In all the furor over Indiana’s controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act, perhaps the answer to the culture war impasse won’t be found in Indianapolis but in Pawnee. Pawnee, of course, is the fictional town inhabited by long-running NBC sitcom “Parks and Recreation,” which orbited around the often clashing visions of Parks director Ron Swanson and his crusading deputy Leslie Knope. The two could agree on little, but I think they could agree on Indiana’s RFRA as it originally passed, and so should we.
Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope are relevant to this discussion not despite the fact that they are fictional Hoosiers but precisely because they are. They stand in for two powerful impulses in American cultural and political life: “leave me alone” libertarianism and “common good” progressivism. Both of these strains are part of the rich heritage of religious freedom, and neither strain should go wobbly on that heritage now.
Swanson, of course, was the grumpy, just-this-side-of-cynical libertarian who feels guilty for working for the government. What he wanted to see done, more than anything, within his tiny town’s parks department is for it to do just this side of nothing. He kept his money in gold, buried somewhere in the yard. His hatred of government regulations and government expenditures, of almost any kind, were second only to his hatred for skim milk (which he famously called water, lying about being milk).
Swanson, like most libertarians, probably would support same-sex marriage, if he supported any sort of government-recognized marriage at all. But his libertarianism wouldn’t want the government dictating either the prohibition–or the celebration–of such unions.
The libertarian vision is one that recognizes that pluralism in the public square is not an evil to be stamped out by government fiat. And that vision is especially true when it comes to the most personal arena of a person’s life: his or her conscience. We may disagree on how much government is necessary, but libertarians have consistently warned us that a government that takes upon itself the burden of paving over consciences is a government that can do anything.
The libertarian vision is true in the area of religious liberty both on the Right (when some have wanted state-written school prayers or mosques zoned out of existence) or on the Left (where now many want to force celibate nuns to pay for birth control insurance or force evangelical adoption agencies out of existence).
The federal RFRA and its counterparts in the states were designed to protect individual consciences from a Leviathan government. The point of RFRA, from the beginning, was to assert that unpopular religious views (whether of peyote-smoking native Americans, hijab-wearing Muslims or something similar) ought to be protected by more than just the whim of the majority.
Leslie Knope, on the other hand, was the office progressive, fueled by idealism about what government can do, if only given the chance. With her office filled with pictures of her women heroes from Madeleine Albright to Hillary Clinton, Knope wanted to break glass ceilings, to fill in sand pits and build parks for the sake of the flourishing of her community.
Now, as a liberal Democrat, Knope, too, probably would support same-sex marriage. But it’s hard to imagine that Knope would feel comfortable with the hysteria we’ve seen over the Indiana RFRA. The primary pressure to abandon this act, along with the (flat-out misrepresented) line that it is a “freedom to discriminate” bill has come from big corporate interests threatening to boycott the state.
The progressive vision recognizes that the invisible hand of the market has limits, that what is economically profitable is not always in the public good. That’s why Knope worked hard to curb obesity in her town over the objections of Paunch Burger, Inc. Progressives also have warned throughout history of what can happen when the majority overlooks the views of minorities.
A state that is beholden to corporate interests over freedom of conscience, progressives used to tell us, is a state that will strip fundamental freedoms of religion, speech and press. These aren’t, progressives would say, simply matters of constitutional violation but also matters of human dignity. Without a healthy pluralism, we lose the liberality on which liberal democracy is built.
Now, of course, Ron Swanson and Leslie Knope are fictions, the creations of a team of scriptwriters at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. But they are fictional in more ways than one. It’s hard to imagine too many offices led by a right-leaning libertarian and a left-leaning progressive, who seem to, despite it all, love each other and get things done. In the real world we live in, almost every issue is a culture war issue and our social media debates light up cyberspace like 5,000 candles in the wind.
A generation ago, RFRA was an exception. Libertarians like Swanson and progressives like Knope and social conservatives like me worked together to pass a law that respected conscience and liberty, for all. Now, even the most minimal affirmation of such protections is consumed by one more debate about sex.
The casualty over the recent debacle will be a rich American principle of religious freedom and peaceful pluralism. Religious liberty is too important to cast aside for power politics and culture wars. I pray we can get back to the religious liberty consensus Thomas Jefferson forged for us in Philadelphia. But, if not, I pray we can at least get back to the cooperation of Pawnee.
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