This morning, two University of Michigan political science professors made a strange, or perhaps inevitable, argument. They said that dignity, and the respect therefor by all members of society, is a right. As such it imposes on every member the burden of associating with every other member, on demand, without regard to whether said association violates one’s religious or other sensibilities. Coming from these two professors, that is very likely a lie. But more than that, it violates the very concept of “right” and forces nothing less than a civilizational clash.
What dignity means
Merriam-Webster defines dignity, in this context, as “the quality or state of being worthy, honored, or esteemed.” Worthy, of course, presupposes an answer to the question, “worthy of what?” The best answer one can give here is: worthy of respect.
But dignity can mean something else: rank. That’s close to the meaning of the original Latin word dignitas, which stood for the total standing of a Roman citizen among his peers and with members of other social strata. In either sense, an act beneath one’s dignity is an act that diminishes the actor. And a requirement that diminishes one’s dignity is one that someone feels he shouldn’t have to meet.
Professors Pauline Jones and Andrew Murphy published their piece in The Conversation today, one day before the first Conference Day at the Supreme Court of the United States. Its title: “Supreme Court is increasingly putting Christians’ First Amendment rights ahead of others’ dignity and rights to equal protection.”
In 1,335 words (give or take five) they assert that any refusal to speak to, associate with, or provide services to another, diminishes the other’s dignity. Two things are wrong with their thesis. First, they belong to that “side of the aisle” that applies it selectively. Second, even a consistent application of the thesis would inevitably tear society apart.
Rights v. allowances, and the minimum rights of the individual
First, the concept right seems to be a difficult one for people like Jones and Murphy to grasp. A right is generally a sphere of activity with which no one may interfere. An allowance is a minimum substance that others must provide as the price of continued social membership. Allowances and rights are always in tension. And in a sound society, allowances are few, and rights are many. Only in emergencies do allowances and their companion concept – rations – have a place.
So what are the minimum rights of individual humans? God specified those rights about 3500 years ago:
You shall not murder.
You shall not steal.
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.
You shall not covet. Exodus 20:13,15-17 (NASB)
Notice that each right is a command forbidding others (including government) to do things to individuals. These, then, are the minimum rights of human beings, that all human beings must respect. Any deprivation of those rights can only come through due process of law. That last follows logically from other laws the Bible gives – and is an explicit part of the Constitution.
No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Amendment V; see also Amendment XIV, Section 1
A mistaken notion and extension of dignity
We now turn to Jones and Murphy’s mistaken idea of dignity as a thing that supersedes freedom of expression. The Supreme Court held, in the case of which they complain the loudest, that the government may not compel speech. To compel one to support the activities of another, against his wishes, is to abridge his freedom of speech. 303 Creative v. Elenis, 600 U.S. 570 (2023). Creative expression is protected speech.
But Jones and Murphy don’t agree. They said this decision
represents the culmination of a decadelong strategy by conservative Christians – known sometimes as the Christian right – to use the courts to limit the freedoms of groups of Americans of whom they disapprove. On issues where the Christian right’s First Amendment claims directly threaten the equal citizenship of sexual minorities, for example, the court left no question about which side it was on.
And what do they say are the freedoms of same-sex roommates sharing bed (SSRSB)? They say they stand for the dignity of “members of marginalized groups.” Dignity is not a right in and of itself. If by dignity they mean respect for one’s rights to life, liberty and property, nothing that 303 Creative did (or refused to do) threatens those rights. (Neither would 303 Creative have the authority so to threaten.) But: perhaps by dignity they mean a rank. In other words, SSRSBs have a “right” to support of their lifestyle, even by those who consider that God commands them to withhold that support.
The Sodom controversy
To understand the fundamental error Jones and Murphy have made, turn to another, much older controversy. Let’s call it Lot and Two Angelic Visitors v. Councilors and Citizens of Sodom, Genesis 19:1-11. Lot, nephew of Abraham and immigrant to Sodom, had won election (not necessarily democratic) to the city council. When two of God’s Messengers visited him, he recognized them at once. He urged them to take lodging – shelter would be a more apt term – in his house. Sure enough, before the household could even go to bed for the night, several other councilors and other citizens laid siege to Lot’s door.
Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us that we may have relations with them. Genesis 19:5 (NASB)
The compromise Lot offered those men, besides being repugnant even to describe, doesn’t matter. What matters is that the citizens of Sodom did not accept it. Indeed they said of Lot:
This one came in as an immigrant, and already he is acting like a judge; now we will treat you worse than them. Genesis 19:9 (NASB), paraphrase
The two visitors settled the controversy with brutal simplicity. After drawing Lot back into his house, they struck the besiegers with blindness. Next morning, of course, they hustled Lot and his family beyond the city’s walls and said, “Run for your lives!” They ran – and today that city is only a volcanic lava- and ash-buried ruin northeast of the Dead Sea.
And now we see what Jones and Murphy have just done. They have imitated the councilors and citizens of Sodom, not only in lifestyle but also in their demand.
What is that demand?
Naturally Jones and Murphy will object that neither they nor Aubrey Elenis (the Colorado Civil Rights Commission official in the 303 Creative case) are demanding that Lorie Smith (who owns 303 Creative) submit herself or any of her family, staff, or other associates for intimate contact of any nature. True – for now – but not relevant. What’s relevant is that they demanded support for that which God has never permitted, even in the New Testament. Lorie Smith understands that, and does not wish to support such activity with her creative and artistic expression.
Jones and Murphy speak of “the crucial role [of] religion as the basis for objecting to anti-discrimination laws.” Does the Bible permit or command any and all forms of discrimination? No. The Bible clearly describes all human beings as alike in God’s sight.
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 3:28 (NASB)
The Bible tells Its readers to concern themselves with the acts, not the unchangeable characteristics, of others. But of course Alphabet Soup adherents and defenders insist that Alphabet Soup tendencies are unchangeable. They are not. And to suggest that they are unchangeable is either to:
- Suggest that biology determines behavior, and deleterious behaviors can survive even the tremendous hypothetical selection pressure of “evolution,” or to:
- Say that God makes mistakes.
Neither assumption is tenable.
Selective application – not everyone’s dignity is equal
Jones and Murphy insist that anti-discrimination laws, even when they demand positive support of ungodly lifestyles, are necessary to “democracy.” Once again: democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for dinner. The United States of America is a republic, a nation of law, not of mob rule or anything like it.
In fact, the Joneses and Murphys of our society selectively apply this maxim, in argument and in their daily lives. CNAV cannot and would not reasonably expect a Christian to ask an Alphabet Soup adherent to plan a wedding between one man and one woman, and reasonably expect said adherent to provide that service. (And if one party to such a transaction thinks so little of the other, how can the client be satisfied?) Nor would said Christian presume to so demand, or to ask a court to uphold such a demand. Nevertheless, CNAV anticipates that such an Alphabet Soup adherent would refuse.
Which brings up the obvious remedy: let them establish their own businesses to provide such services among themselves. And therein lies their hypocrisy. They routinely ask social media platforms and providers of other services to refuse service to those with whom they disagree. Ask Mike Lindell what he did to deserve having to close his bank accounts with Minnesota Bank and Trust. Will Jones and Murphy support him? Would Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the dissenter in 303 Creative? CNAV wouldn’t advise holding one’s breath.
To repeat: Jones and Murphy are not arguing for a legitimate right, but for an allowance. Furthermore they demand that some support that which they deem a lie and/or antithetical to civilization.
They speak of “tension” between religion and “democracy” (that word again!), and a “balance” among freedoms of religion on one hand, and other First Amendment rights on the other. Part of their problem is that they clearly do not accept religion as valid. “Liberty pertains to both freedom of and freedom from religion,” they say. But how can freedom of religion exist if one may not exercise it?
CNAV does not fear the debate on which religions would or would not be tolerable in a sound society. That is because the Framers were not only Christians but also insisted that the Constitution they framed was for “a moral and religious people.” Furthermore, those lacking a religious foundation, not only could defend murder but indeed could not prosecute it.
Does freedom of religion undermine democracy? Perhaps it does, given what democracy really is. Does it undermine a republic? No. Jones and Murphy are in fact arguing for “freedom” from religion – not only in government but by any individual whose path they might possibly cross. Once again we return to the councilors and citizens of Sodom, accusing Lot of “acting like a judge.” We saw what “tolerance” meant to them. So we cannot accept Jones’ and Murphy’s thesis, or any “compromise” they pretend to propose, as valid.
Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.
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