in terms unlikely to be used in a Vatican document: At the heart of human dignity is the capacity for wonder, which is not yet religious faith but is its preamble. Here we have homo sapiens, the mutation of a species of the Big Apes, climbing down from the trees, getting up on its hind legs and, in a remote corner of the galaxy, trying to figure out the meaning, if any, of the universe.
The U.S. government is by law obliged to advance religious freedom throughout the world. This cause is to be advanced by no fewer than three distinct agencies: The Bureau of Human rights within the State Department, mandated to write an annual report (separate from another annual report on human rights) on the state of religious freedom in every country in the world (other than the U.S. itself). The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a non-governmental but tax-funded agency, whose major task is to write detailed reports on so-called “countries of concern” in the area of religious freedom. (It is my impression that both of these institutions try to be objective in dealing both with friends and adversaries of the U.S.) Finally, there is the position of Special Ambassador for Religious Freedom, with an office in the White House no less, whose duties are more loosely defined. The position is currently held by a distinguished rabbi.
Canada has until recently had similar government programs to promote religious freedom under the recent Conservative government; the incoming Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has put religious freedom in the same box with all other human rights. I don’t know whether this has to do with Trudeau’s political base in Quebec, which is more secularized than Anglophone Canada, let alone the U.S. But curiously, the European Union has just taken a different direction, with the appointment of Jan Figel, former head of the Christian Democratic Party in Slovakia, as reported by The Economist.
What’s peculiar about Slovakia? When Czechoslovakia split up between the Czech Repubic (one of the most secularized countries in the world) and Slovakia (then as now still quite Catholic), the latter came to serve as one of the main reservoirs for priestly and monastic vocations. More recently Slovakia drew attention as one of several ex-Communist countries in Europe to refuse taking its share of refugees from the Middle East—unless they were Christians. This was deplored as crass discrimination against Muslims (a somewhat strange charge, given the fact that Christians have been a major victim of genocide by Muslim jihadists—one could wish that priority would have been given to Jewish refugees from Nazism; instead Jewish refugees were imprisoned along with Nazis by British authorities at the outbreak of war in 1939, and some were deported to Australia). Jan Figel’s appointment as Slovakia’s special envoy for religious freedom was hailed in a festive launch in Rome, attended by Catholic dignitaries from several countries (Angela Merkel was the only Protestant). Not too much should be made of the difference between religious freedom being promoted separately or in a “basket” of rights in the foreign policy of democratic states; there are good reasons to be skeptical about the practical results achieved by either modality. My own bias, as stated earlier, is in favor of the former modality. But I cannot ignore the fact that, even in the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution, religious freedom is mentioned along with freedom of speech and of the press, of the right to peaceful assembly and to petitioning the government for the redress of grievances.
Back to the great drama of transgender bathrooms: If ever there was a case of a solution trying to find a problem, this is it. One can look at this absurdity in a political or a religious perspective. Politically, it is yet another case of the Obama administration using the immense powers of the federal government against anyone resisting its grand designs for the society; the entire history of Obamacare from its inception (“you will not lose your doctor, end of story”) is the prototypical case of this. Religiously or quasi-religiously, we have here a clash of fundamentalisms. As in virtually all items that have become issues in the culture war, protagonists on both sides are absolutely convinced of the rightness of their ideology and the wickedness of anyone who doubts this.
I am here reminded of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. He served as an officer in the Union army during the Civil War and was so appalled by the cruelty of both sides that he was convinced, in all the years he served as a justice on the Supreme Court (1902—1932), that certainty without even a tinge of doubt is likely to become murderous. One of his memorable statements: “We should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe”.
If one is really concerned with the pain suffered by transgender teenagers, it is rather easy to think of practical measures to solve the issue of bathroom access. I would juxtapose two individuals oozing certainty free of doubt: Loretta Lynch, recently appointed head of Obama’s Department of Justice, announcing the new policy on school bathrooms, in the ringing tones of the civil rights struggle. Russell Moore, head of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, is a leading Evangelical theologian. In an article published by Religion News Service on May 13, 2016, he said some quite sensible things about the denial of biological reality in the transgender ideology. But then, he tells us what the Bible teaches about the proper relation between men and women. He is sure about this. I am not. (But then I’m a Lutheran with a strong sense of the difference between Law and Gospel, and with a negative feeling about any attempt to interpret the Gospel as a new form of Law—by the way, the inclination to do so is something that Roman Catholics have in common with Evangelical Protestants. Also, I think that a bit of doubt is good for faith.)