Pew report shows where public stands on religious liberty

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A basic confusion over the most fundamental issues of religious liberty is made apparent in a new study released by the Pew Research Center yesterday. The study is entitled,

“Where the Public Stands on Religious Liberty vs. Nondiscrimination.”

The promise of this kind of study is that it could clarify where the American people are on so many of these most controversial and contentious issues in American society today. The headline of RNS—that is Religion News Service—reporting on the study is this,

“Cool with contraception, Americans divide over transgender bathrooms and wedding services for gays.”

The article by Lauren Markoe cites me as a part of the conversation in the article, and it also points to the fact that there are limitations on this kind of study. The limitations come down, as is so often the case, in terms of how the questions are framed and even the language with which the questions are asked. Again, the fundamental question that was addressed by the research is where the public stands, that means the American public, on religious liberty versus nondiscrimination.

Now then we need to back up for a moment and ask the question, why would there be such a question posed? Why would the question be religious liberty versus nondiscrimination? It is because as we have been tracing this is the basic fault line of one of the most seismic controversies in America today, a controversy that pits religious liberty against other claimed rights, in particular what might be called sexual or erotic liberty, the nondiscrimination in the title of this study.

The Pew Research Center is one of the most influential and objective research institutions in America. I take its research very seriously. The limitations on any kind of research are always present, but in this particular report there is a central area of concern. And it has to do with, for instance, the headline in RNSReligion News Serviceagain ran as its headline,

“Cool with contraception, Americans divide over transgender bathrooms and wedding services for gays.”

Lauren Markoe, the reporter for Religion News Service, says,

“When it comes to contraception, a clear majority of Americans say employers should be required to cover it in their health care plans — even if they have religious objections.

“But a survey released Wednesday (Sept. 28) by the Pew Research Center reveals a sharp division on another hot topic: whether photographers, cake bakers and other wedding service providers should have to serve same-sex couples. And Americans also disagree on whether transgender people should have to use the public restroom of their gender at birth.”

Now looking at this for a moment, it is claimed that Americans are basically now of one mind in terms of religious liberty on the contraception issues. But this avoids a huge problem with the way that’s framed. Even as the issue of contraception has been in the headlines, after all it was at the center of the Hobby Lobby case before the United States Supreme Court, the big issue actually wasn’t just contraception, but specific forms of contraception that had an abortifacient effect. Hobby Lobby’s concern, for example, was the legal coercion that had been brought by the Obama Administration through the Department of Health and Human Services that required employers to provide comprehensive birth-control coverage, including birth-control pharmaceuticals that it is well believed might have the effect of an early abortion, therefore an abortifacient effect.

One of the other most interesting aspects of this even if you jump over the abortifacient question is the fact that the Pew study indicates that Americans are, supposedly, generally united on believing that employers should be legally required to offer contraceptives, regardless of whether or not that violates our conscience. But that actually points to the fact that the Hobby Lobby decision for the Supreme Court was even more important than might have first appeared. Because it also points to the fact that if we put religious liberties for a popular vote, we will not always be pleased with the result, because Americans are quite easily persuaded one way or the other by any number of factors, including exactly how this kind of question is even framed.

As I told Religion News Service, the greatest insight and affirmation from this research is that the basic divide in this country is theological rather than merely political or even merely moral. That’s because what’s really affirmed here is the fact that the more often one attends church, the more likely one is to defend religious liberty and to have very significant concerns about the moral issues that were a part of the questions posed in this particular research. That’s easily explained by the Christian worldview. With the fundamental issue being theological, the question is whether or not God has dictated certain moral terms to which we are accountable. If indeed there is a God, and if indeed he is the moral lawgiver, then it simply follows that our moral judgments are to be in obedience to the moral order that God is revealed.

If you do not believe that there is a creator God who is also the lawgiver, if you do not believe that human beings are obligated to respond in obedience to that divine moral order, then you are free to come up with any moral system of your own invention, and that’s the basic divide in America today. It is increasingly a divide between the Christian worldview and the secular worldview, and the Christian worldview is becoming of necessity even more theologically defined over against the pressure from a secular society. The secular worldview is not only becoming more dominant in society, it is also becoming more aggressive. That too is very clear in the very choice of issues that were addressed in this survey on religious liberty.

Again, two of the issues addressed had to do with religious liberty as it would pertain to vendors such as photographers and cake bakers and florists with relation to weddings, in particular same-sex weddings. And in this case, it’s really interesting that even in the year 2016, indeed in September of 2016, that divide in America, according to this study, is still 48% to 49%—that is 48% arguing that religious liberty means that Americans should be able to refuse to participate in same-sex weddings and 49% who say that they should be coerced to do so on the basis of nondiscrimination. Now once again, what does that tell us? Well, it tells us that a 48% to 49% divide on an issue of this significance points to the fact that we have to face very squarely the divided people that is the population of the United States of America. We are looking at a deep division, and it is the kind of division for which there is no apparent means of compromise.

At an earlier stage in this moral revolution, even those who were pushing from the secular left argued that there were some avenues of compromise. You will note that now that they are in the driver seat of this radical moral revolution, all promises of compromise are over. It is now a totalitarian set of claims being made by the moral revolutionaries. It is the warning to get with the program or to get left behind in terms of the culture and forfeiting one’s religious liberty. If anything, the number that is really surprising on that question is the fact that almost half of Americans are still brave enough to tell the survey taker that they believe that an individual should be free to participate or not participate in a same-sex wedding on the basis of personal religious and moral conviction.

A similar divide is found on the question of transgender rights. 46%, according to Pew, said that persons should be required to use the public restrooms of the gender they were born into—that’s the language of the study—and 51% said that persons should be allowed to use the public restrooms of the gender with which they currently identify. Now this points to a different limitation on this kind of research. The question is inherently hypothetical; we’re not talking about a real question about real bathrooms in real time and in real space. Instead, what this tells us is how at least a large number of Americans think they are supposed to answer this question, given public pressure and the direction of the moral revolution.

But finally with reference to this study in this report, one of the interesting things we also need to keep in mind is that there is a circle to much of the argument that is being made in the public square. We’re being told that vast social and moral change is taking place. Then we are pointed to a survey like this as evidence of the fact that indeed that moral shift is taking place. But at the same time the study is used as ammunition to further that moral revolution. And so, you have a circularity in terms of public argument in which a study like this is not merely reflective of what we are to understand the American people believe at any particular snapshot in space and time, but rather it is going to be used as an argument about what Americans should believe and about the inevitability, it will be argued, of this kind of moral change, with the inevitability, we should note on the side of the moral progresses on those who are pushing this moral revolution. That doesn’t lessen the importance of a significant body of research like this, but it does remind us that sometimes when the American people are the subjects of the research, they are doing research upon themselves and changing before their very eyes.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, offers a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview. This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

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