Decisions, Decisions: Fulton and SBC
The basic contours and trajectory of this tension between religious freedom and LGBT rights has been, frankly, so clear to me for so long, I find it difficult to say anything that feels new to me. Every milestone seems to affirm the basic reality of the situation which, if not for the willing suspension of disbelief of politicians and activist groups, would be clear to many others. And so I repeat myself in the hope that my assessment might sound new to others.
We live in a liberal society. Liberalism has a logic which must include everything and decide nothing, until it reasons there is nothing left to decide. The worst thing you could be in our politics is “unreasonable.” To be considered reasonable or not is the deciding factor in many of our elections and debates, and a misjudgment about what voters would consider to be “reasonable” has been the downfall of many candidates and causes. Much more could be said here, of course.
The trajectory of LGBT rights has been clear and predictable since 2012. This is not to say that no one could have predicted how things would progress before 2012, only that after 2012 you had to be working pretty hard not to see the basic trajectory. Since 2012, everyone with a serious role to play in these issues should have been focused on a path forward which basically assumed two things: federal recognition of same-sex relationships, almost certainly civil marriage, and the long-term social contestation of the implications of that legal development that would find expression across American life. In more colloquial terms, everyone with a serious role to play in these issues should have been focused on what it looks like to move forward politically in a nation where same-sex relationships exist as valid and where sizable portions of the American people and the American institutional landscape do not conform their views or practice to that new legal consensus.
Instead, the most well-funded organizations and leaders have worked to get those they influence to ignore or dismiss one of these factors. And the Supreme Court has, in case after case, tried to say, “no, you must acknowledge the other side. You must accommodate one another.” This was the message of Obergefell. This was the message of Masterpiece. This was the message of Bostock. This was the message of Fulton.
This morning, SCOTUS issued their long-awaited decision in Fulton. From SCOTUSBlog:
The case began in 2018, after Philadelphia’s city council passed a resolution that condemned “discrimination that occurs under the guise of religious freedom” and instructed the city’s Department of Human Services, which is responsible for finding homes for foster children, to change its contracting practices. In the days that followed the resolution, the city stopped all referrals to CSS.
The Supreme Court decided unanimously that this was unconstitutional. The law was not generally-applicable, as Smith requires, because the city health commissioner could provide exemptions at their sole discretion (say, providing exemptions to political allies, and not to political opponents).
A majority of the Court, however, including two of Trump’s nominees (Kavanaugh and Barrett) disappointed conservatives by refusing CSS’ request to overrule Smith. (Once again, Trump’s SCOTUS appointments, for which ALL MUST BE SACRIFICED, ends up accomplishing exactly what Justice Kagan wanted to accomplish).
And so the message the Supreme Court sent today is the one they’ve sent since 2015: The rights of gay Americans are vital and compelling, and so is religious freedom and free exercise. Violate one indiscriminately to advance the other unabashadly, and you’ll be checked.
But just look at how these groups work to get you to look away from that message. Here are responses from the left to the Fulton decision today:
Josh Block @JoshABlockBottom line: Fulton applies only to this contract, which had an unusual system of individualized, discretionary exemptions. It does not apply to civil rights laws, none of which have the same types of individualized exemption process.
In other words, “nothing has changed!” It’s “narrow,” just like Masterpiece. No need to reevaluate anything. The DNC says the decision reaffirms the urgent need for the Equality Act to affirm that “Every family is valid. Every qualified potential parent should have an opportunity to build a family. Every child deserves a loving home.” But, of course, none of that was necessarily at stake here. Nothing prevents Philadelphia, before the decision or after, from ensuring they are supporting a diverse array of providers so that LGBT families have the opportunity to adopt. The Fulton decision means that the city cannot summarily disqualify an otherwise qualified agency from partnering with the government to serve families and children because of their religious mission.
There’s a tell here with responses from the left, and that is that they: a) express what a narrow ruling this is, that it only applies to laws which fail to be neutral, and that it does not create a broad, new legal principle and; b) fail to express support for the ruling.
