Do Religious Freedom Laws Make Logical Sense?

This article first appeared in The Good Men Project April 5, 2015

FreedomOfReligion

The ways we justify our reasoning has less to do with sound arguments than you may think.

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“Arkansas Governor: My Son Asked Me To Veto ‘Religious Freedom’ Bill,” read the Huffington Post headline on my Facebook stream. Governor Asa Hutchinson repeatedly confirmed he was ready to sign the bill as soon as it came across his desk. So what happened? Economic pressure?

Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest retailer, certainly opposed it. Hutchinson definitely saw the backlash against the state of Indiana when their law went into effect, and I’m sure that had something to do with it. But the fact that he called out his son as a significant influence spoke volumes.

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Our emotional reactions are so swift and unconscious, logical reasoning doesn’t have time to catch up.

Our initial, gut reactions to moral, political and religious issues come from a combination of heredity and upbringing. For those of us indoctrinated in a particular religious or political belief system, we see things through the lens of those beliefs. Our emotional reactions are so swift and unconscious, logical reasoning doesn’t have time to catch up.

In his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, Dr. Jonathan Haidt introduces us to the metaphor of “the elephant and the rider.” The elephant illustrates the unconscious thought process; the automatic, emotional visceral brain. The rider illustrates our reasoning process; the conscious, verbal, thinking brain. The way to train the elephant is not by brute force, but by making mindful, conscious decisions through reasoning and logic. Often times, reasoning conflicts with what our core values tell us is right and wrong. You can think of this as the little human rider trying to tell the big elephant where to go.

As a former 25-year member of the religious right, I completely understand where the religious freedom laws are coming from. They are an elephant reaction to seemingly widespread acceptance of LGBT people. Many believe it is only a matter of time before gay marriage will become the law of the land. From a conservative Christian’s perspective, government sanctioning of gay marriage is not only an affront to God Himself, but can only lead to persecution of those who believe the Bible sanctions marriage between one man and one woman. (Click here for a more accurate view of Biblical marriage.)

In order to avoid being caught in the crosshairs – between God and country – a law that protects someone from having to “approve” of the “vile acts” of homosexuals, is a necessary evil. That’s the elephant talking.

…research shows when we are only with others who think like us, we tend to go deeper into our own values, moving us further right or left of center and convincing ourselves that we are right and everyone else is wrong.

The problem with “logic,” however, is that sometimes it only makes sense to us, or to our group. Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein, in his book, Wiser – Getting Beyond Groupthink to Make Groups Smarter, says that research shows when we are only with others who think like us, we tend to go deeper into our own values, moving us further right or left of center and convincing ourselves that we are right and everyone else is wrong.

It’s not difficult to imagine, then, how a group of seemingly persecuted religious individuals came together to do something about a perceived problem.

So where does Governor Hutchinson’s son come in to this? Stay with me for a moment.

There are three ways in which the rider – the conscious, verbal, thinking brain – can guide the elephant, and they are not mutually exclusive. In other words, they all work together to bring about change in our thought processes and reactions.

1. Cognitive Dissonance
This is holding contradictory beliefs at the same time. For example, someone may oppose gay marriage for religious reasons, but have a gay child. He or she knows the child personally and realizes that all of the stereotypes and beliefs taught about homosexuality from a religious point of view do not apply to that child. This causes a conflict between a belief held to be true, and the reality of what is seen.

Once a mental conflict arises, a person now has other experiences that confirm the long-held belief may indeed not be completely accurate, or in fact is completely untrue.

2. Experience
Experience is knowledge of an event through involvement or exposure. Once a mental conflict arises, a person now has other experiences that confirm the long-held belief may indeed not be completely accurate, or in fact is completely untrue.

3. Critical thinking
A person who can think critically about their experiences, or make clear and reasoned judgments, particularly when those experiences don’t align to long-held beliefs, is now steering the elephant.

According to the Huffington Post article Governor Hutchinson said, “My son Seth signed the petition asking me, Dad, the governor, to veto this bill…And he gave me permission to make that reference, and it shows that families — and there’s a generational difference of opinion on these issues.”

Governor Hutchinson was experiencing cognitive dissonance between what he believed to be true and the influence of his son, whom he trusts and respects. He recognized and valued the difference of opinion between generations, as well as the toll this bill was having on families, and I’m sure, businesses. What we see is a combination of cognitive dissonance, experience and critical thinking swaying the governor’s point of view.

But what does this say about the future of those who believe in the need for such laws? Is there any hope of bringing them around?

First of all, let’s differentiate what Indiana has done compared to the 19 other states with religious freedom laws. Indiana’s law is the only one that specifically applies to disputes between private citizens. While Texas has a somewhat similar law, it exempts civil rights protections. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, signed by Bill Clinton in 1993, was put into effect to protect citizens and entities against other entities or governments, not to protect citizens from each other.

It’s difficult to address the issue by simply defining what Christianity is about or what Christians should do. There are multiple facets of Christianity and the Christian label is available to anyone who wants to claim it. Logically, religious freedom bills don’t make any sense. Gay marriage is still likely to be approved by the Supreme Court, and to make matters worse for the Christian right, the LGBT community becomes the underdog. Historically, this means stronger support, particularly from younger generations.

The problem the Christian right has with the LGBT community stems from misinformation about LGBT people gathered from the 1950s. This outdated and debunked propaganda fits nicely within their fundamentalist worldview and, unfortunately, is still proliferated by the large, well-funded, religious PACs firmly planted in political wallets. It is a shining example of what happens when the elephant controls the rider.

Photo – Flickr/michael_swan

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