What does secularism stand for? Listening to those in the increasingly shrill "religious freedom" lobby, one gets the impression that secularism is some sort of civic anti-Christ. It allegedly strives for the suppression of public religious expression, the abrogation of free exercise and the silencing of people of faith.
Nothing could be further from the truth. If the continuing fallout over Chick-fil-A president Dan Cathy's epic anti-gay marriage perorations has any redeeming value, then perhaps it can serve as a vehicle to clarify some of these misconceptions.
By now we are all familiar with Cathy's opinions on same-sex marriage. Defending what he called the "biblical definition of the family," Cathy declaimed:
I think we are inviting God's judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at Him and say, 'We know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage,' and I pray God's mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is about.
On the basis of my own research as a biblical scholar, let me say unequivocally that I think Cathy's interpretation is wrong. He is oversimplifying the scriptural data. He is freighting the sparse ancient documents with more modern policy implications than they can bear. He is not grappling with Bible's many ambiguities, inconsistencies and silences on the question of same-sex eroticism.
But let me also be the first to say that Cathy has every right to completely ignore my scholarship, as well as that of other biblicists who have made similar arguments. The beauty of a well-functioning secular state is that folks like Cathy don't have to listen to the likes of me. "Believe what you want to believe!" -- that is the secular state's motto and it grants Cathy, Nancy Pelosi (who prefers KFC) and everyone else complete psychic sovereignty.
The secular state, then, cannot punish citizens for what they believe. As I note in the video above, this core secular principle was adumbrated by Thomas Jefferson in his "Notes on the State of Virginia."
It is essential to recall because conservative commentators have forgotten that many liberal and secular voices made precisely this point. Mayor Bloomberg, probably the most intuitively secular politician in America, opined that it was wrong "to look at somebody's political views and decide whether or not they can live in the city, or operate a business in the city, or work for somebody in the city."
Bloomberg understands that secular states don't regulate beliefs. They can and must, however, regulate acts based on those beliefs. A truly just government attempts to strike a complex balance. It aspires to permit religious and irreligious citizens maximal free exercise. It lets citizens act on their convictions to the greatest extent possible. But there are boundaries.
Take the controversy over the Obama administration's HHS mandates. There the government refused to permit Catholic employers to deny access to contraception in their employees' insurance packages. The government did that because it recognizes contraception as a good for all citizens (it also recognizes that the overwhelming majority of employees at Catholic institutions -- be they Catholic or non-Catholic -- want access to contraception). The secular state thus says to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that Church teachings on contraception cannot be translated into domestic policy.
In the case of Chick-fil-A, the fast-food chain has committed no offensive acts. Rather, it has just expressed what are (to many of us) offensive beliefs. Until the company starts discriminating against gay employees and patrons -- and let it be said that Cathy has created a fairly odious professional work environment -- then governments across America have no bone to pick with Chick-fil-A.
Far from being a civic anti-Christ, secularism stands for the right of Cathy to think whatever he wishes.