Although I admire Jonathan Merritt’s religion writing a great deal, I was disappointed with his latest Atlantic piece, “Religious-Liberty Laws That Have No Meaning.” Merritt takes conservatives to task for recent state-level legislation that purports to protect either religious liberty or bathroom safety at a cost to sexual minorities. His immediate targets are recent laws in Tennessee (aimed at protecting medical professionals who object to gay marriage and non-marital sex on conscience grounds) and North Carolina (requiring transgender people to use the bathroom that corresponds to gender given on their birth certificate).
Merritt argues that laws of this nature are driven by conservative “fear” and reflect efforts to “‘solve’ non-existent problems.” Neither law is particularly well-written, and the North Carolina law in particular reflects partisan politics (for example, it also prevents cities from enacting minimum wages higher than the state’s). Nevertheless, I worry that Merritt’s withering critique has perhaps unwittingly contributed to a certain kind of progressive narrative as ungrounded as the conservative one that he critiques.
When it comes to understanding clashes between religious liberty and the rights of sexual minorities, there is no one “conservative narrative” and no one “progressive narrative.” For the purposes of this discussion, however, we can talk about a “fear narrative” pushed by some conservatives and a “bigotry narrative” pushed by some progressives.
The fear narrative rallies its base in much the way that Merritt describes: by promoting anxiety and mistrust in reaction to progressive causes, especially those involving sexual minorities. The bigotry narrative is similarly indiscriminate: It views traditional religious beliefs about sexuality as rooted only in animus.
Merritt does a good job critiquing the fear narrative, including highlighting the misguided legislative effort in Tennessee to declare the Bible the official state book. (That might have been a nice gesture in 1816; it makes no legal or cultural sense in 2016.) I also share Merritt’s views about North Carolina lawmakers’ approach to bathrooms. The sexual predator trope advanced by the fear narrative is as galling as it is ungrounded, and that kind of rhetoric does real harm to real people. Continue reading
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