Freedom of Speech and Religion

Salon’s Brian Beutler weighs in on the Duck Dynasty kerfuffle:

“If you write about politics for a living, and you were bored by the ‘Duck Dynasty’ story, or wrote it off like you might write off a gaffe or some other creation of the outrage industry, you’re in the wrong line of work. Phil Robertson’s comments about gay and black people and social welfare — and the way they pierced public consciousness — explain more about our country’s political culture than almost anything else that happened all year.”  Beutler implies that the outrage machine and our political culture are mutually exclusive, but the outrage machine is a huge part of our political culture.

Beutler claims that Robertson’s comments were “ugly and wrong,” saying other writers have already supplied the proof of this claim.

He also says the comments “don’t fly in most of America.  If Robertson were, say, running for Senate in Missouri as a Republican, the GOP would have disowned him immediately. But Robertson isn’t a politician. He’s not a mouthpiece for a political party that needs to maintain a national brand identity. Rather, his remarks reflect the views of an American cultural subset the GOP depends on for its survival. His suspension made him a tribune of modern conservatism. Thus, conservative Republicans (not just opportunists like Sarah Palin, but party standard-bearers) felt impelled to rally to his side without actually echoing anything Robertson said.”  Beutler’s account does not explain how the GOP base could let it get away with disowning a Senate candidate but not a cultural figure.  Yet it assumes that this is somehow a paradoxical state of affairs. 

The explanation, though, is that party bases accept that the goal in politics is to get the best deal you can, meaning it is necessary to field candidates with broad appeal and prioritize political goals.  In the non-political realm, they want to be able to express their ideas, free of the constraints of politics power struggle.  When their ideological opponents extend the power struggle to the cultural sphere, it is natural that they should fight back- they are fighting for a country where it is permissible to believe certain things, even if these ideas do not become policy.  For example, many of Brian Beutler’s progressive friends, and possibly Beutler himself, support a single payer insurance program.  But they accept the need for the Democratic Party to field candidates who do not support single payer.  However, if a pundit on CNN argued for single payer health care, and the Tea Party launched an effort to boycott, Beutler would likely strongly oppose this boycott, and try to put pressure in the opposite direction.  Also, the Democratic Party in 2004 did not run candidates who went to foreign countries and said they were embarrassed by George W. Bush, but most progressives strongly denounced the campaign to boycott the Dixie Chicks and delegitimize such expression as unpatriotic.


Progressives often note that the First Amendment does not apply to A&E’s (since reversed) suspension of the Duck Emperor, arguing that businesses can fire who they want and private organizations can bring whatever pressure they want.  (The roles were reversed in the case of the Dixie Chicks.)  The narrow argument is a bit of an awkward one for progressives, who tend to argue that an unfettered, “formally” free market leaves people vulnerable to concentrated economic power.  Probably no progressives (and very few conservatives) want companies to be allowed to fire people from their job for political organization or expression off the job. 

That being said, I don’t think the government should have forced A&E to rehire the Duck Founder, or forced radio stations to play Dixie Chicks music.  Rather, just as the Duck Patriarch is free to express his views, and GLAAD is free to use its economic clout to delegitimizes such expression, I am free to deplore and condemn their doing so.  I may value a culture of free expression and openness (not just a political regime founded on these ideas) just as strongly as GLAAD or the duck guy do their views about sex. I accept that there is only a very narrow range of things politicians can say, but I don’t want those rules for all of society.


To return to Beutler: “Republicans are getting extremely good at defending the right’s cultural revanchism* on fictitious Constitutional grounds rather than on the merits.”  In the case of the Duck Dynasty row, Beutler is correct that there is no Constitutional ground for opposing GLAAD’s bullying.  However, again, there is nothing paradoxical in not endorsing an idea (not defending it on “the merits”), while nevertheless supporting cultural tolerance of its expression.  Moreover, there is a distinction to be made between a position being wrong on the merits and its being unpopular or treated as illegitimate- something Beutler likely recognizes in the case of the Dixie Chicks.  For that matter, GLAAD’s right to denounce Phil Robertson and threaten to boycott A&E is not contingent on their being right on the merits, any more than Robertson’s right to speech is dependent on his being correct on the merits.  The merits really have nothing to do with the question.

Beutler continues on the theme of defending unpopular positions on “fictitious Constitutional grounds”: “In addition to Robertson, they also support private companies fighting [the contraception mandate]—not because they have a problem with birth control mind you but because something something religious freedom.”  Or, in other words, because of religious freedom.  The contraception issue, unlike the duck dynasty kerfuffle, involves government force.  In linking the two, Beutler is himself equating government force with private enforcement of norms.  This goes against the argument strongly distinguishing private efforts to punish and silence speech some people don’t like from government censorship, which is the whole premise of the progressive defense of GLAAD.

Beutler also equates opposition to forcing a private company to provide contraception with opposition to contraception itself- meaning, if I understand him correctly, opposition to a woman’s right to use contraception at all.  This obliterates any distinction between economic and political power, whereas, again, the defense of GLAAD’s attempt to silence Robinson as consistent with free speech requires making this distinction strongly.


More broadly, Beutler’s and progressives’ support for the contraception mandate abolishes the concept of government neutrality on moral questions, or in other words of tolerance.  If we distinguish between morally opposing contraception on one hand, and opposition to forcing A to pay for contraception for B on the other, people can act on different moral views and still coexist peacefully.  If we reject that distinction, government has to impose one moral concept on the entire country.

Indeed, Beutler quite casually does away with the entire liberal tradition of religious toleration.  “If certain religious objectors should be exempt from the contraception mandate then other religious objectors should be allowed to ignore other laws…And that obviously would invite chaos.”  Luther and Calvin had no doubt that there would be chaos if a single moral theory didn’t dominate a society; nor did Mohammed.  In some form or another, people throughout history have believed religious freedom is incompatible with order.  A few centuries ago in a small part of the world, as a result of enormous intellectual and political effort, people began to demonstrate that this wasn’t true. 

One might object at this point that Beutler isn’t saying that religious freedom is incompatible with order, but that exempting people from laws on religious grounds is incompatible with order.  But one can easily resolve this by not imposing the sort of laws that people have religious objections to.  The question is whether this approach is compatible with social order.  Again, people have been with Beutler on this question for the vast majority of history, but the modern liberal tradition demonstrates otherwise.  Beutler acts as if this entire tradition just hasn’t happened.

Now, obviously, the government has to ban, for instance, human sacrifice.  The liberal project is about basing the state on the minimum moral claims consistent with order and a certain amount of justice.**  But Beutler would throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Even where a liberal regime doesn’t refrain from imposing a law in the first place, it can in fact grant religious objections without creating chaos.  America has a tradition of allowing conscientious objections to military service, and of giving Catholic priests immunity from revealing what was said to them in confession.  The Supreme Court has interpreted the First Amendment to allow many such exemptions, including allowing some Indians to use illegal drugs for religious reasons.

* According to Wikipedia, “Revanchism is a term used since the 1870s to describe a political manifestation of the will to reverse territorial losses incurred by a country.”  Obviously, Beutler is using the phrase to refer to conservative attempts to reclaim culture war ground.  Yet it isn’t clear that Phil Robertson was trying to fight the culture war- he was expressing his own views, but not trying to make them dominant, the way GLAAD does.  Note also that GLAAD ultimately lost its fight, so it may be GLAAD that is now fighting for ground it lost, or that it never had.

** Usually it is conservatives making this point as an offensive argument, whereas here I am making it as a concession to Beutler.  The whole concept of being personally opposed to abortion as the taking of human life, but supporting its legality, obviously falls apart on Beutler’s theory.


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