For these conservatives, winning religious freedom lawsuits isn’t enough
Religious conservatives failed to influence LGBTQ rights policy while Obama was in office. Under Biden, they don’t want to repeat the same mistakes
Ryan Anderson has a message for religious conservatives: It’s time to speak up.
Over the next four years, the prominent conservative thinker wants people of faith to try to shape public policy on LGBTQ rights instead of focusing solely on securing faith-based exemptions to controversial new laws.
“During the Obama administration, a lot of conservatives felt very comfortable responding to (new policies) on religious liberty grounds, but they were less comfortable actually engaging the underlying debates,” said Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. “As we’re beginning (Biden’s) administration, I want to encourage conservatives not to fall into that same mistake.”
America’s robust religious freedom laws should empower people of faith to boldly share their beliefs about marriage, sexuality and gender identity, said Josh Wester, who is chair of research in Christian ethics at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and supports Anderson’s call to action.
But, too often, conservatives act as if religious freedom protections kick in only after a significant political defeat, he said.
“The posture of the average social conservative is a crouch, a defensive position,” Wester said. “We’re saying, ‘Please don’t punish us for believing these things.’”
Over the next four years, he and Anderson want conservative faith groups to work to grow support for their beliefs in addition to seeking essentially religious liberty protections. By speaking up, people of faith can promote the common good, Anderson said.
“Policies allow everyone to flourish when they embody (God’s) truth,” he said.
However, other conservatives believe that if religious groups push hard against Joe Biden’s LGBTQ rights policies it would lead to more pain, not less for all Americans.
Up for debate
Although Anderson is critical of religious conservatives’ timid response to what he saw as the excesses of the Obama administration, he understands what fueled it.
It’s hard to publicly fight against expanding LGBTQ rights if doing so could put your career or reputation at risk, he said.
“You can very quickly be attacked as a hater or bigot. That’s intimidating to a lot of people and they censor themselves,” Anderson said.
It’s also hard to get motivated to speak up if you feel like a liberal victory is a foregone conclusion, Wester said. Many people think public support for requiring doctors to perform gender reassignment surgeries or for girls’ sports teams to accept transgender players will rise just as quickly as support for same-sex marriage did.
“For those who think of this as a culture war, they often think of it as a war they’ve already lost,” he said.
In reality, research shows that Americans are conflicted over how best to legislate on LGBTQ rights.
Overall, more than 8 in 10 U.S. adults (83%) favor laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations and housing, according to Public Religion Research Institute. But Americans are less supportive of policies allowing transgender people to use restrooms or play on sports teams that correspond with their gender identity.
Policy debates related to gender identity are far from resolved, Anderson said, noting that religious conservatives “shouldn’t assume a certain outcome to that discussion.”
Similarly, Wester urged socially conservative people of faith to have more confidence in their ability to influence public policy while Biden is in office.
“It’s not as though conservatives have some kind of minority viewpoint that can’t possibly be compelling,” he said.
At the very least, people of faith should remember that religious freedom protections give them the right to openly raise their concerns, Wester said.
“Religious freedom goes in both directions. It’s a defensive tool in that it preserves the right to think, believe and practice the things we hold to be sacred. At the same time, it’s an offensive weapon. It enables us to freely make the case for our beliefs,” he said.
Seek to persuade
To be clear, neither Anderson nor Wester believes that conservative religious organizations have been ignoring policy debates over issues like abortion or gay rights. They saw many different groups release statements criticizing President Biden’s recent executive orders on LGBTQ discrimination and abortion funding.
Their concern is that press releases or public statements are often written with the wrong audience in mind. Conservative religious leaders preach to the choir instead of seeking to persuade other people to their way of thinking, Anderson said.
“We have to ... witness to our viewpoints in ways that make secular, progressive individuals say, ‘Oh, I get it.’ They may not fully agree, but they should get it,” he said, adding that “you can’t just be throwing red meat to your base.”
Such an approach will require religious conservatives to speak about moral issues in nonreligious terms, said Andrew Walker, associate dean of the school of theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The focus should be on how an executive order or bill threatens privacy, women’s health or some other important value, not just religious freedom.
“We should be talking about the common good, not about Christian privilege,” he said.
Religious conservatives should also be careful not to insult or disregard the concerns of members of the LGBTQ community, Anderson said.
“This is going to be a challenge for us: to both respect people with whom we disagree and to figure out what the best thing to do is when it comes to sports, locker rooms, restrooms and religious liberty,” he said.
Tyler Deaton, who serves as senior adviser to the American Unity Fund, a conservative gay rights advocacy group, sees that as an almost impossible task.
When religious conservatives focus their LGBTQ rights messaging around privacy concerns, they fuel fear, not compassion, he said.
“To me, trying to reduce this debate to bathroom and locker room access is a scare tactic,” he said.
Rather than strategize on how to stand in the way of Biden’s policy plans, Deaton would like to see religious conservatives focus on finding ways to coexist peacefully with the president’s supporters.
“We’re going to have disagreements, but, together, we can protect spaces that are LGBTQ affirming and ... conservative religious organizations that have traditional views on marriage and sexuality,” he said.
But Anderson said peace won’t be possible if religious conservatives are attacked anytime they share their privacy concerns.
“If one side of a debate feels like they can’t even share what they honestly think about an issue because they’ll be attacked as a bigot, I think that’s really bad for national unity and civic engagement,” he said.