There’s at least one exception here, and that’s Speaker Pelosi, who supports the decision but puts her own spin on what it means:
But most have refused to say, in light of a 9-0 Supreme Court decision (which, like Hosanna v. Tabor, was joined by both Kagan and Sotomayor), “we were on the wrong side here! We agree with literally every Supreme Court justice that the Philadelphia law was not neutral, and we want neutral laws!” This would be easy to do, politically. It should be relatively easy, politically, to agree with a 9-0 decision. Instead, the message that is sent is that the left wants to pursue their ends without regard for the means, not to mention the consequences their desired policies would have for people and constituencies they seem to wish didn’t exist. At least Speaker Pelosi, who hasn’t been such an enduring political figure by accident, understands that it’s just not reasonable to come out guns ablazing against a 9-0 Supreme Court decision.
Of course, as I’ve written before, and as Matthew Lee Anderson so aptly laid out recently in Christianity Today, the history of animus and zero-sum politics in the religious freedom/LGBT-rights debates does not begin or climax with the LGBT-rights side. And a decision like today’s in Fulton is predictably used to urge apathy. The right vacillates so easily between “the left is dominant is running roughshod over us and our values” and “the left is weak and God, nature and political power are on our side” with no waystation in between.
Both sides should hear the Supreme Court before it’s too late, and the Supreme Court issues its next broad, sweeping decision. LGBT people exist, and same-sex relationships are valid in the eyes of the law. Religious freedom exists, it’s deeply, deeply embedded in American law and practice, and there will be sizable portions of religious communities in America which hold to a “traditional” view of marriage and sexuality. Any political solution which seeks to wish away either of these realities should be rejected and considered unreasonable.
The Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting is over, and Ed Litton is the new president of the denomination, defeating Al Mohler and Mike Stone.
The election was close. If the person with the most votes on the first ballot won, Mike Stone would be president of the SBC. Instead, there was a run-off, and many more of Al Mohler’s voters went to Litton, not to Stone.
A few thoughts:
Mike Stone ran a populist, reactionary campaign for an electorate composed of engaged, SBC leaders. It almost worked—SBC elites are more populist than most—but the majority of SBC messengers view themselves as caretakers of the denomination, not demolitioners.
Mohler ran a Marco Rubio campaign…he knew better, but tried to play both sides. Stone, meanwhile, sucked all the oxygen out of the room, and Mohler didn’t offer a clear alternative.
The SBC messengers’ vote in 2020 probably matched up pretty closely to the white evangelical vote overall. Probably three-quarters of the SBC messengers voted for Trump, maybe a bit less. Stone’s base was made up of those who had no hesitation supporting Trump, and thought criticism of him was overblown. Mohler’s base was made up of those who wished Trump was more respectable, but are concerned what Democrats would do with power. Litton’s base was made up of those who voted for Trump with great reservations, or voted for Biden with great reservations, or did not vote and felt great about it.
What’s interesting is that unlike how things worked out in 2016, Mohler’s voters (in this typography, Republicans who did not view Trump as ideal), did not go to the the Trumpian candidate, but to Litton. One way to explain this is that Ed Litton is not Hillary Clinton. Mike Stone ran a campaign premised on the idea that SBC’ers had to be terrified of the alternative, but unlike in 2016 when the alternative to Trump was “them,” Stone was always and could only run against the SBC itself. And SBC messengers didn’t buy it. They didn’t buy that a pastor like Ed Litton was a nefarious force. Mohler’s supporters preferred Mohler, of course, but once Mohler was out, Stone was the antagonist, not Litton.
There’s a political lesson here, albeit, one that only goes so far. But it is a big reason why Biden won in 2020. And it is one data point that should give a bit of credibility to the earnestness of some conservative Christians’ claim that if they had an alternative to Trump, or Republicans generally, which did not feel to them like complicity in evil, like aiding an antagonist, they would support it.
For more: Read Ruth Graham on the SBC Annual Meeting.