America’s culture wars show little sign of letting up. In recent years the federal government’s executive and judicial branches have heated the battle by pressing hard on controversial LGBT issues, including the right to marry. Some state legislatures have followed suit. California and Iowa, for instance, are presently weighing new laws designed to pressure recalcitrant faith-based organizations to get on board.
Unsurprisingly, those who believe their religious rights are being infringed by these developments have pushed back. A series of southern states have passed laws they say are needed to protect religious freedom. These laws in turn have generated some push back of their own: state boycotts by a collection of high-profile individuals, companies and organizations. Not to be outdone, the U.S. Department of Justice fired off a lawsuit against North Carolina’s law in particular—to which North Carolina quickly responded with a countersuit against the Justice Department. Thus do the battle lines in this dispute seem more entrenched than ever.
What should we make of all this pushing and shoving? Inevitably in our digital world, a cacophony of commentators have offered their counsel. Virtually all of America’s major media outlets have declared themselves on the issues. I view myself as reasonably sympathetic to both tensions in this anti-discrimination/religious freedom divide, so what I have looked for are treatments that do justice to both sides. So far, however, I have been disappointed.
Mainstream media commentators tend to treat this two-sided dispute as if it were about only one thing: unfair efforts on the part of intolerant people to “limit anti-discrimination protections for lesbian, gay and transgender people.” Listening to these analyses one might never suspect that there are genuine “first freedom” issues at stake. The religious freedom tension in this debate often comes off as unworthy even of acknowledgement, much less respect.
In this regard, this conflict reminds me of the abortion debate. Major media voices typically treat the abortion debate as if “a women’s right to control her own body” is the only relevant issue. Yet this is not the only issue, nor even the chief issue. A woman obviously has a right to control her own body; one could scarcely conceive a more fundamental human right. Reasonable people on both sides agree on this crucial point—which is the best indicator that this is not what the debate is about.
The dispute in the abortion debate is about the rights of the unborn. No human right is absolute, not even one so fundamental as the right to control one’s own body. If I am convicted of a crime, society has the right to incarcerate my body, contrary to my will; if the police suspect me of smuggling drugs through the airport, a competing set of interests may justify probing my body’s cavities for contraband, contrary to my will. The core issue in the abortion debate is whether (or not) there are any such competing interests—that is, those of the unborn—that society must insist on negotiating with the acknowledged rights of the mother. This is the issue that lies at the center of the abortion dispute.
But if this is so, one would never glean it by listening to America’s leading media outlets. They persistently portray abortion in terms of only one side of the moral tension: the rights of the mother. Abortion is treated almost exclusively as a “women’s issue.” And of course, if this is the only lens through which the dispute is viewed, the result is a foregone conclusion. But that result will be deformed by society’s failure to give due attention to the other moral tension.