The illiberalism of persecuting churches through tax-exempt penalties

This argument from Damon Linker at The Week depends mightily on the definition of liberal. Damon relies on the historical definition of liberalism to denounce calls from the Left to punish churches through their tax-exempt status for refusing to participate in same-sex marriage and in other forms of discrimination. On that basis, Damon’s right — it’s entirely illiberal:

The removal of these exemptions would be an enormously heavy burden for many, and a catastrophic burden for some. And because this harsh, painful penalty would be imposed on churches almost entirely in response to their theologically and historically founded opposition to same-sex marriage, it would be a form of state-sponsored persecution. Religious persecution.

To which some liberals may be inclined to respond: “You bet it is — and rightly so! Why on Earth should the government be making special provisions to protect institutions that openly advocate discrimination against a category of American citizens?”

There’s just one problem with this objection: It would seem to make religion as such incompatible with liberalism. All (or nearly all) religions discriminate. They divide the world into the saved and the damned, the sanctified and the sinner, the pure and the defiled, the ordered and the disordered, the righteous and the wicked, the virtuous and the vicious. That’s what religions are: holistic systems of norms, practices, and beliefs that hold up some ways of living, some actions, some behaviors as better than others — with those others denounced, often in no uncertain terms.

If we forbid religions to discriminate — or empower the government to regulate how and against which behaviors a church is permitted to discriminate — we will have effectively ended religious freedom.

Are liberals really prepared to begin treating such bedrock religious tendencies — tendencies that go back to the beginnings of human culture and lie at the foundation of every civilization ever known — as beyond the bounds of acceptable thought and behavior? And to use state power to stamp them out?

Actually, that’s exactly what the social-justice warriors want on this issue. They want to punish people who have any religious belief whatsoever when that differs from the Received Wisdom of Popular Modern Consensus. Let’s not forget how Senator Tammy Baldwin put it shortly after the Obergefell decision:

 Certainly the First Amendment says that in institutions of faith that there is absolute power to, you know, to observe deeply held religious beliefs. But I don’t think it extends far beyond that. We’ve seen the set of arguments play out in issues such as access to contraception. Should it be the individual pharmacist whose religious beliefs guides whether a prescription is filled, or in this context, they’re talking about expanding this far beyond our churches and synagogues to businesses and individuals across this country. I think there are clear limits that have been set in other contexts and we ought to abide by those in this new context across America.

Baldwin later clarified that she opposed attacking the tax-exempt status of religious groups who refuse to participate in same-sex weddings, but the clear impulse here is also “illiberal.” However, it fights right into the paradigm of progressivism, as I wrote last week for The Fiscal Times:

True tolerance would allow Americans of all sexual orientations to serve openly – but also all people of faith to serve with exactly the same amount of openness. It would allow all people to access the market without government restriction, but give people the leeway to decide for themselves in which events they wish to participate and when without government penalty, either.

Instead of tolerance and liberty, though, the government appears ready to conduct a hunt of heretics in the pursuit of ensuring total compliance with cultural doctrine, while promising that churches can hide within their own four walls to escape the ruling class’ wrath.

How long will it take for that remnant of liberty to be extinguished?

Not for long, if the illiberal progressives get their way. They don’t want liberty or tolerance — they want compliance, and what this will produce is the establishment of a Tolerated State Religion no different than what we’ve seen in China for the past several decades. Any who deviate from the True Secular Faith will be outcast and destroyed.

Perhaps this will produce scale-dropping moments for a lot of people about the nature of modern progressives. Be sure read all of Damon’s excellent piece.

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