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Agreement isn’t in the cards, but empathy should be

Anti-RFRA protesters in Indianapolis, Indiana, 2015/wikipedia photo by Justin Eagan

Agreement isn’t in the cards, but empathy should be


By Neal Schindler

I have to admit it: I’m RFRA’d out. I felt at least somewhat engaged in the topic when Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act first came rumbling into America’s media landscape. I felt annoyed and amused in about equal measure when Arlene’s Flowers and Barronelle Stutzman became household names. Finally, as people continue to discuss the issue based on whatever their personal experience (and, y’know, THE BIBLE) has taught them to believe and value, I feel inclined to crawl into a sensory deprivation chamber.

Then an article by Conor Friedersdorf found its way into my Facebook newsfeed. Unlike most of what I’d read and heard on the subject of RFRAs, this piece seemed insightful about both sides of the debate, and about how the controversy developed in the first place. For me, this is the key quote:

Americans receive different upbringings in different families of different faiths, while living in different neighborhoods of different cities in different regions, and are then thrown onto the same social-media platforms. These platforms afford an illusion of a single culture, as if public controversies are grounded in common experiences and assumptions. But Americans have never understood one another.

This made me remember watching Barack Obama give the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Obama said:

We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States.

I also remembered reading in 2004 about the “urban archipelago” model, which posits that liberals live, “not in a country that stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from Canada to Mexico. We live on a chain of islands. We are citizens of the Urban Archipelago, the United Cities of America.”

Another divisive issue has been at the forefront of my mind lately: premarital sex. The connection to RFRAs might seem tenuous, but consider this: Some conservatives see the legalization of same-sex marriage, the institution at the heart of the RFRA debate, as an opening of floodgates. Moral relativism and a large-scale devaluing of “traditional” marriage will supposedly result.

When I read Matthew Sewell’s recent response to Martin Elfert’s column about premarital sex, I realized that we liberals aren’t the only ones living on islands. When Matthew states: “We’re all called to chastity,” it makes as much sense to me as the idea that we’re all called to veterinary school. Postmodern, humanist thinking like mine sees people as too different from each other to be subject to many universal rules, laws, or callings.

In the comments section under his article, Matthew links to a piece by Trent Horn titled “Homosexuality and Hypocrisy.” Horn writes:

Just because Christians are not bound by the cultural-specific codes in the Old Testament does not mean we aren’t bound by the universal codes found there.

After all, I am no longer bound by the childhood rule requiring me to hold my mother’s hand when crossing the street, but this doesn’t mean I am not bound by other childhood rules such as “Don’t drink what’s in the containers under the sink.” As an adult, I do not need the former rule to protect me, but the latter rule is still binding because ingesting bleach will kill me regardless of how old I am. Likewise, some rules in the Mosaic law still apply because they involve actions that are always harmful.

Who decides what types of behavior allegedly prohibited by Mosaic law are “always harmful”? Ultimately, I think people do. Postmodernism suggests that we cannot perceive anything, even the Bible, without experiencing it through the filter of our own experiences, preferences, and biases. Matthew and I are looking at different Bibles, as it were, because we want and need them to do different things for us.

One thing I want is to accept the impossibility of finding common ground on certain issues with certain people. What Friedersdorf refers to as the “illusion of a single culture” feels false and tiresome. I don’t think we can have a nation as diverse as ours without accepting that it is, in fact, a staggering collection of micronations gerrymandered by the faith and values of our families and communities.

Friedersdorf calls for empathy rather than mistrust, and I think that’s a realistic and fair thing to expect. Empathy doesn’t mean agreeing with others; it just means trying, at least a little, to understand why they might believe what they believe. That noble effort, I think, is what drew us all to SpokaneFAVS, and also what keeps bringing us back.

Join SpokaneFAVS for a Coffee Talk forum on Religious Freedom Laws on May 2, 10 a.m. at Indaba Coffee/The Book Parlor.  Schindler is a panelist.

Neal Schindler

About Neal Schindler

A native of Detroit, Neal Schindler has lived in the Pacific Northwest since 2002. He has held staff positions at Seattle Weekly and The Seattle Times and was a freelance writer for Jew-ish.com from 2007 to 2011. Schindler was raised in a Reconstructionist Jewish congregation and is now a member of Spokane's Reform congregation, Emanu-El. He is the director of Spokane Area Jewish Family Services and also works as a copy editor at the Spokesman-Review. His interests include movies, Scrabble, and indie rock. He lives with his wife, baby son, and two cats in West Central Spokane.

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