What at first seemed like a ray of hope that there could be a reawakening of Constitutional principles turned out, after at the briefest of inspections, to be a chimera.
First, the (illusory) good news: A recent poll found that most young adults buy into bedrock principles of the First Amendment such as free speech and free exercise of religion. Several conservative websites picked up on this poll (see here, here, and here) probably because an accompanying press release blared “New National Survey: Vast, Silent Majority of Millennials Overwhelmingly Support Religious and Social Freedoms.” This smelled fishy to me because today’s college students seem enamored of authoritarian college administrations — and enraged with those that aren’t authoritarian enough. They not only accept the enforcement of orthodoxy, they demand it.
But I must be wrong about young adults’ authoritarian tendencies, because the proof of their classical liberalism is right there in the press release. Among 803 young adults surveyed, supermajorities said they supported free exercise of religion and free speech. So rest easy, folks: The next generation stands ready to carry the torch of liberty into the future.
Unfortunately the internals of the poll demonstrate that the respondents don’t support basic constitutional rights; not in practice, and not when it really matters. They simply answered “yes” to a few softball questions that allowed them to think of themselves as broad-minded and tolerant.
The poll asked respondents if they agreed with the following statement: “Government should not interfere with the peaceful religious practices of Christians, Moslems, Jews, and people of other faiths.” A whopping 93% said yes. Awesome!
But another question put the lie to these millennials’ supposed libertarian streak. A full 53% disagreed that “Business owners should have the right to refuse service to people when certain practices are not in accordance with their religious beliefs.” There is absolutely no way to reconcile the results of this question with the aforementioned one. These millennials think they have a mindin’-their-own-business attitude toward other people’s lives, but they actually don’t. They want conformity and they want it to be enforced by the government.
The question strongly hints at one of the more controversial issues of the day: private sector nondiscrimination laws that pertain to “sexual orientation” (whatever that is), and their effect on religious business owners who do not wish to participate in same-sex weddings. I believe that the question was intended and generally understood in this way, though its vagueness (“refusing service”) could encompass other efforts to bring religious people to heel. In Washington State, for example, it is illegal for a pharmacy not to sell abortifacients. In California, the ACLU is actually suing a Catholic hospital for refusing to perform so-called “gender reassignment” surgery.
All of these laws make criminals out of religious people who simply want to be left alone to live their lives according to their consciences. These people are not violent and they are not forcing anyone to live according to their beliefs. They’re merely resisting attempts by others to coerce them into doing what they believe is wrong.
Personally, I think these people should have a shield with which to protect themselves from an overbearing government. And, in fact, they do have such a shield — it’s called the First Amendment. Sadly, 53% of millennials want to deny them that shield. And despite this demonstrated hostility toward other people’s rights, they actually think of themselves as defenders of freedom. Pshaw!
But we should cut them some slack. For starters, most of them are victims of the public schools, just like me. We learned more about the supposed injustice of American society than we did about our Constitutional rights. The lesson we internalized is that we need a muscular government to set things right.
Also, while many millennials may be confused about their basic philosophy, they are not uniquely confused. Very few of us have really examined our belief systems. If we did, we might not even use the term belief system. It’s more of a sentiment system — the way we feel about certain issues, rather than what we think about them.
Many of our beliefs go unexamined because we refuse to accept the tension that sometimes exists between two convictions that we experience on a gut level. I think I can shed some light on the two deeply felt convictions at play in this poll, because I too once supported some of these intrusive laws, namely race-based private sector nondiscrimination laws.
I too was taught about the bad old days when cartoonish southern bigots had been free to discriminate against blacks. I was glad that the federal government finally showed up to punish these people. What took them so long? I considered these people to be monsters and I wanted them to be publicly humiliated and forced to change. I carried this vengeful desire with me well into my twenties.
You can imagine my shock the first time I encountered a staunch libertarian who told me that he thought it should be legal for private businesses to discriminate. I thought he must be bonkers, racist, or both. I can see now how wrong I was.
The two convictions I once held that were at loggerheads with each other are 1) a traditional American respect for our constitutional right to believe what we wish, to speak those beliefs aloud, and to live in accordance with our consciences without fear of government reprisal and 2) a belief that the government has an affirmative obligation to root out wrong thinking.
For a long time, I believed that both of these precepts could exist side by side with no apparent conflict. I no longer believe that. The second of these convictions amounts to heresy-hunting, which is not compatible with the first. After much meditation I decided that I could support conscience rights or I could support government-sanctioned, government-mandated, and government-enforced belief systems, but I could not support both. I decided to err on the side of freedom. I now consider the second of these convictions to be not just incorrect but oppressive and immoral. Government has no obligation to obliterate its citizens “bad” attitudes.
I know that some people will argue that I’m mischaracterizing the issue here because it’s actions that the government punishes, not beliefs. Even if that were true — and it isn’t — actions are still covered under that “free exercise” thing. Anyone who persists in the belief that the government has every right to police people’s religious practices as long as they don’t attempt to police their thoughts should at least have the honesty to admit that they don’t really support the First Amendment. When a pollster asks if the government should interfere with other people’s peaceful religious practices, that person should say “Yes, absolutely. Keep those religious wackos on a short leash.” Anything else would be a lie.
Not that I believe for a moment that actions are the primary focus of these repressive laws. The goal is to destroy the thought behind the actions, to drum that person out of society, and to strike fear into anyone who might be tempted to believe the same thing. It’s a remarkably effective tactic.
Private sector nondiscrimination laws are an excellent example of the criminalization of belief. The “crime” of refusing to serve someone isn’t actually a crime at all, absent the illegal thought. I can refuse to serve someone because I’m too tired and just want to close up shop early, or because I don’t like the customer’s family, or because I don’t serve Yankees fans. Those are all approved reasons, which is to say approved thoughts. I can refuse to rent a room in my house to someone because he voted for Donald Trump — which was apparently all the rage in Washington, DC this past January — but I can’t refuse to rent to that same person because I think he and his boyfriend might have butt sex on the bed. It’s my aversion to his perversion that’s the crime. Without it, I would be well within my rights to tell him to take a hike.
Oh, I suppose I can still believe what I want to, I just won’t be able to make a living without violating those beliefs. In time, I’ll make compromises with my own conscience, convincing myself that it’s not so bad to join in a sodomy celebration. They’re just two guys in love, right? If I can’t compromise my beliefs, I’ll just lose my livelihood and be pushed out of the job market, that’s all.
But that’s not how America’s supposed to work. We’re supposed to be a free country with certain inalienable rights, some of which are spelled out in our First Amendment. Sadly, I fear those words are becoming a dead letter. Young people appear not to respect that amendment, and this poll doesn’t change a thing.