Saturday, June 17, 2006

Why I think Andrew Sullivan got it wrong this time.

Conservative writer Andrew Sullivan is a bit disturbed. What upset him was that a man, who was appointed by the Governor of Maryland, to serve on the states Metro transit authority board made some remarks that were considered unacceptable and bigoted. Governor Robert Ehrlich, Jr., a Republican by the way, removed the man from his position. I'll get to the specifics shortly. Sullivan says that the removal was "an act of profound intolerance" because 'words hurt no one." Now for the context.

The man, Robert J. Smith, made some very bigoted remarks about gays. He did so in public while being interviewed on television. Smith called gays "deviants." Smith defended himself saying that the remarks don't impact on his performance running a bus or rail system. Sullivan defended the man because the man's offensive remarks are rooted in his religion. Sullivan says "they are indeed intrinsic to his understanding of his own religious liberty" and that such people should be left "alone in the expression of their own faith."

Context is everything. I want to say why I think Mr. Sullivan may be wrong here. First, Mr. Smith has every right to express his opinion. What he does not have is a right to work for the governor on terms unacceptable to the man who appointed him. His appointment made him a representative of the governor. I have no feelings for Governor Ehrlich one way or another. But it seems to me that he has the right to determine who will represent him. Obviously the man served at the Governor's discretion and could as quickly be relieved of that position at the Governor's discretion.

Now if Mr. Smith were a career bureaucrat who expressed an odious opinion --- as if there is anything more odious than being a career bureaucrat --- I would argue that the Governor ought not have the right to fire a man for a disgusting opinion. But, in this case specifically, the man was appointed by the Governor and reflected on him. The Governor was quite clear that these sorts of opinions were not what he was about. He said they were in "direct conflict" with his own views of "tolerance and opportunity". Fair enough. I don't see how Smith’s remarks couldn't reflect on the man who appointed him.

Now it seems to me that Sullivan, who is religious himself, is particularly concerned because the man's beliefs are religious in nature. I should say that Sullivan is a well known gay conservative who disagrees with the views Smith expressed quite strongly. But he seems to think that in this case, because the beliefs were religious, they deserve extra respect of some sort. Here I disagree.

Consider a Identity Christian who holds a job representing a company. That man appears on television and expresses some of his deeply held religious views. He tells the world that Jews are the children of Satan who have to be destroyed to preserve the white race. It is a religious belief. It is only words. But should his employer be required to continue to pay this man a salary to represent them even in a context totally outside those of his remarks? If a man were appointed to a University board, and got up and gave a lecture speaking about the natural inferiority of blacks, should he be kept in that position simply because these are deeply held beliefs? One expresses bigotry out of religious beliefs and another out of his own scientific beliefs. Both are sincere. Are sincere religious belief immune where sincere secular bigots are not?

My view is that a private company has the right to fire and hire employees for being bigots or for not being bigots. They live with the consequences of their reputation. It would be nice if all the bigots worked at the same place so those of us who would prefer not to support them wouldn't have to do so. Private employment ought to be private and employers and employees free to come to their own terms without interference. By the way the same right would mean that fundamentalists would not have to hire Catholics, gays, Mormons, Jews or anyone else they thought doomed to hell fire as well.

The matter becomes more complicated when it is a government job. The easiest way to handle the matter is privatise the job. That's my first preference. I don't think the government ought to be running a transit system in the first place. Sell it off. The owners have to live with the reputation that their board members or representatives give them and they ought to be free to take any stand they want on whether to keep or fire bigots. But government can not enjoy the same privileges as private companies because it exists on the funds taken from all of us involuntarily. I don't have to give a dime to a private company unless I choose to do so. I have no such choice with government agencies. If I don't give it to them they will take it regardless.

But the bigot is in the same position. and he is forced to support the agency as well. Should government be allowed to hire and fire people for things not related to work? No! They shouldn't be able to discriminate on the basis of political beliefs or religious beliefs or the lack thereof. So what was the difference here? Mainly that Smith was not just a bureaucrat but an appointee of the governor. He was associated with the governor and served at his pleasure. You can not remove that association and Ehrlich realised that. He didn't accept these views, making him unusual for a Republican, and if he did nothing it would appear that he was amenable to such opinions. He did what was best for himself and removed his appointee, as he had the right to do, and appointed a replacement he could live with. Ehrlich has to run for re-election so he will have to live with whether his decision was right or not.

But there is something important in Sullivan's comments. It is something that is often expressed and ought to be discussed. It is the idea that religious beliefs, unlike most other beliefs, somehow deserve respect simply because it is religious. Sullivan is religious so it is natural that he would just operate with this assumption. But can a modern world operate on the principle that any religiously expressed opinion deserves some respect? Now when I say respect I mean deference being paid as if that belief is sensible and worthy of respect no matter how outlandish it may be. I do not advocate stripping people of the right to express opinions nor do I think that they ought to be prevented from non-violent practices that are religious in nature. I am not saying we should trample their rights.

But I do question this idea that once a belief is shrouded in the name of religio, that is somehow immune from the normal process of social sanction. Surely a conservative ought to recognise the important role that social sanction plays in preventing liberty from becoming libertinism. A civilised society ought to be able to express moral indignation at unacceptable beliefs even if those beliefs are given a religious aura. There is no other area of human life where beliefs are so protected. If this man got up and said he hated Jews and that Hitler was a great guy would Mr. Sullivan be arguing that his losing his job was an act of intolerance? I have my doubts. I personally think it a good thing that what was once called "polite company" will not sanction the racists words of a bigot by pretending that those beliefs deserve respect. All of us are free to express opinions and no one else is required to sanction them or put up with our company if they disagree with them.

Religious beliefs are no more immune from social sanction than the antiquated views of the racialists. I don't believe in censorship which is where the force of law is used to prevent a man from expressing his opinions. Had that been done here I would be screaming about it. It wasn't. But is Mr. Smith immune from the social sanctions inflicted on him by others because of his bigotry? No. And that they were religious in nature is not particularly relevant. All beliefs, held by all people, are sacred to them. Religious beliefs deserve no special respect simply because they are claimed by faith. I personally think that if a society is to have a moral order of decency that the social sanction inflicted on odious influences like bigotry are the best way of obtaining it. It is far better than censorship or force. It is how civilised people combat the obnoxiousness of hate and it ought not matter whether that hatred wears a religious cloak or not.