Several years ago, I took what I thought was a liberal course of action on a day when Facebook users were signaling, or shouting, their political and cultural views at one another. I changed the banner photo on my page to a red, white and blue semi-flag image that contained the text of the First Amendment.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
At that point something interesting happened. I received several emails and messages, including several from former students, accusing me of hate speech for waving, so to speak, the First Amendment flag. It was clear, they said, that I did this to promote religious liberty.
What they were saying was perfectly captured the other day in a "Peaceful Coexistence" document released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. This document played a key role in my "On Religion" column this week, as well as the latest GetReligion "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.
The bottom line: The commission argued that "civil rights" now trump the First Amendment. As I noted in my column:
The commission stressed: "Religious exemptions to the protections of civil rights based upon classifications such as race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, and gender identity, when they are permissible, significantly infringe upon these civil rights."
In a quote that went viral online, commission chair Martin Castro added: "The phrases 'religious liberty' and 'religious freedom' will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia or any form of intolerance."
"... Today, as in past, religion is being used as both a weapon and a shield by those seeking to deny others equality. In our nation’s past religion has been used to justify slavery and later, Jim Crow laws.”
Of course, it is also possible to argue that religious believers must stand firm when the doctrines of their faith clash with the approved doctrines of the state, as noted by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
"The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool."
As you would expect, the chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops committee on religious liberty was not amused by the Castro quote and the document from the nonpartisan commission.
“These statements painting those who support religious freedom with the broad brush of bigotry are reckless and reveal a profound disregard for the religious foundations of his own work,” Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore said. ...
“(Castro) makes the shocking suggestion that Catholic, evangelical, orthodox Jewish, Mormon, and Muslim communities are comparable to fringe segregationists from the civil rights era,” the archbishop said. ... “Can we imagine the civil rights movement without Rev. Martin Luther King, Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel?” he asked.
And so forth and so on.
My column, and the podcast, linked these debates about religious liberty to another recent development -- a LifeWay Research survey showing that Americans are now, believe it or not, more willing to talk politics with one another than to discuss matters of religion and faith.
Yes, even in the atmosphere of the current White House Race. The survey found that six in 10 American adults are more comfortable talking about politics than discussing matters of faith, spirituality and religion.
This raises the question at the heart of my column: Has religion become a part of life that many Americans -- pointing to the First Amendment -- believe is uniquely protected, while others (think "Nones, perhaps) see religious faith as a power in American life that is uniquely dangerous?
Thus, it is getting harder and harder to cover religion in the news or even to discuss it in public and private life. As I noted in the column:
This creates a major problem for Americans who are worried about civil public discourse or even the odds of having friendly conversations with friends, family and neighbors, noted Scott McConnell, head of LifeWay Research.
"What did our parents tell us when we were growing up? They warned us not to talk about politics, not to talk about religion and not to talk about sex," he said in an interview.
"Well, it's hard to talk about anything that matters these days -- like religious liberty -- without talking about all three of those things, and usually at the same time. ... No wonder people are tense."