Cheers for Peter Steinfels: A liberal defends both religious liberty and traditional journalism

If you know the history of mainstream religion-news coverage in the late 20th Century, then you know the byline of Peter Steinfels in The New York Times. As an old-school Catholic progressive, he is now known for his work at Commonweal.

The meltdown in Indiana inspired a piece from Steinfels the other day that GetReligion readers simply must read, from beginning to end. I have literally nothing to say to frame this essay except to say this: What. He. Said.

Here are two key passages. However, like I said, please read it all. The headline: "Any liberals for religious freedom?" It opens like this (with the journalism angle very obvious):

Are there still liberals willing to speak up for religious freedom? I don’t know whether the religious freedom bill passed and signed in Indiana last week -- and now reportedly up for revision -- is a good measure. I do know that, however one precisely balances out the pros and cons of the bill, it does involve religious freedom. 
That was not the perspective of the front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times, which framed the bill as one more tactic for discriminating against gay couples. Conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage were “invoking ‘religious freedom’ as their last line of defense.” ...
The Times news story devoted almost two thirds of its coverage to these critics, far more than to any supporters or to Indiana’s governor. It did spare two paragraphs for a quote from Douglas Laycock, one of the nation’s foremost church-state scholars. “The hysteria over this law is so unjustified,” he said, rejecting the anti-gay sentiments being attributed to it.
I’ve been following and admiring Professor Laycock’s views on religious freedom controversies for years (his mixed evaluation of the Catholic bishops’ venture into these waters can be found in the June 15, 2012 issue of Commonweal); I have no idea whether to classify him as liberal or conservative. Unfortunately, his full explanation of what the Indiana law actually says and is likely to do appears in the conservative Weekly Standard. The Times account could waste only one paragraph on such details.  
That story was carefully worded, nonetheless.  The opening sentence stated that the Indiana law “could make it easier” to refuse services to gay couples on religious grounds and later explained that the law “opens the door” to such refusals. It cited others warning that the law was an “invitation” to discrimination or “a threat of abetting” it.
Those are all possibilities, it seems to me, although not necessarily likelihoods.  They are the kinds of possibilities that we confront in the case of all our rights.  Freedom of speech and press “makes it easier” to destroy reputations, debase public discourse, deform democracy, and feed violent psychopaths online.  Insistence on search warrants, reading people their rights, and a host of other criminal and court procedures can “open the door” to crimes going undetected or the guilty going unpunished. 

And this point is really crucial for journalists to grasp -- pointing to the fact that this debate is essentially not about consistent discrimination against gays and lesbians as a class, but the defense of our nation's long-standing defense of tolerance of rare acts of religious conscience by members of religious minorities.

Religious liberty often causes tension and the need for true tolerance of rebels. As my former church-state studies professor once said: "Your religious liberty has been purchased for you by many individuals with whom you might not want to have dinner."

Thus, Steinfels, speaking as an old-school liberal, stresses:

The whole point of freedom of religion is that it protects an extraordinary gamut of differing, frequently conflicting cosmologies, spiritual disciplines, and moral codes. They may include refusing to fight in defense of the nation, rejecting certain foodstuffs or medical treatments, discouraging young people from secondary or higher education, honoring celibacy or condemning a variety of sexual practices, sacrificing animals, drinking alcohol, or ingesting hallucinogens for ritual purposes, prescribing certain head coverings or hairstyles despite school or occupational rules, insisting on distinct roles for men and women, withdrawing from friends and family for lives of silence and seclusion, marching in prayer through neighborhoods on holy days, preaching on street corners or otherwise trying to convert others to these persuasions. 
A great many of these beliefs and practices I disagree with. Some I deplore. Religious freedom means I live with the fundamentalists who describe the pope as anti-Christ and my kind as hell-bound -- and with the black nationalist sects who consider me a white devil. Religious freedom means that I don’t have to send my children to the state schools if I choose not to nor does my Darwin-phobic neighbor. It also means state schools or state events or state laws should not force people to participate in religious rituals or practices contrary to their consciences.
Religious freedom means that I may very well want to question, critique, refute, moderate or otherwise alter religious beliefs and practices that I find irrational or unhealthy or dehumanizing or, yes, bigoted; but knowing how deeply rooted and sincerely held these convictions are, and how much about the universe remains in fact mysterious, and how much about my own perceptions of reality could in fact be mistaken, and how much religions do in fact evolve over time, I accommodate myself in the meantime to peaceful coexistence and thoughtful engagement.  In particular I refuse to coerce religiously sincere people into personal actions that violate their conscience.  And I refuse to dismiss their resistance to such coercion as nothing but bigotry.

He ends by asking readers to name liberals who are, in this case, still acting in a liberal manner. Any suggestions out there?

One more time: Read it all.

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