Politics & Policy

If the Left Stopped Demonizing Social Conservatives, Its Debates with Them Would Improve

A couple embrace on the Pennsylvania State Capital steps following a gay rights rally (Reuters: Mark Makela)
Calling ideas you disagree with ‘bigoted’ or ‘repressive’ is easier than addressing them honestly.

In a recent piece, three Vox contributors, all law professors, seem almost to have grasped one of political debate’s most important skills — refusing to demonize one’s ideological opponents — but in the end reveal themselves to be far from understanding this concept. Such demonization is undeniably convenient, however. It allows one to dismiss an entire group of adversaries quickly and easily, without having to defend one’s own ideas. For all of their talk about dialogue and tolerance, progressives too often wield unfavorable adjectives such as “bigoted” or “repressive” to dismiss conservatives, rather than confront the issues and ideas in question.

The authors of this Vox piece lament the “looming Republican crackdown on LGBTQ rights and abortion” but, acknowledging that some of those who voted for Donald Trump in the presidential election fall into the “traditional religious” camp, assert that “progressives need to learn to speak to cultural conservatives without denigrating them.” It is astounding and saddening, though unsurprising, that it required a Trump victory to force progressives to consider this possibility. While this attitude didn’t cause Trump’s win, it speaks to an underlying problem that likely drove many voters into his waiting arms: Progressives’ first instinct is to treat cultural conservatives not as people with valid political opinions but rather as unenlightened imbeciles too hung up on outdated religious beliefs to be taken seriously.

“Voters who supported him because of outdated conceptions of women’s equality and LGBTQ rights should be resisted, not validated,” the authors continue, demonstrating that these progressives, at least, remain firmly in the camp opposite the conservatives. “Protecting full and equal citizenship for all Americans remains a moral and legal imperative,” they add, as if cultural conservatives sincerely desired to strip citizenship or equality from certain groups. They go on to paint marriage, abortion, and religious liberty as black-and-white issues in which conservatives continuously trample on the rights of women and LGBT individuals out of inexplicable animus.

But this is a vast generalization, and a malicious one. The authors treat abortion, for example, as a one-sided issue, describing the future for “reproductive freedom for women” under a Trump presidency as if the entire pro-life movement existed only to restrict individual rights and punish women. Bemoaning the possible demise of Roe v. Wade, the authors discredit the idea that anyone other than a sexist might reasonably object to abortion, completely ignoring the consideration that an unborn life might have rights as well.

This caricaturing of social conservatives continues in the article’s discussion of marriage and religious liberty. While a small segment of Americans might fall under the banner of the Westboro Baptist Church, the vast majority of Christians don’t dislike LGBT people or refuse to treat them as human beings. The fact that Christianity holds homosexual behavior to be sinful doesn’t mean that faithful Christians hate gay people; it is entirely possible to condemn the sin and love the sinner, and anyone who wishes to practice authentic Christianity is called to do just that. Furthermore, true Christians understand that everyone sins in different ways, no matter our sexual orientation.

The progressive misperception — or perhaps intentional mischaracterization — of Christians’ attitude toward LGBT people fuels the Left’s consistent maligning of religious liberty and legislation meant to protect it. Progressives have redefined religious freedom as the freedom of worship, in order to support their view that one’s faith must be kept within the walls of a church and out of the public square. As a result, laws meant to protect religious people from being coerced into behavior they believe to be immoral are described as “unconstitutional smokescreens for bigotry against LGBT people.”

Progressives have redefined religious freedom as the freedom of worship, in order to support their view that one’s faith must be kept within the walls of a church and out of the public square.

Or, as this Vox piece puts it, an “assault on gay rights could take place under the banner of ‘religious liberty.”’ This tone demonstrates just how deeply progressives misunderstand religious perspectives on homosexuality and marriage, and the article goes on to falsely portray the First Amendment Defense Act (FADA) as providing “virtually absolute protection to religious traditionalists who refuse to comply with federal civil rights laws that conflict with their views about marriage and sexuality.” In fact, FADA’s protections would not permit a business owner to discriminate against homosexuals but would protect him from being forced to facilitate behavior that he believes to be wrong, such as a same-sex wedding ceremony.

This protection is necessary not because the government should justify irrational hatred of LGBT people but because the First Amendment guarantees all Americans extensive freedom to live out the prescriptions of their faith. By and large, conservatives aren’t demanding that no one serve same-sex weddings; they simply wish to be left out of the equation. If those on the left engaged with social conservatives, they would realize that very few people hold animus toward homosexual people as such, and it would be possible to reach a compromise that respects both LGBT rights and the right to practice one’s religion.

As a culture, we could foster more-fulfilling discussion and reach political compromise more easily if both sides chose to acknowledge the competing rights at stake on these issues. For progressives, that means understanding that conservatives have valid concerns about the rights of the unborn, the right to religious freedom, and the right to espouse a certain view of marriage. While it’s certainly easier to toss around words such as “bigot” and “hateful” than it is to defend the substance of one’s beliefs, it is intellectually dishonest for the Left to pretend that cultural conservatives have no reason for their opinions other than a fundamental desire to repress and control. Progressives might find that conservatives would be willing to seek common ground on these issues if their concerns were no longer dismissed out of hand as based on irrational hatred.

If progressives took their own advice and stopped “denigrating” social conservatives, that would require no longer putting “religious liberty” in scare quotes, refusing to shout “bigotry!” every time someone believes marriage is an institution meant for one man and one woman, not accusing anti-abortion people of hating women, and so on. Finding the best balance between competing rights requires acknowledging that nearly all of those on the other side of the aisle have valid reasons to care about the rights they wish to protect as well.

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