Do No Orwellian Harm

Part of the transformational shift happening in our culture right now is a redefinition of terms leading to consequences that baffle and anger a lot of people. One such example comes in the form of a bill introduced to Congress by (then) Senator Kamala Harris, which is now back on the table, dubbed the Do No Harm Act. Its intention is to amend the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) to provide more specificity on the boundaries of religious freedom.

The bill is aimed at protecting certain groups of people from the exercise of religious freedoms. The “do no harm” part of the bill is not about avoiding harm to religious freedom, but keeping religious freedoms from “doing harm” to other people. One professor of law and religious studies noted:

By limiting the reach of religious freedom protections, the Do No Harm Act would make it harder for many people of faith to operate businesses, launch charities or share their beliefs in the public square, said Doug Laycock, a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia.

“This bill would strip the heart out” of religious freedom law, he said.

What kind of harm can come from the Constitution’s protection of the “free exercise” of religion? According to the bill, RFRA should no longer be interpreted to, “authorize an exemption from generally applicable law that imposes meaningful harm, including dignitary harm.”

What on earth is “dignitary harm”? It is any offence done to another person’s inner sense of their own identity, meaning their own vision of their dignity. It is any speech or behavior that can make someone feel bad about themselves. That sounds a little childish to many ears, but it is currently the standard for defining harm done to someone’s dignity.

How is it that a homosexual couple can take a baker all the way to the Supreme Court because he did not bake them a wedding cake? They were in no way harmed as far as their access to wedding cakes was concerned, but their identity as homosexuals was threatened by someone who openly disagreed with their lifestyle. How can thousands of rioters fill city streets for months causing untold damage to lives and livelihoods, and so many not only dismiss the harm done, but justify it? This kind of harm is dismissed because they are rioting in favor of “stopping” the psychological harm of systemic racism.

“Harm” no longer means material or physical harm, but psychological harm. Over the course of the past couple of centuries of thought, leading to the now-dominant thought among educational, cultural, and political leaders, we have reached a point where our personal identities have become super-glued to our psychological well-being and sexual preferences. A person’s felt and personally chosen identity has become the foundation of our political discourse. No longer can we “agree to disagree” about lifestyle choices or even debate the science and consequences of such choices. These activities, normally understood as a healthy part of free speech, have become tools of oppression. In his magisterial work on this very topic, Carl R. Truman notes in The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self:

“Free speech, that which most of us would intuitively regard as a basic social good, is part of the problem, not the solution. And only by restricting speech will the marginalized voices of the oppressed be heard…But in our current climate, this universal dignity has been psychologized, and the granting of dignity has come to be equated with the affirmation of those psychologized identities that enjoy special status in our culture.”

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Carl R. Truman, ppg. 330-331.

Thus, the Do No Harm Act will target any expression or activity of a church or religious organization if it causes someone to feel bad about their chosen identity, or if they wish to assert that identity above an organization’s right to live and work according to their own values. And it will be done in the name of dignity – to avoid “dignitary harm”.

“Harm” no longer means material or physical harm, but psychological harm.

A Couple of Thoughts

One of the fatal flaws of this way of viewing dignity, identity, and harm should be apparent – it leads to an utterly lopsided and eventually hypocritical view of behavior in the public square. As Truman put it, these kinds of protections belong to groups with “special status” in our culture. That will change quickly, and it will be hard to keep up with who does and does not belong in that category. The “special status” category is entirely fluid and will thus be an eventual hypocritical frustration to more and more people (but maybe not until it has done significant damage).

Pastors and Christians will do well to understand not only that these kinds of bills exist and are taken seriously by people in political power, but to understand why they carry so much weight among so many. This bill represents a political problem, to be sure, and it needs to be dealt with on a meaningful political level. But to reduce our reaction to bills like this to politics can miss the point – our understanding of politics is exactly what is at play here. More fundamental issues such as identity and human dignity are in contention, and more and more folks have imbibed the ideas that make the Do No Harm Act viable.

Part of the transformational shift happening in our culture right now is a redefinition of terms leading to consequences that baffle and anger a lot of people.

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