It has been a couple of weeks since Pope Francis released his encyclical about the environment, and liberals are just now recovering from their collective swoon. The organs of the left lavished it with praise, calling it everything from “authoritative” and “compelling” (The New York Times) to “powerful” and “revolutionary” (Salon). Humanity has sinned against the planet, they agree, and must take urgent, collective action to repair the damage.
Liberals took a decidedly less deferential tone when the craft-store chain Hobby Lobby sought a religious exemption from Obamacare’s contraception mandate.
Corporations can’t have religious beliefs, they said (ignoring the fact that thousands of incorporated entities, known as churches, clearly do). Even more emphatically, they insisted Hobby Lobby’s owners wanted “to impose their religious views on employees” (The New York Times again, echoing countless others). This was histrionic nonsense, given that employees remained perfectly free to buy contraception on their own.
Moreover, progressives insisted that the owners of Hobby Lobby faced no burden on their faith because they could still worship as they chose when they went to church. That also is the argument regarding religious objections to gay marriage: Individuals who disapprove may do so within the four walls of their church, but they should not be allowed to act on their convictions outside church by, say, declining to bake a cake for a gay wedding.
A few have even suggested churches that oppose gay marriage should lose their tax-exempt status: “We’ll let you practice your bigotry, at least within the confines of your own church,” went a piece in Fusion. “But we’re not about to reward you for doing so.” Even the ACLU has dropped its support for the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because while “religious freedom needs protection,” it should not be used “to impose one’s views on others.”
This is a pretty broad definition of “imposing.” By similar reasoning, one might argue that a Christian bookstore is imposing its views if it prefers not to carry Playboy and Penthouse. (After all, the baker is not refusing to serve gay customers outright. She is refusing only to provide a certain message on a cake.)
But if we’re going to accept that broad definition of “imposing,” then we should not be taking orders about environmental policy from the pope. To be consistent, progressives should have responded to his encyclical by lecturing Catholics that religious arguments for environmental stewardship are fine in church, but not as a basis for public policy.