What Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter Don't Understand About Christianity and RFRA

04/07/2015 06:32 pm ET | Updated Jun 07, 2015

RFRA. I know, right?

I’m annoyed. Think about it for a minute: Has it dawned on you the intellectual contortions the backers of this law require of us in order to take them seriously?

Distilled to its essence, the argument put forward by the enthusiasts for RFRA legislation is this: We want to reserve the right -- based on our religious beliefs -- to discriminate against those we don’t approve of, which requires that we be protected from being discriminated against because of our religious beliefs.

Did you get that?

Supporters of these RFRA laws would like us to believe two contradictory things simultaneously -- depending on who the audience is: 1) To religious conservatives these politicians want to offer reassurances that the law is about preserving the rights of religious people (read: Christians) to be free from the consequences of discriminating in the name of religion, while at the same time 2) trying to convince the rest of the country offended by this parochialism that these laws are not intended to promote discrimination (because, seriously, we didn’t even think of that, and we are totally hurt that you could believe that of us).

Look, if you want to pursue a law that allows people in the name of religion to refuse service to LGBT folks because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, go ahead. It’s a free country. But if you’re going to try to reintroduce a cultural reality, complete with sexually segregated wedding buffets, at least be honest about your intentions. You don’t get to have it both ways. You don’t get to act like an intolerant jerk and be free from the societal opprobrium that comes with acting like an intolerant jerk. Pick one.

But the other thing that has really gotten under my skin in this whole RFRA mess is an assumption that regularly goes unchallenged. It’s not new. In fact, it’s become a kind of cultural orthodoxy, a short hand description of what many take to be reality. But the problem is it’s lazy and it’s not true.

The source of my aggravation? The casual assumption that there is a “Christian” position on the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity, an uncontroversial point of doctrine that all Christians share in common. When it comes to the latest RFRA kerfuffles, it’s clear there are still those whose ideological commitments compel them to perpetuate the tired canard that the “Christian” response is to support religious freedom by opposing fairness for LGBT people.

Just the other day, for example, Bill O’Reilly brought Ann Coulter on his show to inveigh against the “war on Christianity.” Both O’Reilly and Coulter expressed their profound disappointment in “the lack of leadership by Christians in defending the Indiana religious freedom law altered by lawmakers on Thursday.” Implicit in such an expression of dismay is the assumption that Christians occupy a position that would automatically put them at odds with “secular progressives” and “the media.”

What’s especially telling, though, is the correlation Ann Coulter blithely makes as she surveys the public relations nightmare these RFRA laws have become: “Where are the Christians? And where are the Republicans?”

Her question points up the popular but offensively hidebound inference that all Christians, somehow by definition: 1) are Republicans, and 2) must believe their religious rights have somehow been abridged if they can’t discriminate against people they don’t approve of.

But I want to challenge the persistent and difficult-to-kill assumption that Evangelical Christians occupy the default “Christian position” on anything, or that any deviation from a particular kind of conservative orthodoxy isn't merely a matter of interpretation, but is tantamount to initiating hostilities against God, motherhood and the flag -- all of which, as Ann Coulter demonstrates, are too easily conflated.

The smug certainty with which some conservative religious and political types believe not just that they occupy the side of truth on every issue, but that they occupy the side of God's truth is alarming -- not because they believe these things of themselves so uncritically (self-righteousness is a time-honored religious and political posture on both sides of the ideological divide, after all), but because so many in the culture agree to cede them this theologically authoritative land of milk and honey.

But my hunch is that much of what gets put forward as the practical policy implications of fundamentalism have at least as much to do with conservative Republican economic systems as with biblical interpretation. If progressive Christians have merely uncritically baptized liberal ethical systems when it comes to issues like LGBT justice -- as is often suggested by our fundamentalist brothers and sisters -- why is it not the case that the conservative embrace of tax breaks for the wealthy, the adoption of a do-it-yourself attitude toward healthcare, welfare and unemployment benefits, and the enthusiastic correlation of patriotism and militarism are merely a baptism of conservative (or worse, libertarian) ethical systems?

Fortunately, the popular conception of Christianity isn't Christianity.

Unfortunately, apparently most people don't know that.

But here's the real heart of my aggravation: I'm tired of having to do the heavy lifting of trying to follow Jesus, while at the same time trying to live down the bad publicity generated by the most vocal members of his fan club.