By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
You know that old saying, “Don’t talk about religion or politics in polite company?” It would be hard to agree to that as a columnist after these past couple of weeks, when so much has happened involving both.
Start with gay marriage. The Supreme Court’s declaration that it’s now the law of the land hasn’t completely settled things in Arkansas. One county clerk resigned rather than issue licenses, and one pledged to fight but then changed her mind. Meanwhile, the issue has created a division between Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who says the Court’s ruling is final, and others, particularly Sen. Jason Rapart, R-Conway, who say it’s not.
It is. Gay marriage will remain legal. It’s not just the Supreme Court that has spoken in this case, but popular opinion. Six out of 10 Americans support it. Support is even higher among younger Americans, who, as time passes, will compose more and more of the other four.
Instead, the real issue is the tension between two government aims that are competing in this case: preventing discrimination and protecting religious liberty. In Oregon, a baker who declined to participate in a gay marriage ceremony was ordered to pay the offended couple $135,000. In Kentucky, a t-shirt company that declined to promote a gay pride event won its case because the judge ruled it acted on the basis of the owner’s beliefs, not because of discrimination.
This is going to be a big argument, it’s going to be heated, and it’s going to last a while.
Meanwhile, another religious controversy arose this week over the Legislature’s decision, with the governor’s signature, to erect a monument to the 10 Commandments on the Capitol grounds. Extremely predictably, other groups, including Satanists, say they also might want monuments. Asked about the controversy, Hutchinson said everybody can’t have a monument and that the 10 Commandments are historically relevant to Arkansas in a way that other groups’ monuments would not be.
Finally, Hutchinson on Tuesday announced that a multi-faith statewide summit will happen this August in Little Rock to call houses of worship to act in two areas – finding foster homes for the 1,900 Arkansas children who have no place to stay, and helping the 6,000 inmates who will leave prison this year reintegrate into society. A steering committee composed mostly of Christians but also of two Jewish rabbis and a Muslim imam has been planning the event,
Asked by reporters, Hutchinson, an attorney, acknowledged that a partnership between churches and state is involved. Yes, he said, people of faith will have a faith-based motivation for participating. Yes, he said, state resources are being used to help organize and promote faith-based activities.
It’s early, but so far, no one has really complained. Maybe we’re too busy fighting over other things. Maybe all but the most hard-core among us recognize that the needs are so great that they’re willing to accept a little church-state partnering in order to provide homes for those kids and a second chance for those inmates. Some things are more important than our political arguments. So proceed with caution, Governor, but please proceed.
A chasm is widening between Americans who see the world very differently. What a person believes about legal issues like gay marriage often depends on how they personally feel about homosexuality or about Christians.
That is not how the Constitution is supposed to be interpreted. The real question should be, what is the role of government in enforcing social norms and in controlling behaviors and beliefs?
And the answer in a free society should be, as small a role as possible. Really, it’s best for all of us if we live and let live, and try to avoid using judges, law enforcement and the IRS to try to make people believe what we want them to believe.
It could be argued persuasively that this widening chasm is good for religion, which grows stale when it’s too acceptable. It’s definitely bad for politics, which in a country like ours requires people from different backgrounds to meet in the middle. The next president will have an impossible job.
Oh, well. Maybe sometimes we should just talk about the weather in polite company. There’s an old saying about it, too. In Arkansas, if you don’t like it, just wait, because it will change.
As do other things.