Karen Pence’s employment at a Christian school with anti-gay rules raises questions about tolerance for those on both sides of America’s culture wars, including Jews.
If you think American democracy is in peril so long as Donald Trump is president, then a focus on the nature of the school where Karen Pence - the wife of Vice President Mike Pence - teaches art ranks far below the latest rumors about the Mueller probe, or the debate about the partial government shutdown.
Yet the attention paid to the Immanuel Christian School’s policy discriminating against the LGBTQ community - a policy that bans sexual immorality of all kinds, as well as specifically opposing homosexual or transgender identity - nevertheless provoked outrage as well as mockery from late night television comedians.
Given the widespread acceptance of gay rights in contemporary American society, the reaction to Pence’s choice isn’t surprising. It also dovetails with the outrage over a viral story about the behavior of students from a Kentucky high school, Covington Catholic, who were alleged to have "mobbed" a Native American activist at the annual anti-abortion "March for Life."
Seen from that perspective, Christian schools seemed to be teaching intolerance. In this atmosphere, the #ExposeChristianSchools hashtag seemed to be the newest battle cry for the anti-Trump resistance side in America’s increasingly bitter culture wars.
But the problem with the surge in criticism of faith schools goes deeper than the fact that scrutiny of the Covington story raised doubts about whether the students had done anything wrong. The effort to focus outrage at Immanuel Christian could just as easily be pointed at many Jewish schools.
Opposition to non-traditional views about sex or sexual identity seem hopelessly out of touch to most Americans. But the attacks on Pence ignore the fact that many Christian and Orthodox Jewish faith-based schools in the United States have similar policies.
While Pence is being pilloried for acquiescing to a school contract that effectively enforces a ban on non-Christians and LBGTQ students and teachers, the willingness to brand her and her school as hateful raises an important question about how much tolerance Americans are still willing to extend to people of faith and their institutions.
The context of the debate about Pence and her school is a political atmosphere in which some on the political left have become openly hostile to religious institutions.
In 2017, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) questioned whether the Catholic religious faith of Amy Coney Barrett, one of Trump’s appellate court nominees, ought to disqualify her because "the dogma lives loudly within you." More recently, two other Democrats, Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), sought to grill another Trump judicial nominee, Brian Buescher, about his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic charitable and service organization.
The efforts of Christian bakers and florists who have been asked to provide services for gay weddings to be exempted from laws that ban discrimination has been a focal point of a growing culture war between the Christian right and mainstream cultural opinion in the U.S.
The same is true for conservative Christian groups who are embroiled in a fight over whether religious business owners, or even faith groups like the nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor, should be compelled to pay for insurance coverage for abortion-inducing drugs and contraception, which their faith opposes.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s Hobby Lobby decision would seem to buttress the Trump’s administration’s stand that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects such a refusal. But popular sentiment, especially among the predominantly liberal Jewish community, is very much on the other side of these legal battles.
At the core of all of these controversies is more than a willingness to jump to a conclusion that a Catholic high school student wearing a "Make America Great Again" cap was a racist, without much in the way of proof. In a secular world in which those who share Karen Pence’s religious views about sexuality are viewed with disdain, and transgendered people are celebrated, the question is now whether faith-based schools like Immanuel and its Jewish equivalents are still to be tolerated.
Like conservative Christians, Orthodox Jews are disproportionately pro-Trump, even if their political orientation may have more to do with his stands on Israel rather than First Amendment considerations.
Yet the future of their schools, including their ability to get government aid for buses and books and preserve their non-profit tax status, are potentially at risk in an political atmosphere in which their views about sex and marriage can be labeled as hateful and undeserving of the protections the Constitution provides for free exercise of religion.
That places liberal Jewish groups in a difficult position. They share the culture’s disdain for conservative Christians and their beliefs about marriage equality, abortion and government funding of contraception.
But you don’t have to agree with Karen Pence on these issues to understand that setting up unconstitutional religious tests for public officials, or acting to drive those whose faith puts them on their other side of those questions out of the public square, is a threat to religious liberty. It is not just Christian schools that will suffer from a campaign to "expose" those who dissent about sex and marriage.
A nation in which conservative Christians can be not merely the objects of an unfair Internet pile-on, but also deprived of their rights because tenets of their faith have fallen afoul of popular culture and fashion, is one that is potentially dangerous to Jews. As Jews are learning in Europe, where kosher slaughter is being banned because it, too, no longer conforms to the demands of "enlightened" liberal opinion, the notion that Jews have nothing to fear from efforts to delegitimize religious faith is unfounded.
Tolerance must be a two-way street. If conservative Christians can be compelled to violate their beliefs or their schools to hire teachers that flout their teachings - the same thing can happen to Jews.
A policy of "religious freedom for me but not for thee," in which schools like Immanuel Christian or Covington Catholic can be placed beyond the pale, is one that inevitably places Jewish institutions and beliefs at risk.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now