At its best, Robert Francis "Beto" O'Rourke's high-octane assault on religious freedom calls for brandy and an extended lie-down in a dark room. That's the best that can be said of it. Its worst has to do with the disdain a midlevel presidential candidate exhibits for supernatural religion.
That's if he really meant what he affirmed at a CNN town hall about stripping federal tax exemption from churches that are profoundly serious about the need for long-honored moral arrangements (e.g., two-sex marriage) that are now being heatedly contested.
You never really know about seekers of high office, who, as a class, are given to saying all sorts of things. We may hope O'Rourke, the ex-El Paso congressman, having failed to light up the sky with national excitement over his presidential prospects, was just popping firecrackers, hoping to get noticed.
Noticed he got, and not in a nice way. It appeared to Christians of a more conservative disposition than O'Rourke's that the candidate was urging punishment of religious Americans opposed to the same-sex marriage agenda. Said Kelly Shackelford, whose First Liberty Institute defends in court the right to religious freedom, "Beto O'Rourke's threat is a direct affront to the constitutional guarantee of religious liberty."
A surprised O'Rourke sought to explain. Why, it wasn't religious liberty he wanted to restrict. It was the discriminatory actions and activities that followed no-longer-favored religious teachings. Under the Beto program, you could believe anything you liked (however bigoted and backward) about the new dispensation of LGBTQ issues and rights. Just don't try doing anything about it at taxpayer expense! The Beto program holds that public policy trumps religious belief. Watch it, Reverend.
O'Rourke's chances for the Democratic nomination, never compelling to begin with, partly in view of his sparse credentials, cannot have been strengthened by this calculated outburst, the fundamental meaning of which makes no sense. The irrelevance of religion to the human condition, and specifically to the interests of a free people, is the point that underlies the O'Rourkian rhetoric.
Religious people, O'Rourke is saying, couldn't possibly have anything worth hearing on a public question absolutely clear to Robert Francis O'Rourke. We don't need these folk, it would seem. It's bad enough to have 'em around in the first place. We sure as the world don't need to accord them a tax exemption for their unprogressive thoughts and ideas.
The American tradition, as many still remember, is a tradition that welcomes religious insight. Why, if not, would we gratify our religious institutions with exemption from federal taxes? We do so because, without restricting religious expression to one species, one creed or one formulation, we view connection with the spiritual world as valuable to the secular world.
We think of God as a significant player in human affairs. Did he create man and woman? He might, in that event, have useful thoughts on the mission of man and woman, and their relationship to each other. If so, there would seem to be the need to hear him out -- even to act upon his ideas. So the founders certainly thought. The men who made America -- George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Patrick Henry and so on down the line -- made room in its institutions and civil guarantees for whatever obligations and responsibilities God might lay upon the people of America.
Beto -- an odd name and presence to introduce in the midst of a conversation about such figures -- seems to believe political institutions in a land of liberty need no counsel about religious notions unsubjected to inspection by the Supreme Court or Congress. A President O'Rourke, if we were to have one, could doubtless carry on just fine without spiritual analyses.
Maybe he could, the nation having undergone vast changes in the past half-century or so: no prayers in schools, no constraints against the taking of unborn life, no preferences for moral teachings knocked down by the courts and disfavored by the media.
A lively question is: Does O'Rourke know modern America better than modern America knows itself? Perhaps we'll find out soon. That is, after all, what elections are about, in part: finding out the worst as well as the best and making you wonder what on God's green earth could have happened to God's green earth.
William Murchison is writing a book on moral reconstruction in the 21st century. His latest book is "The Cost of Liberty: The Life of John Dickinson."