Why New Anti-Gay Legal Campaigns Will Fail: They Collide with True American Religious Freedom

Using religious principles to deny services to a category of people -- such as gays and lesbians -- collides with the true nature of religious freedom in America. I'm referring here to the religious foundation of our economy.
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All money is green.

Except, it seems, if you're gay or lesbian and live in a state considering a bill that would allow private business owners to refuse service if it offends their religious beliefs. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer killed the bill that would have given this option to Arizonan business owners, but conservatives vow to continue the fight. Similar bills in other states are wending through the legislative process, and others will resurface after the national fervor over Arizona fades away.

If you're concerned about such proposals, as millions of Americans are, my research says: Don't worry too much because, ultimately, they will fail.

One reason? They will fail because these proposals collide with one of America's 10 core values: the bedrock value of respect for others. After years of research with focus groups and national surveys, I have documented the breadth and depth of our 10 core values in my book, United America. In the end, the American common ground, based on these 10 core values, will win out.

But, as a social scientist, I know there is another very important reason these proposals are doomed. Using religious principles to deny services to a category of people -- such as gays and lesbians -- collides with the true nature of religious freedom in America. I'm referring here to the religious foundation of our economy.

What is that? Let me explain. This issue is confused in the current debate because advocates of such laws are loudly claiming that they want to restore "religious freedom." They claim that refusing service to gays and lesbians is an exercise of religious conscience.

However, bills like Arizona's rest on a seriously flawed understanding of the relationship between religion and capitalism in America. We might call these new measures "spirit brothers" to Southern planters in early America who believed their liberties included the freedom to enslave, a legacy that lived on as the freedom to refuse services to people of color at a barbershop, lunch counter, hotel and elsewhere.

A double standard for an entire category of people undermines the religious principles that gave rise to capitalism in the first place. German sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) argued that capitalism arose in Protestant Europe because a "Protestant ethic" fundamentally changed the way people thought about the meaning of work, profit and dealing with others.

This new ethic prohibited what Weber called the "double ethic." The double ethic was a moral code that governed economic dealings throughout most of world history. It had two simple rules:

Rule 1: Treat fairly kin, clan, tribe or ethnic group.

Rule 2: Mistreat everyone else. In contrast, Protestant business ethics dictated fair treatment of all people, regardless of religion, creed, origin, ethnicity or nationality.

Profit wasn't the motive for fair treatment. Rather, fair treatment was an exercise of religious conscience and principles -- it was a way to honor God. Unfair treatment of anyone dishonored God.

This Protestant ethic became a moral force fueling the spirit of capitalism. It left a lasting "imprint on the American national character," says Weber scholar Richard Swedberg, "and also contributed to the dynamism of its economic system."

This value includes respect for people of different faiths and different races and ethnicities. It means that all people should be treated with respect, even those you don't like or whose lifestyles you don't approve or condone.

As a core value, respect for others is strongly held by a large majority of Americans, shared across demographic, religious and political lines, and stable over time. My analysis revealed that only Americans who do not strongly subscribe to the value of respect for others agree that "marriage should be defined solely as between one man and one woman" or that "a child needs a home with both a father and a mother to grow up happy." In other words, the American value of respect for others embraces people of all sexual orientations.

The American value of respect for others is a secular motivation for fair treatment of all people. For those who are trying to use religion to shape their business policies, I ask: Is it truly honoring God to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation?

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