Progressives everywhere have long been astonished by the apparent inability of the religious right to see the internal contradictions in their deeply held views. How, for example, to explain their insistence that abortion, (which they vehemently oppose), is essentially murder, but capital punishment (which they ardently support) is not?
For some true believers this paradoxical position appears to depend on wilful blindness or denial. But others, evidently somewhat more aware of their tenuous grasp on logic, often attempt to offer a defence based on the argument that there is a clear distinction between innocence and guilt in the two cases. What is particularly striking is that there is never a reference to the rights of the individuals affected, whether it be pregnant women or convicted killers. Instead, the rhetoric and logic of the religious right’s arguments implies the right of society, (or at least their virtuous component of society) and governments to impose their views on others.
Yet now, in the aftermath of the pandemic, we are seeing a plethora of new issues being championed by the religious right that are actually being framed as issues of individual rights! Whether it be “free speech” — as defended by convoy leaders during the occupation of Ottawa, or Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre when addressing passengers on the intercom of a commercial airplane – or “my body, my decision” – as defended so fanatically by anti-vaxxers – the religious right now seems to have adopted the individual rights argument with a vengeance. In this new gospel, neither society nor governments have any right whatsoever to mess with the opinions of an individual, no matter how extreme, or how dangerous they may be to others.
Clearly these people missed civics class the day that the theory of individual rights in liberal democracies was being covered, or they would have heard the famous phrase “your rights end where mine begin”. They would also have heard about the importance of governments in liberal democracies being able to take action when necessary to promote or protect the greater good, even if it requires some restrictions on the rights of individuals. Hence Section 1 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which states that “the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees the rights and freedoms set out in it subject only to such reasonable limits prescribed by law as can be demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.”
Of course one of the more bizarre aspects of the religious right’s new “individual rights” argument is that their individual rights actually were respected. No one was forced to be vaccinated against their will. It was their free choice. (Meanwhile governments and employers were equally free to require vaccination in order for an individual to work, enter establishments, and so on.) The same applies to their “free speech” argument. No one was prohibited from speaking in Ottawa or elsewhere. The issue was where they were doing it and, in the case of the convoy protesters, what else they were doing. In the case of that occupation, they were the ones trampling on the rights of their fellow citizens.
Even more bizarrely, and in a patently hypocritical move, the leaders of the religious right are now also falling back on their first rationale when dealing with the transgender rights/education issue that they have singlehandedly raised and that is now roiling the country. Here, once again, we see a rigid determination to impose their views on others, whether those individuals affected by it like it or not.
According to public opinion polls, only a small proportion of citizens agree with the extreme views expressed by the religious right, but this number is growing. More ominously, the proportion of citizens who seem either unsure about the supporting arguments, or are mildly inclined to agree with them, is growing even more. After all, who can argue against individual rights or freedom of speech? Unfortunately, few citizens appear to have a solid grasp on the meaning of these terms. This is why it is not the views on specific issues that are the central problem, but the use of these flawed arguments to promote them. The time to nip this illiberal and undemocratic set of arguments in the bud is now. With western liberal democracies increasingly under siege by right wing populist and authoritarian movements, the importance of a civically literate citizenry has never been more essential.