Zealots endanger our freedom

(Denver Post, Mar. 25) To get at the devil, says the young zealot Will Roper in “A Man for All Seasons,” Robert Bolt’s play, “I’d cut down every law in England.”

Thomas More, the wise old churchman, comes back at him: “When the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you—where would you hide, the laws all being flat? Do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?”

That’s the question someone should ask state Sen. Pat Steadman about the now–famous “Get thee to a nunnery” speech, in which he scornfully dismissed the constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion for Coloradans who may object to same–sex marriage or civil unions.

Persons of faith can “be as judgmental you like” toward homosexual people, said Steadman with biting sarcasm in the Senate on Feb. 8, provided you “go inside your church” and confine your religious practice there. Just don’t “claim that religion requires (you) to discriminate” outside the church walls.

It’s difficult to put ourselves in another’s shoes, especially on something as existential as sexuality. But I imagine that for gays—such as Pat Steadman, with whom I have worked amicably for years—it probably seems as if the age–old antipathy to them is indeed the devil’s doing and, as such, calls for severe measures in return.

But his civil unions bill, signed into law last week without a meaningful conscience clause to protect fellow citizens who believe, for example, that God wants an adopted child to have both a mother and a father, goes too far. Not only does its “cut down all” severity flatten our most precious right, religious freedom.

It also ultimately threatens the life and liberty of every American, gay or straight, atheist or God–fearing, for exactly the reason More gave Roper. Raw majoritarianism, exemplified in Steadman’s absolutist legislation and rhetoric, serves no one’s best interest in a free society—because endless paybacks are sure to ensue, “the laws all being flat.”

We have a constitution with stern prohibitions on what government shall not do to unpopular or outnumbered individuals and groups, precisely because zealous majorities are tempted to tyrannize the minority if left unchecked. This is what led to pastors in Canada and Sweden being convicted for criticizing homosexuality. It’s what led to Catholic adoptions in Boston shutting down, for lack of a conscience clause.

“Do as you like, inside your church,” or convent, or monastery, the terms of surrender proffered to religious Coloradans by Sen. Steadman on Feb. 8, would trade a genuine freedom of religion for a hollow, privatized freedom of worship.

What’s the difference between the two? Freedom of religion allows you to speak and act, in daily life and in the public square, upon your best understanding of what the God you serve requires of you. Freedom of worship only allows you to honor Him behind closed doors, while out in the world you must render totally to Caesar.

That’s “totally,” as in totalitarianism. They never closed the churches in 1930s Germany; clergymen were simply told to stick to their sermons and let Hitler build the Reich. Nor did the Soviets enforce atheism. Worshippers could still gather, but Stalin acidly observed the Pope had no divisions. Reminds you of the civil unions bill sponsor waving away claims of conscience because he didn’t need the Christian vote.

Secularism can be as theocratic as Islam. Gay rights needn’t lead there, but it’s a danger. Kevin Miller diagnoses the tendency in his arresting book, “Freedom Nationally, Virtue Locally.” Americans are increasingly “worshipping the state,” notes Benjamin Wiker in a book by that name, and he warns such political zealotry might finish us. For who could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?

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